The Stigma of Success

by Marie Bolin, FCNI Manager
June, 17, 2020 -

Most people enjoy being celebrated for their successes in life. Hearing the words “Well done,” “Great Job,” or “You are a real success story” typically evokes a positive feeling and one of accomplishment. For youth who have experienced the foster care system, however, these same accolades can carry a feeling of being a “poster child”; an image of what a foster youth should look like.  

For those of us who work with foster youth, there is a very delicate balance we must strike when wanting to genuinely celebrate our young peoples’ success. We want to use these positive stories to inform and empower the community to get more involved, but we must also support our young people as they learn how to protect their personal information and personal stories. When a child or youth is in the foster care system, they can often feel like life is something happening to them. Throughout the years, I have had the privilege of witnessing our youth achieve some of the most amazing accomplishments. What might seem like a small victory to another person, might actually be the catalyst for completely transforming a life. On the other hand, what some people might consider to be a lofty achievement, such as earning a college degree or receiving a prestigious award, could be exactly what the youth set out to accomplish in the first place. 

Working with youth who have navigated through the system is extremely rewarding and requires a balance between empowering the youth to own their story--giving them the choice to share what and when and how they choose--while also helping to instill the message to them that they are worthy to be celebrated--their story is worthy of being told! 

As an organization that has over 20 different programs, serving some of the most vulnerable children, youth, and families in our community, there are times when a participant is asked to share “their story.” Although our teams strive to ensure every measure is taken to protect the participant’s confidentiality, there may be times where the sharing of their story ends up feeling uncomfortable to the participant. 

I was raised by a parent with a mental illness and experienced trauma in my family growing up. There was a season where various agencies routinely invited me to be on speaking panels to share my “unique experience.” I even ended up participating in a documentary, which is still used today for training purposes. I was in my early twenties when I agreed to this, and I was eager to help break the stigma for others like myself. I was a “first generation college student,” and one who (as others thought) “beat the odds”, as well as “a miracle, considering my family history” see the pattern here. Although I did appreciate the acknowledgements and at times felt a strong sense of pride for having escaped the negative generational patterns of my family, I also began to feel the weight of what I had shared publicly--not just the personal exposure, but also the example that I set for others. 

Having now been a professional in the social services field for over 20 years, and still being recognized at times for the documentary I was in, there have been times when I regretted my decision. I have grown personally, professionally, and I no longer identify with how I had been depicted at that one point in my life. 

I can’t help but think about this very personal experience as I work to educate our youth on how to share their stories. Although it can feel really good to tell a young person, who you know has experienced difficult times, how special they are and how proud you are of them, we must also leave room for them to not want to share their story. Their stories belong to them and they must remain the only storytellers.