The Shrink Tank

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The Headlines You've Written About Yourself Are Wrong

Our mental pigeonholes hold us back. Here's how to break out.

Dina breezes past me at the office doorway and plops down on the couch, taking her shoes off and wedging her bare feet tightly into the breaks between the cushions. Before I can get out a "Nice to see you," she fixes me in her glare and says, "I can't do this whole dating thing. I'm just not good with men."

And with that, we're off.

Super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes once told Watson, "Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details." Sage advice that holds true for 19th-century criminal investigations and 21st-century consulting offices alike.

In my clinical practice, I hear these kinds of broad categorical statements every day. I have one response: They're for the birds! These mental pigeonholes keep us blocked in, pushed aside, and held back from reaching our true potential.

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If Sherlock Holmes doesn't convince you, the scientific findings should—hundreds of experimental studies have demonstrated the insidious effects of the concept known as stereotype threat on both academic and non-academic tasks. How does stereotype threat work? By subtly cuing even indirect reminders of harmful and incorrect negative stereotypes before a task, an individual's task performance suffers. The detrimental effects of stereotype threat have been identified across demographic profiles, including gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, and on tasks such as math, driving, parental sensitivity, athletic performance, and even social responsiveness.

The concept of stereotype threat generally applies to broad cultural beliefs deeply entrenched in our social interactions, but I often see people inflicting similar injustices on their own selves and identities every day. Cultural pressures are hard enough to navigate without us compounding the problem in our own minds.

It's time to break free from your pigeonholes. So how do you do it, and can you really just fly away and never migrate back?

1. Take a good honest tour of your pigeonhole, including the parts that are painful to look at. You may tell yourself that "I'm a good girl (or boy)"; "I never try new things"; "I'm a people pleaser"; "I can't play sports, I’m too uncoordinated"; or "I'm too lazy (or tired, or stressed) to do anything about it." But taking a good, hard look at yourself involves moving past such simple headlines after a frustrating interaction and sorting through the nitty-gritty of your experiences with other people: What happened? Who said what?  Who did what? What did you hope for in the interaction? How did others respond?  How did you imagine they'd respond?

Dina had become so exceptionally good at convincing herself that she's "a broken person" with nothing to offer men that she would either routinely turn down potential dates or get so hung up on her own flaws and insecurities that she routinely forgot to have fun on outings with friends, co-workers, and potential partners. Once we got past the headline—"I'm no good with men"—we were carefully, compassionately, and collaboratively able to look together at the detailed interactions she had with men; what activated her insecurities; and the characteristic ways she dealt with, avoided, or shut down relationships.

What are your own labels, assumptions, certainties, or self-proclamations? How do they affect what you think, say, or do with others? How do you hope to be treated, and what responses do you typically get? Are you willing to try something else and see if it gets a different response?

2. Remember how your pigeonhole got built in the first place and question the assumptions it was built upon. This is a delicate balancing act between thoughtful self-examination—without getting stuck in shame—and assigning appropriate responsibility without excessive blame.

For Dina, a chronically invalidating early environment left her feeling worthless and unlovable. She learned to put herself down and not get "too big for her britches," to protect herself from someone else doing it to her first. By looking back, she came to realize this particular box, the one she built to keep her safe from others in the distant past, was actually the same one holding her back from connecting meaningfully to others today. Once she realized those threatening people from her past were no longer a major influence in her life and that she had grown past needing to depend on them, she felt safer to let those old walls come down.

When it comes to your own hole, in all likelihood, you didn't dig it yourself. You probably had a lot of help from people and events in your life that may have meant to deliberately hurt you, but more likely either didn't notice their actions or didn't know any better. But now the responsibility lies with you to chart your path forward, although it helps to have a few positive migratory companions. 

3. Find your flock. Pigeonholes are lonely places, but if you're able to just peek outside of them, you'll often find that companionship isn't far away. Researchers have identified two significant ways of reversing the negative impacts of stereotype threat: Interventions that involve affirming one’s own positive values, and affirming a positive sense of belonging have been found to eliminate the performance problems that come with stereotype threatening tasks.

Dina felt lonely and unlovable. She often stayed home, kept to herself, and rarely acknowledged her vulnerabilities to others. She genuinely told herself that she was uniquely bad at relationships with men because so many of her friends were married and starting families. She felt left behind and on her own. After looking around and questioning her assumptions about herself and relationships, she was able to see that some co-workers were struggling in the dating world, too. She reached out to them, hesitantly at first, but eventually bravely shared with them her values of wanting to find a meaningful and challenging romantic relationship. They shared their own struggles and even started trading “war stories” of online dating. Dina had found solidarity with others who shared some important values and she found belonging with other people she could hang out with outside of the first-date rut.

So go and find a flock of people who share your positive values. Reaching out to others requires bravery, vulnerability, and opening yourself up to possible rejection. But it’s hard to have a dance party stuck inside a dark and lonely pigeonhole.

Note: Client name and details have been disguised/composited to protect privacy.


Jared DeFife, Ph.D.


Follow me on twitter! @dccatlanta


Jared DeFife, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine."


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