Stigma: The ‘Other’ Side of Identity

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Finding the ‘labels’ of your own identity — the words that describe who you are — can be a powerful and empowering experience. Yet all of us are also labelled by others, and they may see in us attributes that do not match how we see ourselves.

I wrote recently about all the different ‘circles of identity’ that we give to ourselves: labels like wife, sister, manager, teacher, good driver, lousy golfer, etc. (See “Questions of Identity: Who are You Today?”.) They are the labels that we use to describe who we are, both to ourselves and to others; they describe what we feel is our sense of identity, and how we wish (or not) to be perceived by others. As I wrote in that article, we each have many labels — or facets of our identity — depending upon who we’re with or what we’re doing at any given time.

After writing that article, I started thinking about a book I first read many years ago when I was at university studying social anthropology. Stigma , by the American sociologist Erving Goffman, describes how human societies and social groups tend intrinsically to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’, often labelling ‘them’ as in some way morally inferior or less than equal to ‘us’. Goffman’s book stuck with me because it resonated deeply for me at a time when I was struggling to understand and come to terms with other people’s attitudes and assumptions about my quality of life and potential as a (then) newly disabled person. I felt stigmatised by my disability — as if my entire identity was based upon my disability rather than on any of the other qualities that I felt made me who I was.

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Coupled with stereotypes, stigmatising can lead to appalling examples of discrimination and physical ill-treatment. At its extreme — for example in National Socialist Germany — this can lead to whole groups of people being classed as ‘sub-human’ and treated as if the normal rules of humane behaviour and the same rights to life and liberty don’t apply. In times of war, too, it’s very common for soldiers to mentally distance themselves from the killing they are required to do by ‘dehumanising’ their enemy, for example by thinking of their enemy as an ‘animal’ or as ‘vermin’.

On a more everyday level, but still one which causes a great deal of pain and hardship to the individuals involved, look at the way in which society stigmatises people with mental health difficulties. The UK charity Mind quotes figures from the Office for National Statistics that 1 in 6 people in Britain will experience “significant” mental health problems. This makes it an incredibly common problem, and yet the stigma of mental illness leads to discrimination against, and fear of, those who experience it. They become ‘the other’ — those who are perceived as different from ‘us’. (See Mind’s website for more information on their recent campaign about stress and mental health in the workplace.)

It can be very difficult to change the way society views members of a stigmatised group; attitudes and stereotypes change slowly. But then the way that we as individuals define our own identities has also changed slowly. A few generations ago, identity was ‘ascribed’: your identity was given to you, bound up with who your parents were, and that carried with it certain expectations. Social mobility was tied to this ascribed identity — it wasn’t about what you had achieved on your own merits, it was about who your family were and where you came from.

This is changing, albeit slowly. It’s far more possible now for someone from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ to reinvent themselves and create an identity far removed from where they grew up, if they wish to. People are more able now — given the educational or employment opportunities — to choose an identity for themselves and to base it on far more than who their parents were and where they came from. But we all still have to juggle with the labels that are given to us by others. It’s a kind of shorthand, I suppose — a way of getting a quick idea of what a person might be about without having to go through the time-consuming process of actually getting to know them.

I think it’s worth remembering that shorthand — or labels — can be useful, but they don’t give the full rich flavour of the person they describe.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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