Microaggressions are daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights (that may or may not be intentional) that communicate negative or derogatory attitudes to a marginalized or stigmatized group. Microaggressions can negatively impact self-esteem and the ability to trust others, which directly affects an individual’s mental health.

Experiencing repeated instances of microaggressions can be traumatic and contribute to the development of PTSD. Those in a position of privilege might not be aware of the lasting harm that microaggressions can cause and the toll they can take on individuals’ lives over time. This article discusses what microaggressions are, how they are a form of trauma, and what you can do to ensure that you are not showing microaggressions toward others.

A Thousand Tiny Daggers

If you are a marginalized person, you likely move through life feeling like an outsider to the dominating culture. To be marginalized means to be treated as insignificant compared to others in society. The dominating cultures in America are white, male, cis-gendered, straight, and Christian. If you aren’t any of those identities, you are more likely to face discrimination, subtle bigotry, and rejection from large organizations, strangers, and even friends.

The ignorant things people say or the assumptions people make might often seem small and harmless. After all, wasn’t it just a joke? Weren’t they just ignorant? They meant well, right? You may be afraid to bring up these small slights because you don’t want to make others uncomfortable. Or better yet, you don’t want to stick out and become a target or a threat. However, your choice to stand down is what enables microaggressions in the future.

Even though these constant reminders that you are different are small, they can stack up quickly. They can affect your personal image, your self-esteem, and how you move through the world. They can cause you to feel depressed, anxious, and less likely to want to reach out to others who are different from you because, deep down, these tiny instances hurt.

Microaggressions vs. Macroaggressions

The seemingly tiny moments where a person says something that makes you feel uncomfortable or hurt are known as microaggressions. They are different than macroaggressions, which are larger forms of bigotry. Microagressions are a more covert form of discrimination. It isn’t always obvious to the person committing a microaggression why the things they say or do are harmful. This can make it difficult to call out this behavior because you are the only person who’s realized it’s happened.

The truth is, microaggressions are often unintentional. They are often unconscious words or actions that come from a person’s unconscious bias about your identity. In the perpetrator’s life, they were taught stereotypes either from their family members, friends, or the media. However, regardless of the intent, the impact of microaggressions is still intense and damaging to others’ mental health.

Covert bigotry and discrimination are more common these days than overt bigotry. Covert bigotry might be making an inappropriate joke about a stereotype or making an assumption based on preconceived notions of your identity. Overt bigotry involves hate crimes, verbal abuse, and physical threats. Both overt bigotry and covert bigotry can cause trauma, though the impact of overt bigotry is a lot more obvious.

Trauma From Discrimination

Being subjected to violence can cause trauma. People might not think of microaggressions as a form of violence because these actions are so small, but their overall impact becomes more obvious over time. Those that are a part of a minority identity move through life being constantly reminded that they are an outcast to the dominating culture. Violence isn’t just physical. Violence is also mental, verbal, and emotional. The perpetrators of violence should not be recognized as single individuals, but rather recognized as society itself and the system as a whole.

Microaggressions can lead to what is called identity-based trauma. This is a specific type of trauma that is the result of existing as “the other.” This type of trauma isn’t included in the DSM-5, but it is still a very real experience for people of marginalized identities. Identity-based trauma can happen to anyone who has one identity that isn’t a part of the dominating culture.

This trauma is compounded when a person has intersecting marginalized identities, such as a Black woman or a person who is gay and Asian. The Black woman is likely a victim of sexism and racism, and a person who is gay and Asian is likely a victim of racism and homophobia. They are also likely to experience discrimination within their own minority culture. A Black woman might experience sexism within the Black community, and a person who is gay and Asian might experience racism within the gay community. Those who deal with this trauma might find themselves feeling less confident and ashamed of their identity.

Microaggressions are negative and derogatory attitudes shown towards a marginalized group. Repeated instances of microaggressions can contribute to identify-based trauma. Identity-based trauma can take a significant toll on people who aren’t a part of the dominant culture. It’s important not to push the entire responsibility and blame onto the person experiencing the trauma. Those who are a part of a minority identity should seek trauma-informed therapy so that they can receive the healing that they deserve. Bella Monte Recovery Center is a treatment facility that specializes in the treatment of substance use disorders, addiction, and underlying or co-occurring mental health problems. We believe that compassion and education are necessary for providing culturally-sensitive treatment for our clients. We are dedicated to helping our clients overcome the impact of trauma, including identity-based trauma. To learn more about our treatment options, call us today at (800) 974-1938