Microaggressions: Impact on Mental Health
The actions, choices, and attitudes of other people can affect an individual’s well-being, for better or for worse. Microaggressions, defined in the simplest terms as everyday verbal or nonverbal insults, can hurt anyone’s mental health, but they are particularly problematic for minority groups. Minorities face unique challenges in maintaining positive mental health because of the discrimination, harassment, and racism they face every day. Learning about microaggressions is vital to recognizing, addressing, and responding to them.
Microaggression Theory: Where Microaggressions Come From
The term microaggression comes from Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. The word was coined in 1970 and referred to Pierce’s observations of insults and slights directed at people of color by those who aren’t. Microaggression theory states that people who are disadvantaged in some way or belong to a minority group are the most susceptible to these insults.
Microaggressions are sometimes called insults, assumptions, putdowns, or implicit biases. They mainly target those belonging to minority groups. People of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, older people, religious groups, people with disabilities, and more can all be affected.
A microaggression can be subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional, and verbal or nonverbal. No matter how they present, though, they are still hurtful. The different types of microaggressions are microassaults, microinvalidations, and microinsults. Each is explored in more detail below:
Microassaults: Microassaults describe snubs, slights, or insults that people use intentionally to hurt someone else. They might call their target names, purposefully leave them out, or harass them in a discriminatory manner. Examples of microassaults are abusive language or epithets, racial profiling, or blocking someone’s entry into an event or business based on their identity or group.
Microinvalidations: These are instances in which someone’s experience as an underrepresented minority is downplayed, discredited, or shut out altogether. For example, someone might claim that racism no longer exists or that they don’t see color. An employer may say everyone had an equal opportunity for a position based on their qualifications alone. Microinvalidations are one of the most common types of microaggressions and seem to occur most when people aren’t listening or trying to understand a perspective that differs from theirs.
Microinsults: Microinsults are characterized by rude, demeaning, or insensitive comments that someone makes toward a person’s identity. They can also include nonverbal communication. These microaggressions are the hardest to identify because they tend to be subtle. Microinsults are primarily based on assumptions about people who belong to certain underrepresented groups. For example, someone might credit a person of color’s acceptance into a program as merely a result of affirmative action rather than the hard work they put in. Someone might be assumed to be very intelligent based only on their race or labeled a criminal because of their peer group.
Microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes, but each can be very hurtful. Although not every insult, assumption, or stare is intentional, it doesn’t minimize the real damage that can follow. Even subtle slights can be just as damaging as overt harassment, whether verbal or nonverbal.
It can be difficult for people who aren’t affected by microaggressions to recognize how their unintentional comments or actions can harm others. However, it’s necessary to continue to learn about these things to approach certain people and situations with more perspective, understanding, and sensitivity.
Examples of Microaggressions
Here are some examples of microaggressions you may see in your workplace, at school, or out in public:
Asking a person of color how they got into a specific program or school implies they don’t have the qualifications or intelligence to get there on their merit.
Asking someone where they’re from simply because of their accent suggests they’re a foreigner in their own country.
Telling someone you don’t see color minimizes their experience as a person of color.
Locking your car as soon as you see a person of color implies that they are dangerous simply because of their racial identity.
Television shows that only feature white people can suggest that others aren’t as important or don’t belong.
Telling someone to be less flamboyant as a male implies that they need to conform to what’s acceptable in the dominant culture.
Not involving an older coworker in a work meeting tells them their opinion isn’t as important because of their identity.
If someone gives you a micro-aggression example they have experienced, it’s important to take their word for it and practice empathy. Trying to diminish, downplay, or minimize their experiences can potentially cause even more harm. When you don’t try to understand or see a different perspective, it can communicate that you don’t see, hear, or care for the person. By showing concern and care, you can help comfort that person and reassure them that their experience is valid.
Mental Health Effects of Microaggressions
Microaggressions can take a toll on an individual’s mental health. Some people experience them more often than others, making their effect even more impactful. Some of the potential negative effects microaggressions can have on someone’s mental health include the following:
Loss of confidence
Exhaustion or fatigue
Higher stress levels
No motivation to go to work or school
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.
