Stigma and Identity

Need Tools?

For a time, when I lived in Washington, DC and was a fairly ardent triathlete, I would pick one Sunday per month for an out-an-back “Payback Ride” on the Mount Vernon trail, a 25-mile scenic trail that is very popular with occasional weekend riders. Another thing that is sadly popular with occasional riders is riding a bike without doing any maintenance and, almost invariably, without bringing spare bike tubes or tools of any kind. So, once a month, I did my payback ride as a karmic “thank you” for all the great rides I got to do the rest of the month. I would load up my beater-bike with tools and spare tubes and ride along the trail stopping whenever I came upon a rider in distress (flat-tire, broken chain, etc.) and offer help.

I learned over the course of the first few payback rides that how I approached male riders in particular, especially those in the company of female riders, made a huge difference in any acceptance of help. Originally, I would cycle up to people obviously having a problem, and say, “Need help?” Nearly every time the stranded rider was a man, and absolutely every time it was a man with a woman, the man would say, “no thanks,” even if it was plainly obvious he was in a jam.

Then it occurred to me: I might as well have been asking, “Did you leave your manhood at home?” I was asking the question in such a way that it left little desire for the man to admit — to me, to himself and especially in front of his female companion — that he needed assistance.

So I changed my tack. The next week, I started asking, “Need tools?” and found that simply forgetting tools is below the embarrassment threshold of most guys. I was now giving them the option of essentially saying, “Yeah, I forgot my bevel-edged throckulator or obviously I’d have this fixed already.” Some guys actually used my tools, some helped, some just watched me work, but I had given them a way to accept help without admitting anything they did not want to admit.

Which is to say, they could accept help without stigma.

Stigma comes in many forms and while most people easily understand the stigma that is essentially tied to judgment from others (imagined or real), what’s often not thought about are the kinds of very powerful stigmas we create and place upon ourselves — or how powerful (and often unconscious) is the drive to avoid doing so. (In the case above, a man trying to avoid feeling less like his idea of “a man.”)

Stigma forms an identity, created in a person’s own mind or via what somebody else is saying to them, or via their interactions with them. And when a person feels the discomfort of stigma, they get to decide what to do with that feeling and that identity. They can accept it, or they can resist it. Resistance to the stigmatizing identity may take the form of not reading your website or not watching your commercial. It can be ignoring an offer of assistance from an organization doing work that directly helps them. Resistance can be hostile, angry, even violent. And I too-regularly see stigma getting in the way of good work; often stigma accidentally created by the very people and organizations seeking to remove it.

For people dealing with conditions like addiction or depression where stigma is so easily attached, they may be particularly sensitive to being seen as accepting even a message, never mind services, intended to help them. And so it is that the people most in need of help can become those most difficult to give it to.

This applies to all kinds of relationships. Personal, commercial, or community. And it’s why it’s so important to offer people an identity they can easily accept. One that doesn’t attach stigma. One that does not bring up feelings they are working hard to avoid.

For example, in work Idea Engineering has done for organizations that help people in poverty, we have worked to change the conversation away from being one in which recipients are offered an identity where they are “lifted up” by the organization. Because, if you’re being lifted up, part of your identity becomes being a person that needs lifting, which can be a tough identity for someone to accept. Back to my earlier example of offering tools instead of “help,” we’ve worked to make the conversation much more about offering people stability so they can lift themselves up. A very different conversation, perception, feeling and identity than being lifted up by someone else.

In every conversation about drugs, suicide, poverty, race, etc. this is obviously important. But it’s also important in conversations about gender issues, politics, branding, fashion, high school and body-type. Which is to say LIFE.

How these conversations look from the outside and feel from the inside can offer divergent trajectories to success or failure in the short and long term.

What identity are you offering those who come into contact with you? Wife? Husband? Teenager? Customer? Employee? Client? Political opposite?

— Simon Dixon

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