Special Kids Get Picked Last: “Special Needs” Has Become a Dysphemism

Our data suggest that special needs has already become a dysphemism (a euphemism more negative than the word it replaces). Special needs will likely become a slur, if it is not already, and it might eventually become a dysphemistic metaphor, akin to dumb, lame, crippled, deaf, and blind. These linguistic transitions, along with the data reported here, recommend against using the euphemism special needs and instead using the non-euphemized term disability.

Disability has been called by many names. Perhaps one of the most commonly used, and the most indirect, way of labeling disability is with the term “special needs.” I heard that term a lot growing up, and I never liked it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what I disliked about it. Perhaps it was that the phrase was often used in a condescending way, to signify difference or special treatment, or to refer to a segregated place like a “special needs classroom.”

When I started doing inclusion work, I was thrilled to hear fellow self-advocates sharing my dislike for the term “special needs” and advising that we just use the term “disability” instead. We can debate linguistic reasons why one term is better than the other, but ultimately, I’m interested in using the term that is most likely to lead to positive, inclusive interactions with nondisabled people. So, I was fascinated by a research study comparing how a dults in the United States (most nondisabled) judge individuals when they are labeled as having a disability vs. having special needs. (Full article is linked at the end of this post).

Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed an online study where participants read through six scenarios. In each scenario, they had to rank-order their preference to partner with four different individuals. For example, in one scenario the participants read descriptions of four potential college roommates and ranked them in order of whom they would prefer to room with, while in another scenario, they rank-ordered four potential basketball teammates, and in a third, they rank-ordered possible partners for a cooking class. The researchers randomly shuffled the scenarios for each participant, so that each participant saw one scenario where one of the potential partners had “special needs,” a different scenario where one of the partners had “a disability,” and a third where one of the partners was labeled with a specific disability (randomly assigned to be either a sensory or a neurological disability). Besides the disability labels, the partner was described in an identical way for all participants. The researchers looked at the participants’ rankings and calculated, across all the participants and scenarios, how often the partner with special needs/a disability/a specific disability was ranked last.

By random chance, each partner should be ranked last about 25% of the time. So when a particular partner was ranked last more than 25% of the time, this signifies discrimination. Indeed, when the partner was labeled as having “a disability,” discrimination occurred, with the partner being ranked last 33% of the time on average. Discrimination also occurred when the partner was given a specific disability: across the different types of disabilities, they were ranked last 35% of the time. But the worst discrimination occurred when the partner was labeled as having “special needs.” Under that condition, across scenarios, they were ranked last 40% of the time. Statistically, partners were significantly more likely to be ranked last when they were labeled “with special needs” than when they were labeled either “with a disability” or with a specific impairment.

At the end of the study, the researchers also asked the participants to write down the first five words that came to mind when they saw the term “special needs” and the term “disability.” They categorized the responses and found that when the participants were thinking about “special needs,” they wrote down more negative words like “annoying,” “helpless,” or “needy” than when they were thinking about “disability.” In contrast, when thinking about “disability,” the participants wrote down more positive words like “strong,” “capable,” or “acceptance” than when they were thinking about “special needs.” In addition, the term “special needs” was associated more often with intellectual/developmental disabilities, whereas the term “disability” was associated more often with physical impairments. So, it is possible that some of the bias observed could reflect the heightened prejudice and stereotyping against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities compared with physical and sensory disabilities.

What’s wrong with saying “special needs?”

The researchers postulate three reasons why “special needs” might evoke more discrimination than “disability.” First, the term “special needs” is imprecise. When someone is labeled as having “special needs,” it is unclear whether they have an impairment at all, or how severe that impairment is. So, people might assume the worst, or feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity. Second, “special needs” is often associated with segregation: Institutions like “special education,” “special needs classrooms,” or “Special Olympics” are all, by definition, segregated to only serve disabled people. The phrase “special needs” may implicitly justify segregation, giving segregated institutions the praise of being “special” while implying that people who attempt to be included in the broader community (e.g., applying for a college roommate in an integrated dorm) do not belong. Third, the researchers cite examples of “special needs” being conflated with “special rights” or “special treatment.” The term “special needs” may activate feelings of envy that nondisabled people sometimes direct toward disabled people whom they perceive as unfairly taking “special” privileges.

