mental illness

Re-Writing Your Story of Shame


What are ten words you can use to describe yourself?  We’ve often encountered this exercise in school or in the workplace.  Typically these descriptions are roles we play (mother, sister, friend) or our profession (writer, teacher, therapist).  They may include adjectives like friendly or confident.

How would this exercise change if you identify ten negative labels you associate with yourself?  It could include words you fear others think about you, or that plague your thoughts in your most anxious or insecure moments.  These words come from a place of shame within you.  Words like impostor.  Addict.  Depressed.  Alone.

You may be aware of racial or gender stereotyping you face personally or that you’ve seen others encounter.  Maybe you’ve even labeled others quickly in your own mind, not thinking of the consequences of those labels.  Labelling others is a psychological shortcut called a heuristic, which is a way our mind sorts new information so that it doesn’t tax our brain as much.  But these heuristics influence stereotypes, which have implications for performance and expectations of ourselves and others.

Labels are particularly potent in addiction.  The labels associated with addiction are often damaging and hurtful.  The words themselves don’t cause the damage: it’s the stereotypes around the behaviors or character qualities associated with the labels.

You are not defined by your diagnosis.

Take a look at this TEDx talk from Adi Jaffe about his experience with labels and shame.  (Warning: there is an instance of coarse language at the end of the talk.)

How can you take a step into “rebranding” your own shame-filled labels?

Make your mental illness your superpower.

As Jaffe noted, the stigma of his diagnosis of ADHD had the potential to limit him from achieving his goals.  Instead, he chose to see the benefits of his ADHD: it allows him to multitask and think creatively about the work he does as a psychologist.

“You might just find that your disorder is your biggest gift.”

Make a list of the gifts your addiction or mental illness has given you.  For example, addiction was a survival method that got you through past experiences of pain or harm.  Perhaps your anxiety has allowed you to plan for possible negative outcomes and have more realistic expectations.  Wrestling through depression may have given you the ability to help others who struggle with grief or sadness when others don’t understand what it feels like.  Healing from mental illness teaches you skills in self-care and emotional awareness, which can impact your coping with stress.

Talk about your mental illness.

Jaffe took a huge step of bravery in sharing his own story of cocaine addiction and rehab on the TEDx stage on the campus where he teaches.

Share your story of mental illness with someone else around you.  You’d be surprised how many people are dealing with the same thing, even though on the surface they don’t show it.  The more you talk about your unique experience of mental health issues, the broader the definition of your label becomes.  You have the power to change the way people think about depression, anxiety, addiction, or any other label that is often stereotyped and misunderstood.

Take quality care of yourself.

One of the most insidious messages people with mental illness hear is that they are somehow weak for having it, or they have brought it upon themselves.  Jaffe quotes a statistic from his study that says 75% of individuals avoid getting help because of shame, stigma, or inability to share their pain with others.  There is no reason to punish yourself for your struggles with mental health by avoiding help or thinking you just have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.

Do what you need to live a healthy life, even if others perceive it as weakness.  If you consciously choose not to dictate your self-care by what others think, then those who share your label will see you as a role model and emulate your more healthy life.  Practice self-care.  See a therapist.  Take a nap, for goodness sake.  Do whatever it is you need to do to be a healthier version of yourself.

Be conscious of how you label others.

This is an area I need to be wary of as a therapist who has the power to diagnose my clients. It informs my intentional decision to approach each of my clients with a unique and individualized treatment plan.  As an example, if I start to see all of my clients with sex and love addiction as the same, they will be short-changed and not get adequate treatment for their personal needs.  I strive to see each one of my clients as a person rather than as a diagnosis and treat them accordingly.

If we deal with people by their label, we run the risk of relating to them as a concept but not a person.

Pay attention to what labels you tend to place on others you interact with day-to-day, along with stereotypes that go with each label.  Notice how you tend to make assumptions, whether right or wrong, about their behaviors or thoughts.  Give yourself grace for this – it’s literally a function of our brain that helps us to survive! But become more aware of your own stereotypes and seek to learn more about the people you label.


Are you crippled by the shame of the labels you carry around with you?  Do you feel afraid of receiving a new label the second you step into a therapist’s office?  Take a step of self-care today and seek out help.  Restored Hope is a counseling office located in Ann Arbor where I specialize in treatment sex and love addiction.  My goal is to support you in releasing the shame of your past and stepping into a healthy future.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up your first appointment today.