When it comes to living with an STD, shame and stigma go hand-in-hand. Shame is internal and refers to the feelings we have about a particular situation. Stigma is external and refers to a set of negative beliefs that surround a particular issue. If we feel shame about something, then we are more susceptible to the negative impact stigma can have on us.
SHAME: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
STIGMA: A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.
How we deal with and combat the shame and stigma of living with an STD is a lengthy subject that could be written (and talked) about for hours on end. For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on shame because the first step in combating the stigma of living with an STD is learning not to be ashamed of it.
Before I go any further, know that you are not alone. The Internet is rich with community forums where others who are living with an STD can share their struggles, successes and find a sense of community. A site like PositiveSingles.com offers a one-stop shop for those living with an STD. You can start a blog, join a forum or search for others living with the same STD -- whether for love, friendship or support.
The definition of shame gives us critical insight into the key to stopping the negative and often overwhelming affects shame can have on a person. Shame, as defined above, is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We feel shame because we think that we did something wrong, or someone did something to us and in some way, we were responsible for it.
We believe we are in this situation because of the choices we did or did not make. In reality, this is totally true. Everything in your life is the sum total of every single choice you've made in your life, whether consciously or unconsciously. However, you must reframe how you think about it. It's not about good or bad choices. It's about the outcome of a choice you made, and do you want that outcome to be the same or different in the future? There's no instruction manual for life; no one on this planet has the answers, and nobody is any better or worse than anybody else.
Forgive yourself. Tell yourself it's OK.
Making an effort to learn from a past choice (and its consequences) is healthier and more productive than wasting your time berating yourself (or anyone else) for something that happened in the past. Just because a particular choice or situation resulted in getting an STD (whether life-long or otherwise) doesn't make you any better or worse of a person than that time you made that decision to drink that glass of expired milk. In either case, maybe you won't make that same choice again. Maybe you will. Who knows. The point is you are no better or worse of a person for having made those choices.
How you frame the internal dialogue going on in your head can be helpful in combatting shame.
➢ Internal dialogue #1: I should have used a condom. If I had, I wouldn't be in this situation.
➢ Internal dialogue #2: In the future, I'm really going to make an effort to use condoms.
In scenario one, all you're doing is beating yourself up and reinforcing the idea that you did something wrong. You're wasting precious time and energy on punishing yourself. That's just silly. So stop doing it right now.
In scenario two, you're making a statement that was informed by the choices (and their consequences) you made in the past, but point towards making different choices in the future. Let's go back to the example of the expired milk. If the decision to drink that milk left you feeling less than stellar, are you going to spend all of your time beating yourself up? No, probably not. You might tell yourself "well, that wasn't the best decision I've ever made," but in the end, the takeaway message is "I'm not going to drink expired milk anymore." Letting your past experiences inform the decisions you make in the future is much healthier, and more productive than beating yourself up about things that you cannot change. While I understand that the example of the spoiled milk is much simpler than the multi-faceted issue of living with an STD, at its core they are the same.
BOTTOM LINE: You can't be present to this moment if you keep reliving the past. Learn from it, but don't live there.
Disclosure: I am a consultant for PositiveSingles.com, TheBody.com, and have been living mostly shame-free with HIV since 2002.