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 can include things like 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.
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
- Sleep issues
- Lower productivity
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Lower self-esteem
- Higher stress levels
- No motivation to go to work or school
- Suicidal thoughts
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 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 may benefit from letting 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.
How do you handle microaggressions?
Addressing microaggressions often requires a nuanced approach that may begin with staying calm and composed. You might directly communicate with the person responsible, expressing how their comment or action was inappropriate. Additionally, it may help to discuss your perspective, educate them about microaggressions, and encourage open dialogue, providing examples to illustrate the impact. If the behavior persists in a work setting, you can consider involving a supervisor or HR representative to mediate the situation.
How does microaggression affect the workplace?
Microaggressions can create a hostile work environment, particularly for members of marginalized groups. Exposure to everyday slights, such as racial microaggressions or sexist microaggressions, may lead to increased stress, mental illness, physical health issues, and decreased job satisfaction. This negative impact can contribute to higher turnover rates among employees from marginalized groups and hinder overall productivity.
How do you fix microaggressions in the workplace?
Addressing microaggressions often involves a combination of education, awareness, and policy implementation. Some workplaces may conduct workshops and training sessions to educate employees about unintentional biases and microaggressions, implement clear policies against such behaviors, and establish reporting mechanisms. This approach may encourage a culture of inclusivity and openness, where individuals feel comfortable reporting incidents without fear of retaliation.
How can we reduce microaggressions in learning environments?
In educational settings, fostering an inclusive environment can help reduce exposure to microaggressions in everyday life. Institutions might educate students about the impact of microaggressions and promote cultural competence. Implementing inclusive curricula that represent diverse perspectives may also help reduce the occurrence of microaggressions in learning environments.
One example of how an educational institution might work on this is to create consequences for college students or educators who commit microaggressions. The idea isn't to make the person who committed the microaggression feel like a bad person but to educate them while sending a message to minority students that they are in an inclusive, safe setting.
How do you become an ally to someone experiencing microaggressions?
Being an ally involves actively supporting individuals who face microaggressions. You might listen to their experiences without judgment, validate their feelings, and educate yourself about the specific challenges they face, such as racial or ethnic microaggressions and sexual orientation or gender microaggressions. Additionally, an ally can speak up when witnessing microaggressions and use their privilege to amplify marginalized voices, actively contributing to an inclusive and respectful environment.
How can we avoid microaggressions?
Self-awareness and continuous education are often essential to helping individuals examine and actively challenge their biases. To avoid microaggressions, you can practice cultural humility and sensitivity, be open to feedback, and avoid making assumptions about individuals based on race, gender, or other characteristics. You can also foster a culture that values diversity and actively works against everyday racism or other forms of discrimination.
Why is it important to address microaggressions in the workplace?
Addressing microaggressions can help create an inclusive workplace, while not addressing microaggressions may lead to negative impacts on the mental health of individuals from marginalized groups and contribute to a toxic environment. Proactively addressing these issues can help promote a culture of respect, boost employee morale, and enhance overall productivity and collaboration.
What are ways to raise awareness about microaggressions in the workplace?
Workplaces can raise awareness through workshops, training programs, and educational materials addressing microaggressions. This may encourage open discussions about unconscious biases and the impact of everyday slights. A workplace can also use real-life examples, including instances of racial microaggressions or sexist microaggressions. This approach may illustrate the importance of addressing these issues and fostering a culture where employees feel empowered to speak out against microaggressions.
How do you respond to microaggressions as a bystander?
Bystanders often play a crucial role in combating microaggressions. You might intervene when you witness inappropriate behavior, express discomfort, and support the person targeted. It may also help to educate the offender about the impact of their words or actions and encourage a more inclusive and respectful dialogue. Being an active bystander can help create a culture where microaggressions are less likely to persist.
For example, suppose you witness the following racial microaggression directed toward a Black person:
At work, a white colleague might touch a Black coworker's hair without permission while exclaiming, "Wow, your hair is so exotic! It's such a cool texture I've never seen before." This comment reflects a microaggression as it objectifies and exoticizes the person based on their race and reinforces stereotypes about the uniqueness of Black hair.
In this instance, you might speak up during or after the event, telling the white colleague that they're disregarding the personal boundaries of your Black coworker, touching their hair without permission, and speaking in a potentially insensitive manner.
What is the difference between micro inequities and microaggression?
Micro inequities refer to subtle, often unconscious, behaviors that convey differential treatment based on an individual's characteristics, such as race or gender. These can include everyday slights and exclusions. On the other hand, microaggressions are specific verbal or non-verbal expressions that communicate hostility, often unintentionally, toward individuals based on their membership in a marginalized group. Both micro-inequities and microaggressions can contribute to a harmful workplace culture but manifest in slightly different ways.
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