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How to work through experiences of discrimination

How can you recall negative past experiences without being overwhelmed?

"What would happen to your personality," wrote Gordon Allport in 1954, "if you heard it said over and over again that you are lazy and had inferior blood?" Such is the nature of prejudice--a series of small, and sometimes large, insults that accumulate and take a toll on the body and soul. When we are targets of prejudice, how can we work through these experiences in a healthy way, without letting the experience overwhelm us?

In a frank moment last week with my students, I shared that studying prejudice and stigma through the lens of psychology gives me a distance that I need to be able to think about the topic. Otherwise it's just too hot, too visceral--I can't even watch movies like Crash without feeling its effects for days. Of course, these types of experiences are the motivation to address the problem in the first place, but the scientific perspective lets me analyze the problem as one of human nature. It helps me not see perpetrators of prejudice as necessarily evil, or targets of prejudice as necessarily victims. It becomes a problem that is not just about me.

I've shared this sentiment with others in the past, and I don't always get a positive reaction. You're sanitizing the experience, I've heard, you need to feel your way through the experience. This point of view echoes a very popular belief that to grow from trauma or pain, we need to work through our emotions by re-living them. But recent research suggests that wading back into highly emotional territory without the opportunity to get some analytical distance from it can backfire. In particular, recent research on self-distancing by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross reveals that the right way to gain such analytical distance may hinge, quite simply, on the pronouns one chooses to describe the experience.

source: Robbiemuffin, Wikimedia Commons

In their research, Ayduk and Kross contrast two alternative ways of working through highly emotional experiences. A self-immersed perspective is one in which we try to remember the experience at the same time that we try to analyze it--for example, when we say to ourselves, "why did that prejudiced comment get to me so much?" By contrast, a self-distanced perspective analyzes the same experience as if you yourself were a third-party observer, a kind of fly on the wall--"why did that prejudiced comment get to him so much?" In both cases, you are trying to understand the emotions, but when you do this in the first person, the pull of the emotion can overwhelm understanding.

Kross and Ayduk (2011) provide an example of someone recalling an experience from a self-immersed perspective: "Adrenaline infused... Betrayed. Angry. Victimized. Hurt. Shamed. Stepped-on." What's remarkable about this recounting is just how raw and vivid the experience still is--and is a perfect example of how, when we try to understand at the same time that we feel, our emotions take over.

By contrast, here is an example of someone recalling an experience from a self-distanced perspective: "I was able to see the argument more clearly... I initially empathized better with myself but then I began to understand how my friend felt. It may have been irrational but I understand his motivation..." As this example shows, a self-distanced perspective can shift the balance between emotion and understanding just enough that we are able to understand the context, the background, and perhaps even the other people involved. And this can open the door towards resolving the experience.

It seems amazing that a small change in the way one analyzes a painful experience (using s/he as opposed to I) can lead to such dramatic results, but the research on this is solid and clear. In one study, people who were prompted to recall a negative experience from a self-distanced perspective (why did s/he feel this way?) in the lab felt less distressed about the experience one week later compared to those who recalled a similarly negative experience from a self-immersed perspective (why did I feel this way?). In other studies, people who spontaneously self-distance have been shown to ruminate less about negative experiences and are less likely to be be hostile when disagreements come up.

Thus, when trying to work through negative, painful experiences, it is possible to grow, but we have to know how to talk to ourselves when doing so. A relatively straightforward shift away from self-immersion towards self-distancing seems to help--particularly in cases, including but not limited to experiences with discrimination, where the emotions have the power to overwhelm.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

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