The Sting of a Stigma Does Not Have to Define You

What if we could put on a special pair of glasses and see everyone, complete with all of their baggage and demons? Walking down the street, we would see scarlet letters of shame on the foreheads of every other man and woman. We would see huge monkeys on the backs of passers-by, some made of unbearably burdensome mortgages and others comprised of the needles, flasks, and cigarettes of addiction. Others would be drowning in a pool of debt, wearing the flesh-eating curse of an incurable disease, haunted by green monsters of mediocrity and guilt, or dragging the ball and chain of a memory that keeps them from freely enjoying the world around them.

Each of us who has suffered a tragedy, loss, or self-inflicted crisis has a stigma that brands us with a unique number on our back. That is our burden to bear—and our new identity. It may never go away completely. But maybe that’s okay.

Do you ever avoid going to family reunions, class reunions, gatherings of old friends, or just parties where you might be introduced to new people? Do you live in fear of being asked, “So where are you working now?” “How’s the wife and kids?” “Still living in that big house by the park?” And maybe you’re tired of hearing, “I was sorry to hear about…” Maybe the job is gone, the family is gone, the house is gone and you’re not ready to remand yourself to the public shame of it all. Or perhaps you’re just tired of being reminded of something you’d rather forget.

Without the trappings and connections of your previous life, you just don’t know who you are any more. Your old identity has vanished, and those nightmares of being naked in public now seem all too real. You can’t leave home because your mistake is like a prison that separates you from polite society. Your tainted reputation has relegated you to your own private leper colony. Your “plus-one” at every event is the image of your “perp walk” in handcuffs or your public humiliation for being accused of embezzlement or the very high-profile liquidation of your business.

It’s a small, desolate world when the fickle finger of fate or your own stupidity puts the branding iron to your back, emblazoning the demeaning symbol of your new identity for all to see.

Now that you’ve fallen down all the way to the bottom of the Ninth Circle of Hell, it’s time to pause for a reckoning. The good news is, you’ve hit the bottom. You’re on a solid footing. You’re dealing with certainties, so fate can deal you no more unforeseen blows. YOU are in charge now.

The first thing to recognize is that you have the power to decide how you feel about your life. You can be done feeling bad, guilty, stupid, tense, nervous, and sick to your stomach. You may not yet be able to feel good, but you can start by feeling nothing—not about life, but about the mess you’re in. You’ve found your “par” level, so anything above this point is good. You’re not 20,000 leagues beneath the sea of virtue; you’re at the zero point…the new beginning. You can take a certain comfort in the “buoyancy” provided by the bedrock on the bottom. This is your new “street level,” and the ground will now support the weight of the cement overshoes that were pulling you down. All you have to do is wear them proudly.

If you were just locked up for 20 years to life and you heard and felt the steel door slam behind you, you would need to develop a philosophy that you could live with. Chances are, your situation is somewhat less dire than that.

The world will see the face that you present to it. If you are defeated and ashamed, that will be how you are seen. If you wake up in the morning with the same energy and routine you did before the world collapsed, you will be perceived in a totally different light. Few people realize that other people’s perceptions of you are, to a large extent within your control. Bill Clinton refused to be disgraced, and so, to most of the world, the disgrace didn’t stick. Richard Nixon, though he felt righteous in his own heart, succumbed to the shame.

The symbols and numbers branded on our backs may never disappear, but they can begin to blend in with the surroundings and become less noticeable if we don’t draw attention to them—like Mike Tyson’s face tattoo or the mole on your best friend’s nose. After a while people just don’t notice it anymore, and they see the person instead of the mistake or the flaw.

Football players all have a number on their backs too. It makes them part of a team and, to a certain extent, designates their roles. But they all have names and alma maters and histories and stories that come together to create the big picture. Walter Payton is so much more than “Number 34.” When you are ready to take control and accept your number, then you can begin the process of putting all of the pieces of your life in context and directing your future from the new launching pad at the bottom of the hill.