Living With Self-Stigma is Like Driving With the Brake On

Author: Andrea Vassilev


Many people experience shame, embarrassment, and guilt surrounding their bipolar diagnosis. They feel as though they must be “one of those people” others are always talking about. They suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.

If any of this sounds familiar, you might be living with self-stigma and not even know it.

Stigma is the negative set of beliefs people hold about those who have a certain condition or belong to a particular group. You often hear things such as “people with bipolar disorder are (fill in the blank)”. For example, you might hear that people with bipolar disorder are irrational.

It can be upsetting to hear people spout these stigmatizing beliefs when they aren’t in line with your real-life experience, self-knowledge, or your own truth. What’s even worse is that these beliefs are, in many ways, contagious.

Consider a smoggy day full of polluted air. You need to breathe and that air is your only option. You take it in all day and, eventually, that pollution, in one way or another, ends up inside of you. Stigma is the same way. When you hear negative, untrue, stigmatized beliefs often and intensely enough, you begin to internalize them. They become part of your self-image and are incorporated into your identity. This is self-stigma and, not unlike smog, it’s suffocating.

Someone once told me “living with self-stigma is like driving with the brake on: it makes everything harder”. And they were right: self-stigma is linked to worse coping, poorer physical health, reduced treatment adherence, social withdrawal, and depression. For someone already battling bipolar disorder, that is a lot to bear.

You have enough to contend with: don’t let self-stigma become another daily battle. Fight back.

How to move past self-stigma into self-love:

-Recognize your self-stigmatizing thoughts. If you are feeling shameful or embarrassed about your condition, take a moment to consider what thought is going through your head. Are you thinking “people with bipolar disorder are useless” or “bipolar disorder makes me unloveable”? Don’t believe everything you think; you likely absorbed these messages from the outside world. These are self-stigmatizing thoughts and since they are thoughts, we can correct them.

-Reframe your thoughts to be more true and more helpful.Your self-stigmatizing thought might be plainly untrue (“people with bipolar disorder are useless”). Give yourself a reality check and remember to consider only the facts. Alternatively, there might be a grain of truth buried somewhere in your thought, but you’ve likely distorted it beyond recognition. Maybe your condition has been a stress on your relationship. This is NOT the same as thinking “bipolar disorder makes me unloveable”. It’s healthier to acknowledge the negative, but focus on the positive. Reframe these thoughts to be more TRUE and more HELPFUL: then see how you feel.

-Consider the other wonderful parts of who you are.Having a mental health condition is only one feature of an amazing you. For example, I am a person with bipolar disorder, but I am also a student therapist, partner, cat mom, dancer, writer, and advocate. My condition sometimes makes me irritable, impatient, hyper, or depressed, but that’s not who I am as a human. As a human, I am kind, loving, generous, funny, and intelligent. I choose to let these roles and traits, not my condition, define me.

Remember, you are so much more than your diagnosis. You are a beautiful human.


Andrea B. Vassilev is a fifth-year doctoral student in clinical psychology and has lived with bipolar disorder for 25 years. She is the creator of the program Overcoming Self-Stigma in Bipolar Disorder ( Keep up with Andrea here!


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