Perhaps a phrase is just a phrase. And, what really matters is how we treat one another. But, this study shows that phrasing does matter. People can discriminate in very real ways based on first impressions, and when one person is described verbally to another, initial labels can set a powerful tone for those first impressions. This may be especially true when a parent or caregiver is speaking for a disabled person-someone who is too young to speak for themselves, or needs communication support. Describing such an individual as “having special needs,” even with the best of intentions, could make it harder for that individual to be accepted or valued in community settings, be it a daycare center, a sports team, a school, an adult recreation program, or a job.

In recent years, disabled people have pushed to replace the euphemism “special needs” with the straightforward term “disability.” However, many nondisabled people, particularly parents, educators or caregivers of disabled people, cling to the term “special needs.” This has resulted in another polarized debate between disability “insiders,” advocating language that they have claimed as identity-positive, and “outsiders” using language that is personally comfortable for them. A more disturbing development is the widespread use of the phrase “special needs parent,” which nondisabled parents may use to describe their own identities or experiences without regard to their child’s identity or language preference. While nondisabled parents certainly should be able to share their own experiences raising disabled children, it is important that they are sensitive to the complex history of ableism, including the ableism captured in language. As the researchers point out at the end of their paper, phrases originally intended to be euphemistic-like “special needs”-can eventually become “dysphemisms,” words with more negative connotations than the words they are replacing. Like other disability terms, “special” is even being used as a generic insult. Rather than just trading out euphemisms every few decades, we must work to stamp out the underlying biases and stereotypes that lead us to want to use euphemisms in the first place. Disabled people, including those with intellectual/developmental disabilities who are frequently stripped of their voices, must be front and center in that process.
Read the full study here

Reaping the Benefits of Gratitude

As a justice-conscious American, I am troubled by the historical roots of the Thanksgiving holiday as a celebration of conquest. But I enjoy some of the modern traditions that have become associated with the holiday: a few days off from work or school, a chance to spend time with loved ones, good food, and the deliberate practice of “thanksgiving”; taking time to think of things we appreciate in our lives.

As disabled people, gratitude can sometimes be hard to find. We may encounter frequent circumstances that make us sad, angry, frustrated, fearful, ashamed, or worried. Some of us may be overwhelmed by physical discomfort or emotional trauma. We may face food or housing insecurity, or feel disconnected from our communities. Amid such struggles, it may be difficult to bring to mind the positives in our lives.

Yet research indicates that making the effort to identify sources of gratitude has a myriad of physical and emotional benefits. In a classic study (links to PDF) college students who were randomly assigned to keep daily or weekly “gratitude journals” reported more positive moods, felt happier about how their lives were going, were more likely to report helping others, and were more optimistic about the future compared with others who wrote about neutral topics. In a follow-up study, the researchers randomly assigned some individuals with neuromuscular disease to write daily gratitude journals. These individuals were not only happier than those who were not assigned to keep gratitude journals, but they also reported getting more sleep each night and feeling more connected to others. In another study,people with chronic pain who reported feeling more gratitude in their everyday lives experienced less symptoms of depression and anxiety, and also reported better sleep than those with less frequent experiences of gratitude.

Negative thoughts and feelings are a bit like gum on the bottom of your shoe; once it’s there, it sticks, and is difficult to scrape away. But gratitude can disrupt negative mind cycles, and if practiced enough, can become a cycle of its own. In fact, some research suggeststhat gratitude can trigger the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can motivate us to keep looking out for things that make us grateful.

