From the moment we arrive here, we work to survive in this world in constant disarray, we race to understand the rules of life and the environment and thus find our place in this cosmic dance.
In this intricate labyrinth of delights and dangers we try to assimilate lessons that make sense of the chaos, understand patterns and design rules of survival for each fragment of experience we continually collide with. And so we piece together our story.
Every day we are writing our stories, continuously, in our minds. Stories about who we are, where we are going and why things happen in a certain way.
We are the main character of our story, with ups and downs, challenges and achievements. However, cultural discourses often try to take the role of scriptwriter, dictating who we should be, locking us in limiting boxes.
What are these dominant cultural discourses that restrict us?
They are social and cultural stories that we internalize and that shape our worldview, dictate our expectations and influence our beliefs.
Foucault and White (2007) used the term “normalizing judgment” to describe the phenomenon in which people or institutions apply dominant cultural norms and values to evaluate individuals’ behaviour and experiences. These norms are sometimes based on social expectations, beliefs and standards that are considered ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’.
According to the dominant culture, we are influenced in various aspects of life, such as self-worth and status. Society teaches us the meaning of normality, success, virility and beauty, which inevitably influences how we see ourselves in different spheres, as a father, as a woman, or how to be emotionally strong or productive, for example.
“Whoever enters a directed crowd accepts, in a certain way, to suspend his words and his individual movements, suspends the verbal forms beginning with I (enters the: we say); and reduces the world of actions, temporarily, to a: we do.” — Gonçalo M. Tavares
This idea of suspending our individual characteristics for the sake of alignment with the dominant cultural discourse might lead to confusion, dissatisfaction with life or even suffering, and this increases the risk of psychological health problems. Realizing that we may be living a life that was not chosen by us, where we do not see our individual values and decisions represented. A life that does not truly align with our personal identity and emotional well-being.
The impact of cultural discourses on psychological health
When we talk about psychological health we can realize the significant impact that stereotypes, prejudices and cultural patterns can have on the way people perceive themselves and construct their identity.
Stigmatizing social narratives have the power to shape public perception and significantly affect the personal identity of those dealing with psychological health problems. Limited and negative narratives restrict the view of oneself, preventing the flourishing of a positive and healthy identity.
Imagine, for example, a person coping with depression, hearing and realizing that cultural discourses around their problem are associated with weakness or lack of willpower. These negative social messages seep into their perception as a person and they can become trapped in this narrative that they are weak, which will make them feel even more sad and misunderstood.
This type of stigmatizing discourse leads to isolation, reinforcing the stigma and shame associated with the condition, and this can lead to hiding the problem, prolonging and intensifying suffering. Fear of judgment and concern about stigma has a direct impact on help-seeking, discouraging people from seeking support, who end up suffering in silence without receiving the support they need to cope with their problems.
Building alternative narratives that enable change
Despite everything, building alternative stories is a powerful skill that we all possess. Instead of focusing only on the challenges and difficulties, we can explore our achievements, meaningful relationships and moments of overcoming.
By creating a more balanced and inclusive narrative, we can challenge stereotypes and build an identity that is not defined by stigma. It is possible to create alternative stories that highlight our strengths and resources. Instead of limiting ourselves to a single stigmatizing storyline, we can explore new perspectives and possibilities and thus have a broad set of options and ways of living.
Each of us is a unique combination of genetic traits and life experiences. What brings me happiness may bring someone else sadness. Similarly, what we find helpful may be seen as harmful by someone else. So there are no instructions on how to think, feel or act that universally apply. Everyone has an individual and complex journey, which cannot be limited by rigid rules. As such, it is important to emphasize the importance of recognizing and valuing this diversity.
By sharing a wide range of stories, we can challenge a single, stereotypical narrative. This allows us to acknowledge the complexity and individuality of each person, overcoming the dangers of harmful generalization.
As we engage in the deconstruction and reconstruction of our stories, we can not only transform our own view of ourselves, but also contribute to social change towards a more inclusive and understanding society. It is by untangling our own limiting stories that we break down stigmatizing discourses that we hear and feel in our closest relationships, at work and in society.
It is time to redefine our collective narrative and make room for a more comprehensive and empathetic understanding. To do so, it is important to recognize that cultural discourses are not static. They can be challenged, questioned and transformed, and by bringing voices together, it is possible to promote inclusive and compassionate narratives, creating a more positive and healthy environment for the development of authentic personal identities.
It is not easy to do this alone, and it is often necessary to tell our story to someone else so that together we can become aware of cultural discourses that may be constraining us and, by identifying them, we can rewrite a more useful and meaningful story for ourselves.
[Translation of the original sentence in Portuguese: “Quem entra numa multidão direccionada aceita, de certa maneira, suspender as suas palavras e os seus movimentos individuais, suspende as formas verbais iniciadas por Eu (entra no: nós dizemos); e reduz o mundo das acções, temporariamente, a um: nós fazemos.”]