Microaggressions at Work Trigger Anxiety

Microaggressions trigger anxiety for targets of bias and their allies as well. When microaggressions happen at work and threaten your livelihood your anxiety can skyrocket. Microaggressions are denigrating messages and behaviors directed at marginalized groups. That term came from Dr. Chester M. Pierce, distinguished Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and education. He first used the word in the 1970s to describe degrading comments and behaviors targeting black people. Dr. Pierce has over 180 publications, was the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America, a former U.S. Navy Commander, served on several advisory boards, and even helped develop the beloved children’s television program Sesame Street. An invited lecturer on all seven continents, he even has a peak named after him in Antarctica (Pierce Peak). He contrasted microaggressions, disparaging comments, and behaviors with macroaggressions or more extreme racist behaviors such as physical attacks and lynching.


Examples of microaggressions include; ridiculing the way a disabled person talks or moves, referring to Muslims as terrorists, or assuming a black person must be of lower social status. Microaggressions hurt people. Recipients of microaggressions have told me it feels like:

“Death by a thousand cuts.”

“A gut punch.”

“Like being stabbed in the heart.”

“It’s like I’m invisible to them.”

“They treat me like a growth they want removed.”

Marginalized groups are those who do not hold dominant power in a population. It’s easier to cope with disparaging comments when you have power, influence, resources, and support. Let’s say you’re the white male CEO of a company, and an employee calls you a bully. You might not like that comment, but your livelihood, safety, and social status won’t suffer. You’ll still be on top, and the employee may or may not get to keep their job—power matters.

Navigating Negative Bias

The uneasy awareness that someone has a negative bias against you can leave you feeling unsafe. For example, I provided career coaching to a 32-year-old black professional named James, excited about a new director position. He sought my help after a few microaggressions that made him question whether he could remain at the company.

“I initially thought this would be the place where I would work until my retirement,” he said. James would arrive early in the morning to get ahead on the work he loved.

“You’re in real early, James. I thought you people were always late,” his white boss said with a laugh.

On another occasion, he asked his boss why he was the only director excluded from the company golf tournament.  The boss replied, “well, I figured you people like basketball, not golf,” the boss replied.

James felt shut out socially, treated like an inferior other, and hired to fill a token position as the only black director in the company. “I love the work, many of my colleagues, and the company mission. But now, I feel angry, worn down, and it’s shaken my confidence,” he said.

Targets of microaggressions suffer stress symptoms, including inflammation, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, health issues, and depression. When people treat you like an outsider, it takes a lot of grit to keep performing at your best. It’s stressful to feel on the defense continually.    

Much of that stress stems from internal conflicts about how to respond. You can feel like you’re in a lose/lose situation. If you respond to the comments, you might worry about being labeled a troublemaker or suffer retaliation. If you don’t reply, you might feel humiliation and resentment. Maybe you feel guarded and distracted, wondering when the next microaggression will injure you.

Three Steps to Lower Anxiety

To lower anxiety around microaggressions at work, begin with these three steps:

  1. Notice and name your emotions: “I feel hurt, worried, angry, embarrassed.”
  2. Notice and name your physical feelings: “I feel a tightness in my chest, a lump in my throat, a queasiness in my gut, pain in my heart.”
  3. Provide yourself some comfort: Deep breathing, take a walk, talk to a trusted friend or family member, meditate, hot soothing bath, provide yourself some pain relief, get rest, tell yourself you can cope with this problem.

Once you identify the feelings and emotions and give yourself some comfort, you will still need a strategy to cope with microaggressions in the workplace. We can reduce our anxiety about any problem if we develop a plan and then work our plan. Having a plan lowers anxiety because it reduces the inner conflicts that magnify stress. The more arguments we have inside, the more anxiety grows.

Make a Plan

When you develop a plan to manage microaggressions at work, you want to consider your long-term goals. James wanted to try to stay in this job that he loved. He set a goal to learn how to manage the microaggressions from his boss more effectively. Others might decide the job isn’t worth it. You get to decide what works best for you. Consider the following when planning:

  • Define your boundaries/limits: “I will not ignore harmful comments or other microaggressions. I will assertively respond to all microaggressions when it is safe to do so.”
  • Decide on your response: “I will calmly comment on the microaggression and state what behavior I would prefer.”
  • Mentally rehearse your response: “I notice your comments consistently refer to my race. I would like you to treat me the same way you treat all the other directors.”

During the mental rehearsal, it helps to visualize your best possible self. Imagine yourself feeling confident, poised, relaxed, safe. Visualize yourself feeling mentally sharp, clear-headed, calm, confident. Studies show that imagining your best possible self helps your performance and makes you feel better. Rather than seeing yourself through the eyes of a prejudiced person, visualize yourself as your most vital, sharpest, highest-performing self. It’s a way to take your power back and calm yourself.

Managing Anxiety While Acting as an Ally

Allies support those in marginalized groups by taking anti-racist positions, opposing oppression, and listening to and amplifying their concerns and accomplishments. When you intervene with supportive comments, actions, or help, you can reduce harm. If you’re an ally, you may feel anxious about what to say when a co-worker uses racist language or other microaggressions. You might worry that the wrong comment could make things worse for your targeted colleague.

Planning can help allies reduce their anxiety around microaggressions. Create a plan:

  • Define your boundaries/limits: “I will support targets of microaggressions by taking anti-racist positions, opposing oppression, and by listening to and amplifying their interests, concerns, and accomplishments.”
  • Decide on your response: “I will calmly state that I find the microaggression offensive and state what behavior I would prefer instead.”
  • Mentally rehearse your response: “I am uncomfortable with these comments about James’s race. I would like us all to treat him the same way we treat one another.”

Rather than just name-calling the offender, it works best to state what you find offensive about the comment or behavior. Speak for yourself, not for the person targeted. Saying, “you’re a racist,” does not help to change the culture and might lead to angry defensiveness. On the other hand, when you specifically state what you would prefer, it gives the other person a chance to change. When people change their behavior, their feelings eventually change as well. When we stop microaggressions in their tracks and invite the preferred behavior, we start the process of cultural change.

Standing up to microaggressions at work can be risky. But not standing up to them is riskier. When we don’t say anything against microaggressions, we perpetuate the culture that tolerates them. When we say something, we become the change we want to see.

Photo courtesy of K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.