Shedding the Cultural Stigma We’re Still Carrying Within Us

Some of the hardest emotional work we do in recovery is releasing the ways in which cultural stigmas around addiction have hurt us over the years. We’ve been carrying and holding onto the very negative perceptions people have of us and allowed them to impact how we feel about ourselves. We’ve internalized the unkind, dismissive things people have said. We’ve felt ashamed when we’ve been judged. We’ve felt embarrassed and demeaned. We come to believe the stigmas to be true – that we’re immoral people, that addiction is a choice rather than an illness, that we’re doomed to fail if we haven’t kicked our addictions yet. When we carry these stigmas within us, we come to identify with them. They shape how we view ourselves and our recovery. They alter our self-perception. We feel so bad about ourselves, so deeply ashamed that we can’t forgive ourselves. We focus more on our past mistakes than the work we’re doing now. We give more energy to our regrets than to the important changes we’re making in our lives. We dwell in our past lives rather than creating empowered futures for ourselves.

Many of us still feel weighed down, burdened and overwhelmed by the stigmatization we’ve encountered, even well into our recovery. We’ve had people tell us they hate us and impose their low opinions of us, even perfect strangers. We’ve had loved ones reject us and push us away. We’ve lost our homes, been fired from jobs, and grieved valuable relationships. The way addiction is viewed, as a sign of immorality rather than of illness, causes people to look down on us rather than empathize with us. Many people feel superior to addicts. They judge both addicts and addictions as a whole. They equate addiction with evil and shamefulness. They associate it with poverty, homelessness and criminal behavior, all of which they condemn. Part of healing ourselves means no longer judging these difficult things as inferior, but as signs that people are suffering. Addiction and all the accompanying challenges, including poverty and crime, are evidence that we’re struggling, and that we need help. We need to be supported rather than demonized and condemned.

When we’re working to release the weight of the stigma we’ve experienced, we want to shift our perception and understanding of addiction and all the problems that come within it. We want to bring back empathy and understanding of human nature and all the complexities within it. We want to be able to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and not view them as moral failings but as steps along our healing journey, the necessary steps we had to take in order to learn. This includes all the missteps and the backward steps, all the reasons why people might be looking down on us, or why we might be looking down on ourselves. This includes viewing our regrets as part of what has strengthened us and gotten us to where we are now. It means having a gentler, kinder approach with ourselves rather than giving in to the cultural perception that as addicts we’re inferior, unworthy and less-than. It means loving ourselves, including our addictions and our pain, not despite them, and no longer viewing our addictions as a bad thing but as a part of our story. 

How do we shed the stigma? How do we stop judging ourselves? How do we stop allowing other people’s opinions of us to shape our own? Self-exploration can help us develop unconditional self-acceptance. We want to get to know ourselves on a deeper, more honest level, beyond the things people think they know about us, beyond the stereotypes, beyond the limited ways in which we’re perceived. We want to transcend these harmful limitations by believing in ourselves and our recovery, even when our communities and families have turned their backs on us. We want to give ourselves love even when we’re feeling hated. We want to see any difficulty, challenge or negativity in our experience not as evidence we’re bad people but as fuel for our momentum to get better. Anything we feel bad about ourselves for, anything painful about our experience, we can use as a catalyst for change, a reason why we have to do the work to heal ourselves, the momentum for our deep transformation. We want to be inspired by our growth thus far. We want to be motivated by all the changes we’ve already made. We can’t keep letting other people’s skewed perceptions of who we are become our reality. We can’t identify with the negative ways in which people view us. We have to love ourselves no matter how we’re being treated by other people. We have to be good to ourselves, even when the world is telling us to hate ourselves. We have to get to know our true selves, underneath the baggage and issues and problems. We have to discover who we truly are, not who strangers, or even loved ones, incorrectly assume us to be.

The self-discovery process means spending time alone, giving ourselves solitude to reconnect with our inner selves. It means rediscovering who we are, what makes us happy, what we love about life, and what we want to manifest for ourselves. It means finding healthy coping skills to replace the addictions that have numbed us to who we really are. It means facing our truth instead of running from it with drugs and addictive behaviors. Shedding the weight of cultural stigma means building up our self-love, empowering ourselves from within, and learning to be true to ourselves and our recovery no matter what anyone else may think of us.

 The community of Riverside Recovery has personal experience with addiction and the feelings of hopelessness and disconnection that come with it. We’re here to help you reclaim the life you love. Call (800) 871-5440 today.