What is it like to be stigmatized?

The True Story Troup Playing Back the Story Shared by Eva, an Audience Member

How does feeling stigmatized make someone feel? Hurt. Ashamed. Isolated. Less than. Other. And how does it feel to have stigmatized someone and to try to reach out and repair that? Hurt. Ashamed. Yearning for healing.

Hurt. Ashamed. Isolated.

The January 9 “Stigmas” show by True Story Theater in partnership with Arlington Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group, evoked a deep, rich exploration of how it feels to be stigmatized/stereotyped and to stigmatize someone.

Audience members were invited to share stories about being stigmatized, and True Story troupe members reflected back the stories in movement, dialog, music. After the playback of the story, the group was asked “how many of you have experienced something similar?” – being taunted by schoolmates or others, feeling isolated and called an undesirable “other,” saying hurtful words to someone? Each time many hands flew up or hovered close to the chest; often well over half the audience of 50 people raised their hands.

“How many of you have experienced something similar?”

During a brief “share with another person your story of feeling stigmatized,” the room buzzed with voices rising in tempo and volume. Clearly we all had painful stories to tell. We share the feelings of being stigmatized and often carry them with us through our lives.

Some have found ways to heal old stigma hurts; some are still seeking to know their own goodness and dignity. “Underneath everything we are all one,” one of the actors said, summing up a powerful playback of a story.

“Underneath everything we are all one,”

Prior to the show, the audience was asked to take a card and write on it a brief response to “How are you affected by Stigmas?” Here are some of those responses which illustrate the many ways we can be stigmatized.

  • When I was in high school and I did my absolute best, they made fun of me.
  • Divorce causes stigma. Those who do not follow the crowd, especially during the school years, can be stigmatized.
  • I was a 21 year old sailor in uniform in Logan Airport (1968) and spit at!
  • My experience with stigma involves feeling it – as a lesbian, as a first gen American, other ways—and feeling OTHERS’ pain in the face of their stigmata.
  • My constant tendency to stigmatize myself: that I am not good enough, that I don’t measure up. A fear.
  • I have a life-long disability but grew up at a time when us “polio kids” were not supposed to be disabled or think disabled. In fact – disability was “other.” So I lived a lie for most of my life –what I should be vs what/who I am.
  • As a queer and trans person of color I feel stigma often. I often think about how being out about my identities will change the way that folks interact with me and think about me.
  • Stigma of being a woman/Indian/modern and belonging to an extended family where none of that is actually respected.
  • Stigma and bullying go hand in hand – those who are doing the stigmatizing have issues with power. They themselves may have been stigmatized and bully to try to take back what has been lost. They may never realize that bullying can intensify their pain.

Here are some responses to the question “How were you affected by the show?”

  • I learned how many people are impacted by stigma or prejudice. I gained perspective on how to embrace our differences. Lastly, I was reminded of a stigmatizing event in my life, how far I have come, and it helped to put it to bed permanently.
  • I found it moving and enlightening. Words hurt – as witnessed by people who spoke of hurts that occurred 50 years ago. A good lesson to remember.
  • I rediscovered that the experience of alienation that comes from being stigmatized can be turned into a bridge toward others who feel alienated for the same or other reasons.
  • I was affected by the truth of how everyone carries a stigma from being “the other” at some time in their life.
  • Through this evening’s program, I realized more deeply than ever that anyone’s story of stigma is everyone’s story.

True Story Theater, in collaboration with its Living Brochure Project partners, plans to offer “Stigmas” again on May 10.

The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Mary Harrison, the author of this blog post, is a member of Arlington’s Vision 2020 Standing Committee and Diversity Task Group.

2 thoughts on “What is it like to be stigmatized?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s