The impact of self-stigma and living with HIV

By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

If only the best way to decrease self-stigma about living with HIV was as simple as changing your mind set, some meditation and positive pep talks.

But we know it’s not that easy.

Whether you’re living with HIV or not, it’s crucial to have understand the importance of recognizing self-stigma and how to best deal with it.

We know, it’s hard and it can manifest itself in many ways, such as worrying about how a friend might feel if you shared a drink with them, to the fear of your HIV status being known at your work. The first step? Cut yourself some slack and  consider the possibility that what you’re worrying about might not even ever come true.

HIV self-stigma can affect your ability to live positively and live to the fullest. Listen up – you are so much more than your HIV status! And we are here to remind you that.

So, how can we address HIV self-stigma?

Find the right support group

This is so very important, and luckily, Positive Peers is a trusted and confidential community you can count on. When you register for the app, you can download the app and chat with a whole local community of people living with HIV. Whether it’s Positive Peers or another support group that meets in person or virtually, it’s important you find one that you can genuinely connect with, share resources, stories and advice.

Change your self-beliefs

Okay, we know, we know – it’s hard to just “change your beliefs.” But hear us out for a sec. If you are constantly dwelling on the negatives, you might miss out on all the positives.You are valued, loved and so much more than your HIV status, sis! When you intentionally work on changing your mind set, you can feel and increased sense of wellbeing and can focus on building a long, healthy and happy life.

Once way to change your mindset are daily affirmations. Try writing these out on post-it notes and placing them on your bathroom mirror. Repeat them daily as you get ready and watch your mind set change over time and feel your heart become happier!

  1. “I am valued”
  2. “I am so damn beautiful”
  3. “I am a QUEEN (KING….Royalty? 😉 )
  4. “I am worthy of love and healthy relationships”
  5. “I have people who love me for me”

Feed your mind all the positivity you can! These will help you take back your control.

If affirmations aren’t cutting it, you may need to try a more intense way of changing your thought patterns. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists use an approach where they help people identify core beliefs about themselves (Core beliefs are deeply held feelings that are central to our being, and that influence how we see and interact with the world. Core beliefs can be positive or negative, such as “I am worthy” or “I am unworthy,” “I am healthy” or “I am unhealthy,” “I am good enough” or “I am not good  .”). If you have a core belief that is getting you down, one way to try to shift it is to do a little fact-finding – what pieces of evidence can you list that the belief is true? That it is untrue? Sometimes if you can just slightly change your thinking about something, the way you feel about it also changes.

If all this sounds too complicated, but also intrigues you, maybe it’s time to find a therapist!

So, what’s the damage of self-stigma anyway?

Great question, and an important one. Once you realize the stigma is there, it’s time to grab a fly swatter and crush it! Stigma can be super hurtful to yourself if you keep it going. Stigma can make the lives and health of people living with HIV or at risk of it. So, stopping the stigma, giving people the correct information about HIV and encouraging positive messages related to HIV, such as U=U , are all strategies to fight stigma.

Help us stop the HIV stigma!

Learning more about your health status can help you reassure the people you choose to disclose your status to that you’re not going to get sick and die nor are you going to give HIV to anyone else, because  Undetectable = Untransmittable! Scream that from the roof tops, y’all!

As long as you know what to think about your diagnosis, it doesn’t really matter what other people think. HIV will never define you, you are more than your HIV status. You’re strong baby, let that light shine for all the world to see!






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Positive Peers is made possible through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, HIV/AIDS Bureau Special Projects of National Significance (SPNS) Grant to The MetroHealth System. Click here for more information about the SPNS grant initiative.
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