image of a "superhero" ripping open a black shirt to reveal a rainbow shirt over their heart.

“Internalized stigma” – I hear that phrase a lot in the spaces I frequent. I hear it so often I think it’s become a buzzword. Why do I feel bad? Internalized stigma. Why are you down on yourself? Internalized stigma. Why can’t this or that person get out of their own way? Internalized stigma. There’s very little commentary on what Internalized stigma is, just that we are having reactions to it. So … let’s define it.

Overcoming internalized stigma

Stigma is negative stereotypes and attitudes about a specific group of people. Internalized stigma (or “felt stigma”) is when we take those negative beliefs about ourselves inside ourselves, own them, and use them to direct our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Internalized stigma prevents us from finding others like ourselves, discussing what we are feeling openly, and stops us from getting the support that we need to be authentically ourselves. It teaches us to reject ourselves any and every time we see ourselves being “too gay” or “too trans” or whatever the “too” is.

Most of us learn about the groups of people to reject when we’re growing up and then just hold on to these beliefs because to change them might mean rejection.

We learned about the groups of people to reject from television, video games, books, magazines, the news, our places of worship, our friends, etc. We have so many places that teach us on a regular basis to hate ourselves (at a minimum that we need to be excluded) that it can be difficult to pinpoint where we learned to reject ourselves.

It really doesn’t matter where we learned it from. What matters is that we discover if it’s really our belief and then – let it go. Ha! If you’re hearing the song in your head now … you’re welcome. I am, too. The other thing that matters is that we stop beating ourselves up for taking this work on in the first place.
Rejecting internalized stigma as an LGBTQ person can be an inspiring and life-changing journey. It’s a process that leads to greater self-acceptance, self-worth, and a sense of belonging. Just like coming out, you won’t be alone in the process. We all struggle with what to believe about ourselves – not just LGBTQ folx. Like most things, I can’t speak about another’s journey. You could certainly write and tell me about yours.

Let me speak about myself in a general way. For a long time, I struggled with who I am. I believed that being LGBTQ was something to be ashamed of, and I felt like I had to hide who I truly was. Those negative beliefs were holding me back, and I knew that I needed to take steps to challenge them.
One of the first steps I took was to get around others like myself. Then I started to question where these negative beliefs came from. I realized that many of them were based on societal prejudices and stereotypes rather than my own experiences or values. Recognizing this allowed me to challenge these negative beliefs and replace them with more positive and empowering ones.

Surrounding myself with positive role models and support networks was also crucial in my journey to reject internalized stigma. I sought out LGBTQ individuals who were living happy and fulfilled lives and used them as a source of inspiration and guidance. I joined support groups, attended LGBTQ events, and engaged with LGBTQ-friendly organizations to build a sense of community and belonging.

Maya Angelou said, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” I applied that to my life. I started to volunteer at organizations that served us. I said “yes” when my workplace asked me to start a LGBTQ group for our clients. I made spaces a little safer for others by challenging the things that hurt me. I read everything I could get my hands on to support others – and then I shared it.

Practicing self-care and self-love was also essential in my journey. I learned to treat myself with kindness, compassion, respect, and recognized that I deserved to be happy and fulfilled. That you do too. Celebrating my unique qualities and experiences and focusing on the things that made me feel good about myself helped me to build a sense of self-worth and self-acceptance.

I am a different person today than the overwhelmed, self-hating, ashamed person who entered the GLCCB all those years ago. It doesn’t mean I don’t have any of those old beliefs – I do. The difference is that I know what to do with them. I know how to overcome them. It doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else – I’m not. It does mean that I experienced enough pain that I was willing to make an effort to feel good and then, when I felt good, I felt enough gratitude to hold the door open for others to feel the same way. I learned that from the LGBTQ elders.

If you’re struggling with internalized stigma, might I suggest that you start questioning the root of your negative beliefs. Knowing their roots, recognizing that they are not a reflection of your true self, and challenging them with more positive and empowering beliefs can set you free. While you’re doing that – surround yourself with positive role models and support networks, and practice self-care and self-love. Remember that you deserve to be happy and fulfilled and that you are not alone in your journey.

If you’re an ally of the LGBTQ community, thank you. Being an ally is about more than just rainbows and pride parades – especially today. It’s imperative to recognize and challenge the negative messages and stereotypes that contribute to internalized stigma. Educate yourself about the challenges faced by us and the ways in which societal biases and prejudices impact our lives. Use your privilege and platform to advocate for our rights and create safe spaces where LGBTQ individuals can feel accepted and valued. Think about it this way – your voice matters, yes, but your actions matter more. If you are making space for us, make space for us by welcoming us in and following up your welcome with your policies, your strategies, and your participation in the democratic process. Your actions counteract stigma, counteracting stigma means that younger generations of LGBTQ folx won’t experience internalized stigma in the first place. Which means that one day, if we all do our part, this will be a period of healing and correction – not fear and rejection.

Author Profile

Johanna Dolan
Johanna Dolan
“The principal of Dolan Research International, Johanna M. Dolan brings nearly two decades of personal experience as an entrepreneur, nine years as a professional financial planner, eighteen years as a life coach, and eight years as an ordained minister. She speaks openly and candidly on issues ranging from addiction, dysfunctional relationships, finances, the effects of long term chronic illness on life, and more.”