Clients come to therapy to process their everyday experiences and stress. When these events are comments or actions that negatively impact members of a marginalized group, they are called microaggressions. No matter the intent, these subtle, everyday experiences work to convey messages of unconscious bias.
Some examples of microaggressions include a client who is fed up with their family members, who do not bother to use their preferred pronouns. A female client may be frustrated that her male colleagues repeatedly talk over her during meetings. Or a client of colour might have been called “dramatic” or “overly sensitive” when they reacted to a friend who repeatedly called them a racial slur.
Types of Microaggressions
When working with clients from historically marginalized groups, identifying and naming microaggressions can provide a shared language for labeling their experiences. There are three types of microaggressions:
This is the most blatant verbal (e.g., racial slurs), nonverbal (e.g., behavioral discrimination such as mimicking sexualized acts behind a woman’s back), or environmental attack (e.g., offensive signs or posters). It is meant to be intentionally discriminatory or biased in nature.
An unintentional behaviour or verbal comment that conveys rudeness or insensitivity. This usually comes in the form of confusion or surprise when people are observed acting out of their typical stereotype. Some common examples include women being presumed to be the nurse rather than the physician; or commenting that a gay man presents as “masculine.”
An action from someone in power that excludes, negates, or dismisses the perceptions of a marginalized group. Examples include a heterosexual person dismissing the fears of a lesbian couple traveling to a conservative country; a wealthy person telling a working-class person that, if they work hard, they will get their dream job; or a white person telling a person of colour that they “do not see colour.”
When working with clients from historically marginalized groups, identifying and naming microaggressions can provide a shared language for labeling their experiences.
Does Intention Matter?
The difficulty of unpacking and processing microaggressions is that, by definition, the perpetrator often doesn’t intend to cause harm. However, if someone says something that hurts our feelings, their intention matters little.
Gaslighting is a term to describe a manipulation tactic which causes individuals to doubt their own experiences and question their reactions to microaggressions. As mental health providers, the most therapeutic approach for when our client has been a victim of a microaggression is to validate. While we can probably assume that the perpetrator of a microaggression did not intend to convey their bias, it can negate the impact that their behavior had on our client. So, we should always address the negative effects microaggressions can have on our client’s mental health.
The difficulty of unpacking and processing microaggressions is that, by definition, the perpetrator often doesn’t intend to cause harm.
Helping clients label and identify their emotional reactions to a microaggression is the first step to feeling understood. When affect is high, it can be hard to accurately reflect emotions, but the goal is to let your client know that you think their emotions are important, true, and rational.
Should I Say Something or Leave It Alone?
Despite the name, microaggressions can have a big impact on someone’s mental health. A singular microaggression may not cause significant harm, but for some individuals (particularly those living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities), these experiences can accumulate to be significantly burdensome over time.
After experiencing a microaggression, there is a predictable sequence of internal questioning that occurs. Psychotherapy can often be a helpful place to organize our answers.
As mental health providers, we can offer our clients a psychologically safe space to discuss and debrief the details of the microaggressive event. In therapy, we can help clients identify, label, and describe their uncomfortable feelings. Maybe it’s anger, shame, disgust, disappointment, etc. Maybe this microaggression brings up past traumatic events or triggers difficult memories of other microaggressions. Here, it is important for the client to connect with why a particular microaggression resulted in a particular emotional, physical, or psychological reaction.
Should I do something?
In many cases, letting these harmful comments go is an effective strategy for marginalized individuals to survive the day. Because if they were to address any and all microaggressions, they would likely be mentally exhausted and not have much capacity for other important aspects of their lives. As such, it is important for clients to ask themselves if a microaggression is worth responding to. If responding puts a client at risk or if they are not in a position of power in the relationship, then not engaging is a perfectly valid response.
What should I say?
If a client feels like silence is compromising their values and morals, or their positionality in the relationship allows them to respond directly, then we can help them come up with a plan. We need to help them set realistic expectations of what they want from a potentially difficult conversation. Role play and practice with your client on when and how to approach the offending person. Start by practicing how to ask for clarification on the microaggression (e.g., “What did you mean when you said that?”). Help your client develop direct “I” statements (e.g., “I felt hurt by your comment”) to make their needs known and to help the conversation go smoothly.
We know that the fight for social justice is long, but as mental health providers we are in a powerful position to help.
While we would love to protect our clients from ever experiencing microaggressions, unfortunately this is far from possible. What we can do is provide our clients with a shared language, a validating safe space to process their reactions, and a plan for how to move forward. We know that the fight for social justice is long, but as mental health providers we are in a powerful position to help.
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