Compassion is the antidote: Combating stigma with love and knowledge

What we’ve been through shapes how we are the in the world.

This might seem self-evident, but so many cultural attitudes we encounter (and perhaps even hold ourselves) fail to acknowledge that people became who they are somehow. Many of us have inculcated in us through media messages, friends, family, schools, that we are individuals who all have an equal chance in life. Anyone who works hard can become whoever they want. Taken on its own, this belief appears encouraging, hopeful, and positive. However, its corollary contains within it a shadow that affects many whose lives seem to fall short of the idyllic vision of self-determination.

This shadow often takes the form of stigma. The stigma against people who are in poverty, who struggle with addiction, homelessness, mental health issues, lack of education, even things like obesity, and smoking. How many times have we heard someone say “Well, if they would just….” and then insert the “obvious” solution: get a job, reconnect with family, go on a diet, just stop drinking, just stop using. The conclusion is then to blame the individual, assuming that they must not want to get better, and chalk up their struggles to a lack of willpower, or a flaw or defect in their nature.1

My role here as an Outreach Counselor at Our VOICE is to work with the people at the margins of society, survivors of sexual abuse who often struggle with many of those stigmatized behaviors and situations. These clients may struggle with common trauma reactions, like anger, difficulty with relationships, fearfulness, tension, and low self-worth. Layered on top of these symptoms can be financial strain, early dropout from school, unhealthy relationships with food, difficulty forming relationships, substance use, homelessness, difficulty maintaining employment, as well as with core beliefs of worthlessness, or a general sense that they are bad, wrong, or tainted. People often don’t connect the abuse and hardship they’ve encountered to behaviors and material circumstances that they struggle with. An important piece of knowledge that can help folks articulate to themselves this connection is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.

The ACE study was conducted by an organization named Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s, and quickly caught the attention of the Center for Disease Control. The study polled over 17,000 adults, screening for the various types of childhood trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, emotional abuse, incarceration of a family member, witnessing domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse in the household, and divorce or separation. What they found was that these experiences are widespread; 63.9% of people report at least one ACE. 20.7% report sexual abuse. 28.3% reported physical abuse. Researchers also found that ACEs occurred in clusters. 12.5% of the respondents had experienced 4 or more types of ACEs. The prevalence of these experiences are high; what was more shocking were the effects they had on health and behavior over the lifespan. They found that ACE scores correlated to the following:

Alcoholism, COPD, depression, fetal death, poor quality of life related to health, drug use, heart disease, liver disease, difficulty performing at work, financial stress, higher risk for intimate partner violence, higher risk for later encountering sexual violence, STDs, having multiple sexual partners, unintended pregnancy, smoking (with earlier age of onset of smoking behaviors), earlier engagement in sexual activity, adolescent pregnancy, and difficulty in school.

The information in the two paragraphs above was taken from the CDC website on ACEs. You can explore more of this information by clicking on this link

Take a breath and really try to take that list in.

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The theory put forth by researchers posits that these behaviors and health issues are a result of the developmental impairments caused by childhood trauma. They use this pyramid to illustrate the chain effect that ACEs have on the lifespan. Imagine growing up in a home where chaos, violence, neglect, or violation was the norm. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because this was your experience. If that’s the case, I encourage you to take care of yourself after reading this. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, pet your dog, do what feeds your soul and helps you relax). Children who grow up in these environments spend much of their time in “survival mode,” where their developing bodies and minds are constantly being taxed by their nervous system to ensure that they can keep themselves safe. Val’s blog post does a great job of explaining how a properly functioning nervous system is able to self-regulate.  Over time, children enduring chronic stress experience diminished ability to regulate their emotions and physical states. They may attempt to understand what’s happening in their lives by blaming themselves. As such, they may grow up being very reactive, seeking any source of support, comfort, or any chance to regulate their out of control physiology. (You can read more about the effects of trauma and chronic stress in childhood by reading Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller, PhD and Aline LaPierre, PsyD)

This understanding can help us shift how we see others who struggle with stigmatized behaviors. It can also help us understand ourselves. These behaviors are not their story. They indicate the presence of the true story hiding beneath, the one of survival amidst danger, of resourcefulness and resiliency in a situation of deprivation and powerlessness. So I encourage you to practice compassion and understanding. Remember the ways in which your past has impacted you, and how others’ past may have affected them. It’s in that way that we can begin showing ourselves and others the love and tenderness for those parts that we wish to disown or forget. That love and tenderness, kindness and compassion are the fertile soil from which healing can grow.

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