Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mindfully Responding to Microaggressions

Today's guest blogger is Anonymous. Anonymous has a PhD in chemistry and recently completed a postdoc at an unnamed national lab. She has since transitioned to a non-science career and is enjoying it! She’s interested in community organizing, the bugs in our neural programming, and the ways we transform our painful experiences into growth and  value.

Last time, I wrote about confronting a non-friend about his hurtful comments (see part 1) and subsequently recognizing the narcissism behind his behavior.  Although I felt (and still feel) confident that ending the relationship was the right decision, for a long time I didn’t feel great about how I’d responded during the attack.  In fact, I wondered if I could have done better and felt bad that I hadn’t known exactly what to say.

As I worked through these feelings, I realized that knowing what to say to someone else wasn’t nearly as important as knowing what’s going on inside myself - in other words, being mindful. In order to respond to attacks effectively and be happy with my decisions, I needed to resist the immediate urge to focus on them, their behavior, and responding. Instead, I needed to take a step back, recognize my feelings and needs, and focus on how I could act to support myself.

This is still a work in progress, but here are five things I try to remember when I am faced with bad behavior:

  1. This is difficult, and it is normal for me to feel _____ right now.
These simple words have amazing power. When I’m able to recognize how difficult it is to be a human being, I give myself permission to not know, to struggle, and to make mistakes - in essence, to be who I am in the moment instead of impossibly, already perfect. When I stop judging myself for having negative feelings and simply acknowledge and accept them, I’m better able to process those feelings and direct them towards growth.

I think that many of us, when faced with microaggressions, have learned to downplay how frustrating and hurtful they can be.  We’ve learned this after being bombarded with messages like, “You just need to let it go,” “Other people have it worse,” and, “You’re making noise just to get ahead.”  (Translation: “You shouldn’t be feeling bad - and if you do, you’re either being ridiculous or greedy.”) Sometimes the lesson is further reinforced by advice that is ostensibly meant to be helpful (though I‘m pretty sure this advice wasn’t actually meant to be helpful…).

When faced with these messages, I try to acknowledge my feelings and counter these messages with NO: NO, this is a difficult situation and it is okay for me to feel hurt/angry/frustrated right now; NO, I will choose for myself when it will be okay to let this go; NO, you’re being an unempathetic jerk right now and it has nothing to do with me.”

It also helps  to hear these messages from friends. (We regularly did this for each other in the peer support group that helped me survive my postdoc.) Not only does outside validation reinforce the positive new messages, the knowledge that you’re not alone goes a long way towards fighting secondary feelings of isolation and shame. Eventually, saying NO might start to feel natural, as well as pretty good.

  1. My worth is not dependent on a particular response.
One of my biggest current struggles is getting past trying to being a “good” person. It’s exhausting, as Courtney Martin points out, because it’s hard to know exactly what that means and harder still to maintain it.  That said, my fear of making a mistake and so being “bad” is so ingrained and pervasive that it turns many situations into pits of despair. A simple question of how to best respond to an insensitive remark becomes a major dilemma in which I MUST PROVE MY WORTH AS A HUMAN BEING (BUT PROBABLY WILL NOT). Any moment in which I don’t say anything because I am afraid or don’t know exactly what to do becomes PROOF THAT I AM A BAD AT LIFE.

It’s paralyzing. If this is you, let me say that you are not alone.

So I do my best to mindfully counter these messages, too: I am worthy. I offer myself permission to make mistakes, to be uncertain, and to take the time to fumble my way through what is usually a difficult and messy situation. I am still a worthwhile human being. My worth is not dependent on a particular response.

It’s not easy, but countering those messages and believing the new ones also become more natural over time. When the fear of being bad is no longer suffocating, it’s much easier to choose a response and feel good about it.

  1. If I have to choose between...I choose me.
I may not know what Erykah Badu had in mind when she wrote this song, but in this context, it reminds me that I have a choice of where to focus my attention as “the most important thing”. For example, I can choose to focus on the other person and what they said or did. Alternatively, I might choose to focus on myself so that I can figure out what I want and need to feel safe. I don’t always have the presence of mind to immediately choose the latter (which is okay, because see #1), but when I finally get to the point where I can, I inevitably feel better about my situation and my choices.

As another example, when I’m deciding what to do, I can focus on how other people might respond to my decision. Alternatively, I might take that into account, but choose to focus first on understanding what my goals and desires might be, and how I can prioritize my own health and happiness as the most important thing. Again, I don’t always choose the latter (in fact, I’m pretty bad at it), but have always felt better after struggling (and growing) to get there.

  1. Some people aren't interested in changing right now, and that's okay.
In learning to be kind to and make choices on behalf of my own health, I’ve also learned to let go of my desire to make choices for other people. I think of it this way: in asking people to change, I’m probably asking them to question their identity and exorcise a demon or two. That’s hard, slow work even for people who *want* to do it. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t hold others accountable - in strong, emotionally supportive relationships such as friendships and partnerships, you should be able to do so and have them take it seriously. (If not, run!) Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible at work.

So instead of restricting my idea of a positive action to “whatever makes this person change NOW”, I try to broaden my goals, and thereby my definition of success. For example, if I genuinely like the person, I might gently confront them with the hope that they may come around someday, and count that honest/brave conversation as my success. If don’t like them and don’t want to spend the time on it, I might choose to set boundaries and consequences (e.g., walking away, asking them to stop), and count that awareness and protection of my needs as my success. If I think that I need to speak up in order to feel good about myself or because there is power in showing solidarity with others, then I will attempt to do so professionally and count that bravery and relationship building as my success.

My definition of success might be different every time. It might not always work out 100% the way I hoped. But knowing that I have various options and framing them as things I can do for myself often makes the decision process easier.

  1. Focus on positive reinforcement.
It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re surrounded by toxic people and behavior. As a result, I think there’s great value in seeking out positive people and relationships as rebalancing forces, whether from a personal or a workplace culture perspective.

For example, if there’s one unprofessional person in your lab, see if you don’t have to take him on alone - carefully see if you can ask for emotional or overt support in private conversations with other colleagues. Limit your time with this person if you can or need to, and try to spend time with the people who build you up. If that person one day says something thoughtful or empathetic, point it out. (Think of it like training a dog - with positive reinforcement, maybe he’ll do it again.) Thank friends and allies and let them know that you appreciate their support - the reminder that you’re not isolated feeds your soul, too. All of these things remind you that, as hard as this person or their behavior is, they are just one part of your life and are something that you can survive.