Since many disadvantaged groups already have extra obstacles they have to overcome, microaggressions can make it even harder to cope with daily life. Microaggressions are so commonplace that there’s never a break from them. Even when someone isn’t immediately subjected to one, the effects of previous experiences linger. When someone is dealing with the mental health effects of microaggressions, they may go on to develop physical side effects as well, such as headaches, insomnia, or high blood pressure. The result is lower functioning overall, making it more challenging to get through the day-to-day intricacies of life.
Being Conscious of and Addressing Microaggressions
Microaggressions can be hard to spot, especially if you aren’t familiar with them. That said, those belonging to minority groups are more used to noticing them because they often experience them daily. So, in general, you can recognize microaggressions most readily when they’re directed at you. However, the more familiar you are with the different themes of microaggressions, the more likely you are to spot them. If you see or hear something that sounds directed at someone belonging to a minority group, it could be a microaggression.
Even if someone isn't trying to be intentionally hurtful, they can still perpetuate harmful statements or other nonverbal communications. If you hear or experience a microaggression, you can react in three ways:
Brush it off. If you’re experiencing microaggressions regularly, calling them out each time may not be practical. It can also be downright exhausting. Sometimes your mental health should let it go rather than engage with someone who said or did something offensive.
Respond immediately. If the moment is right, you can address a microaggression right then and there. Just ensure you’re in a safe environment, as some people can become reactive or defensive once confronted. Sometimes correcting someone’s statements or actions can help them learn so they don’t make the same mistake in the future. Other times it makes the situation worse, so you’ll need to use your judgment. In general, people who make unintentional hurtful statements don’t mind being corrected and appreciate the opportunity to grow.
Come back to it later. The moment may not be suitable to respond, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it go forever. Sometimes you may need to gather your thoughts or think more about a situation to gain clarity. Taking time to yourself is essential self-care, but it also allows you to respond in a more tempered manner. The risk of bringing something up later is that the microaggressor may not recall the situation or feel the target of the insult was holding onto something they didn’t mean to be hurtful. However, it’s still essential to address the problem, so it doesn’t happen again. Don’t allow yourself to be gaslit or talked out of your feelings because they are still valid and matter.
The more society can recognize microaggressions, the better we can respond to them. Realizing that microaggressions exist everywhere is an essential step in this process. Although something might seem small, meaningless, or unintentional, that doesn’t eliminate the harm it can cause. One of the most important things you can do as an individual is to comfort and validate those targeted with microaggressions. Even if you can’t stop the slights, insults, and snubs causing them harm, you can still be a source of positivity and encouragement when they’re feeling down. Those subjected to microaggressions must trust people they can turn to. You can do your part by being one of those people in their corner.
Need Extra Help?
Navigating the world as a minority can present some unique challenges. You may be used to handling everything on your own, but you shouldn’t have to. Whether you need to work through a specific issue, cope with a trauma, or just want someone to talk to about life, therapy could be a helpful option to consider.
BetterHelp is a platform that provides mental health services entirely online. If you have a busy schedule, are concerned about being able to afford therapy, or live in a rural area, BetterHelp might be the best choice for you. Once you sign up on the platform and connect with a therapist, you can chat using a messaging feature, a video call, or a phone call,
In addition to these benefits, research shows online therapy is effective, too. Studies have shown that CBT resulted in a 50% improvement in symptoms for people with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. If you deal with microaggressions and need help coping with the stress and anxiety they add to your life, online therapy can help.
Microaggressions can contribute to the unique challenges minorities face every day. You don’t have to deal with these feelings alone. Reach out to an online therapist to get the support you need, or talk to someone who is ready to listen.
How do you identify microaggressions?
While some microaggressions are easy to identify, others are more hidden and difficult to spot if you’re unfamiliar with them. They can be intentional, unintentional, subtle, or overt. They might be hostile, demeaning, or negative verbal messages directed at someone based solely on their identity, but they can also be nonverbal signals.
Microaggressions happen every day. Minorities are usually more able to identify them than others because they often experience them. Learning about the different microaggressions and how to spot them can help you speak up when you see or hear them. Microaggressions can make people feel small, unappreciated, and undervalued, whether verbal or nonverbal. If you notice them, speak up. You can also help by being a comfort to the person who was targeted and helping them feel seen and less alone.
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