Vongai is abundantly clear about what self-stigma means to her. It is, she says, "when I blame myself, I limit myself to certain things, I am ashamed, I isolate myself, I get depression, I'm not confident of anything. I feel inferior." All this because, at the age of 39, she was diagnosed with HIV. She was unable to work properly, convinced herself that people were always sneering at her, and could not speak to anyone.
But that has all changed thanks to Beyond Stigma. Beyond Stigma bases its activities on the 'The Work' philosophy devised by Byron Katie. It tackles the cause and source of all stigma - our individual selves. During the period that practitioners undertake The Work, they come to see that all stigma derives not from the external world, but the inside. In short, we force these negative and destructive thoughts on ourselves.
That's why Vongai is now so determined to help others as well. And she is just as specific about how to vanquish self-stigma: by undertaking the Inquiry-Based Stress Reduction (IBSR) programme. The reason in part, she says, is that individuals don't need to work with others for it to be successful, and all self-care can be undertaken on one's own. The effect on Vongai herself has been transformative, and she is certain that it can be just as successful for anyone else.
In the past, she was always worried that her injured leg would drag behind her. She would focus unduly on this, causing her great anxiety even when she was sitting down. Now, however, she does not worry about this at all, and does not care how she looks when she is walking. In the past, she was very nervous in company and would often not speak up at meetings or other large groups. Now, however, she is open and engaging at all public gatherings and will happily talk about the benefits of challenging self-stigma associated with HIV.
At work, she is much more confident about her day-to-day tasks and even realised that she deserved promotion. Before, she would have lost her temper any time someone asked her about what she was doing, perceiving it as an attack and that she was not up to her job. "You are looking down at me," she would shout at her interlocutor. But now when she has such an encounter, she is much calmer, and just lets the situation run its course, which it always does in her favour.
But the most remarkable change has been with her family. She used to argue a lot with her son, whom she thought was lazy because he was not interested in doing his school work or even reading. It made her particularly angry because she was paying expensive school fees. However, having worked on herself through IBSR, she began to see that she needed to show him more respect and give him his space. Now she just tells herself that she has done her best to encourage him. This softer approach has worked wonders. Her son began to read much more and after a while approached his mother and told her that he would do his best to pass his school exams that year.
Everyone around Vongai - family, friends, colleagues - has noticed the change in her. She knows the secret to her success, and is desperate to let everyone in on it too. Whenever she sees others in distress, she automatically suggests that they undertake the IBSR programme. No problem is too great for the Work, she asserts, happily confident in her transformed self and the new lease of life it has given her.
By: Robert Bartram