Goals, Goals, Goals

So you've decided to confront an aggressor. I can't give you advice on making political change, but there is something you can do to make it all way less stressful. Setting goals, and sticking to them.

When you experience a microaggression, a swarm of emotions and desires pile up. You might feel terrified, and want to escape. You might feel angry, and want to tell the aggressor about how wrong their actions were. You might mostly just be stressed, and want the aggressor to not do it again. Even if you sort everything out enough to know that you want to confront someone, you're still left with a lot of options.

It's pretty common to try to do everything when confronting an aggressor. You want to prove you're right, you want the other person to learn and understand why what they did was wrong, you want them to not do it again, you want to express how you feel, you want everyone around you to know they can't get away with doing what the aggressor did, and you want to feel better by the end. If you try to do everything, and do it every time, you'll just end up in a more intense, more stressful, more generally miserable situation. You'll even start to get more stressed out when microaggressions happen, as you get sent right into "battle mode." [1-2]

Pick a goal, just one, and stick to it. What do you want the most? If you stick to this goal, and only do what helps you reach that goal, everything will go a lot more smoothly. If it doesn't look like the confrontation is going to result in you getting your goal, it's time to reassess if you want to change that goal, or if it's time to just end the conversation. I call this "goal-minded confrontation," though the term used in research is simply "Effectiveness." Staying focused on your goal, and doing just what will be effective for reaching that goal, has been shown to make every interaction much easier to manage. [3-9]

Here's an example:

Nadia walks with a cane, and her new able-bodied boyfriend Jamal often makes disrespectful remarks about her cane. Nadia has tried to show her discomfort, but Jamal keeps making the remarks. Nadia knows she could try to educate Jamal, but she doesn't want to. She wants to express how upset she is to Jamal, and then dump him. After Jamal makes another remark about Nadia's cane, she tells Jamal that his remarks are hurtful and that she will be ending the relationship. Jamal tries to argue, and demands Nadia explain what could be hurtful about his remarks. Nadia could easily get distracted and try to engage in a debate, but she reminds herself that her goal was to express that she's upset, and then dump Jamal. She doesn't care about helping him, she just wants to no longer be around his remarks. Nadia ignores Jamal's pleas, yells that she's sick of his ableism tooltip available, and walks away; saving herself a lot of energy.

Six months later, Nadia has a new partner, Felícia. The two have been dating for a few months, and Nadia can see the relationship going for a while. One day, however, Felícia makes a disrespectful remark about Nadia's cane. Nadia is hurt, and is anxious that things will end up how they were with Jamal. She decides to confront Felícia about her remarks. Felícia doesn't understand why her remark was hurtful, but Nadia is too tired to try and explain. All Nadia wants is for Felícia to not make remarks about her cane again. Nadia remembers that this is her goal. Felícia doesn't need to understand the complexities of her ableist tooltip available microaggression to know that she shouldn't say things that hurt her girlfriend. Nadia tells Felícia that if she's unsure if a remark about Nadia's cane will be hurtful, she should just avoid talking about the cane. Nadia knows that as the relationship develops, she'll eventually want Felícia to be someone who understands the complexities of Ableism. Right now though, Nadia doesn't want to have that conversation, and saves herself the energy by just focusing on getting Felícia to change her behavior.

Here, we see two similar situations, where having two different goals leads to two different sets of actions. In both situations, Nadia was completely in the right to handle things the way she handled them. The difference was simply that Nadia wanted different things in the different situations. Nadia wasn't as into Jamal, and just didn't think the relationship was worth working through the microaggressions. With Felícia, Nadia wanted to work through the microaggression, but in that moment only had the energy for a certain kind of conversation. In both situations, Nadia easily could have wasted a lot of energy on an intense fight where she tried to convince her partner that she was right and they were wrong. By focusing on a single goal, she saved herself a lot of energy.

In these situations, she also could have decided the confrontation wasn't worth it, and changed the topic as a way to achieve a goal of avoiding the remark. She could have decided her goal was to educate her partner, and sat down to focus on that goal, changing her approach and tone to styles she believed would be more conducive to education. But that's not what she did. The goals she chose were based on what she wanted most in those moments, in those situations.

There's no wrong way to handle a microaggression. Only you can decide what is the most appropriate and effective approach for you. Choosing a single goal to focus on is simply an effective way to keep yourself on track, and leave the encounter feeling like you did the best you could do.

[1] Alejandro L. Andrade Jr. (2013, December). Coping with Racial Microaggressions: The Moderating Effects of Coping Strategies on Microaggression Distress (Dissertation). Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois.

[2] Williams, C. D. (2014). African Americans and Racial Microaggressions: Coping, Psychological Well-Being, and Physical Health. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. Retrieved from http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac:189295

[3] Bohus, M., Haaf, B., Simms, T., Limberger, M. F., Schmahl, C., Unckel, C., … Linehan, M. M. (2004). Effectiveness of inpatient dialectical behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorder: a controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42(5), 487–499. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(03)00174-8 Harned, M. S., Chapman, A. L., Dexter-Mazza, E. T., Murray, A., Comtois, K. A., &

[4] Linehan, M. M. (2008). Treating co-occurring Axis I disorders in recurrently suicidal women with borderline personality disorder: A 2-year randomized trial of dialectical behavior therapy versus community treatment by experts. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(6), 1068–1075. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0014044

[5] Kelly Koerner, & Linda Dimeff. (2000). Further Data on Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(1).

[6] Linehan, M. (2015a). DBT skills training handouts and worksheets (Second edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

[7] Linehan, M. (2015b). DBT skills training manual (Second edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

[8] Miller, A. L., et al. (1996). A pilot study: dialectical behavior therapy adapted for suicidal adolescents. Poster presented at the 1st Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Improvement and Teaching of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, New York, NY.

[9] Neacsiu, A. D., Eberle, J. W., Kramer, R., Wiesmann, T., & Linehan, M. M. (2014). Dialectical behavior therapy skills for transdiagnostic emotion dysregulation: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 59, 40–51. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2014.05.00