I had someone recently tell me that they were "agoraphobic." I asked them when these symptoms began and when it started affecting their daily life. What I quickly realized that their friends and family were making fun of them for not wanting to go out in public and telling them that they were agoraphobic. This had started since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although this is specific to this moment in time, this pattern happens frequently. I work with people who have multiple intersections (think gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, cultural differences) and what I have learned is that often lived experiences are pathologized before being understood or challenging the systems which create the feelings.
When someone has an experience that leads to a feeling, people around them may invalidate them for that feeling, and even pathologize them for their feeling. Humans very rarely start with validation and then move toward curiosity. In fact, what we do as humans is often jump to judgment and fixing (which can function as defense mechanisms to protect our ego). There is a time to sit with what we feel. And only then can we begin to engage with curiosity about what these feelings might be in response to. Feelings occur and they need to be felt.
Here are some steps to help you to reduce your own tendency to pathologize your lived experience:
Describe what is happening. What occurred? When did you begin to feel that way? What is happening in your body when this experience occurred? Who told you that you should not feel that way? Where is the stigma coming from? Have you internalized stigma from others?
Validate your experience. What you feel is real. It is always real. Let no one take this from you. Each emotion is telling you something. Don't push it down. Get curious about it. Validate your own experience. When you silence yourself, you have internalized the voices of people silencing you. Be subversive against the system and provide validation to your feelings. Again, your feelings are real.
Look at the "data." Data are indisputable points that you can ground yourself with when everyone tries to convince you of their reality and take away your own lived experience. Keep coming back to what has happened. You might need to write this down for yourself. Systemic narratives are so powerful that they will try to interpret the data in ways that only benefit those in power. Challenge them by writing them down and come back to them as often as you need.
Ask yourself "what do I need?" What are your feelings trying to tell you? Use your fear as information. Then you can begin to problem-solve. Sit with it and empower yourself to be autonomous. You may not be used to this because many people have struggled to find their voice because since they were young they may have been told to disregard their own inner sense of self. This will need to be cultivated. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.
Find people who will support you. Once you begin to know what you need and what your feelings are trying to tell you, find people who will support your self-discovery, who validate your self-expression, your needs, and your personhood. This will also take time. It is a process, but we need others. This work is not easy and we need a community to help support us as we do this work of self-discovery.
This is the beginning of personal freedom. You can begin here and it will lead to action. By each of us waking up and refusing to stigmatize our own experiences, our own emotions, we can begin to affect those around us by engaging with them from a place of validation and curiosity. Remember, when you validate yourself, no one is able to take that away from you. That then creates space for you to validate the lived experience of others.