Before I close with some suggestions to start your gratitude journal, I want to address two caveats when we talk about gratitude in the disability community. First, disabled people are often expected to be grateful by others. For example, “You should be grateful when that man almost carried you across the street; he was just trying to help.” Or “don’t ask for that accommodation; you should be grateful to have a job here at all.” Coerced gratefulness doesn’t work; in order to confer benefits, gratitude needs to be natural and organic. Nor is gratefulness a reason to accept the status quo. We can be genuinely grateful for the things we do have, while at the same time, expecting and pushing for the things we deserve.

Second, the shadow side of being grateful for what we have is pitying others for not having those things. Disabled people often find ourselves unintended objects of nondisabled people’s gratitude. “That poor man in the wheelchair! I’m so grateful that I can walk,” someone might think, or even say aloud. “Thank God I’m not blind like you.” And so on. When we exercise gratitude, it can be tempting to compare ourselves to others who lack things we have as a means of boosting our own sense of gratefulness. But this may weaken the benefits. In fact, in one of the studies described earlier, some college students were asked to write about things they had that others don’t have, instead of writing about things they were grateful for. The students who compared themselves to others did not report the same boost in happiness and optimism as the students who wrote about sources of gratitude. It is possible to fully experience appreciation for what we have in the present, without comparing ourselves to anyone else. We can be grateful, while also humbling ourselves with an awareness of our privilege and a commitment to share what we do have with others whenever we can.

When you’re getting started with a gratitude list, sometimes the simplest things can be most compelling. For example, you might be grateful for:

  • A special connection with a significant other, family member, or friend, even just one person;
  • Access to conveniences like electricity and running water;
  • The beauties of nature, the warmth of the sun, a rainbow or a sunset, the birds chirping, fresh air or ocean smells;
  • A connection with God or faith;
  • A period of good physical or mental health, which could be as long as a decade, or as short as an hour;
  • A special mentor from childhood, perhaps just one person, perhaps many;
  • An experience where you were included and valued, or an experience of access intimacy;
  • Try converting a negative situation into a gratitude exercise. For example, if you are annoyed or stressed by a situation at work, try to focus on your gratitude for having a job, and for all the things (education, mentors, resources) that helped you become employed.

This November, I am grateful for the opportunity to improve public understandings of disability through Disability Wisdom Consulting. I am grateful to everyone who has helped make Disability Wisdom a possibility. Most of all, I am deeply grateful to be part of an international disability community, to know that I am not alone in my disability experience, and to have the chance to empower others. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

I’m A Fighter… But Not How You Think

Fighters. Warriors. Brave. Courageous. Tough. Heroes. Beating the odds. Overcoming obstacles every day.

These are terms frequently ascribed to people with disabilities, sometimes by people who don’t know us at all. Some disability advocates have rejected the trope of the disabled warrior or hero as a form of inspiration porn.While I agree with this sentiment, I also think it’s interesting to dig a little deeper into the concept of the disabled fighter. Is there any grain of truth there; are we fighters?

On the surface, the thought of describing me as a “warrior” makes me laugh. After all, I was the kid who insisted that I “like everybody.” The kid reading a history book and wondering why the white colonists and the Native Americans couldn’t just sign an agreement to split land down the middle, or live together in peace on shared land. I’ve always held peacemaking as a moral priority, and even now with the wisdom of adulthood, I think of most organized warfare like an ill-conceived gamble where the house almost always wins.

Yet I was also the kid who would debate with anyone around over some arbitrary idea until they either admitted I was right, or got me in trouble. (Including a lengthy debate with my sister regarding whether or not it is really possible to “like everybody”.) I was often the first to speak up when I, or someone I cared about, was treated unfairly. And my lifelong role models are nonviolent protesters, like Martin Luther King Jr., and innovators, like Louis Braille.

The stereotype of the disabled warrior often assumes that the disabled person is fighting the disability itself, or obstacles closely related to the disability. We are seen as confronting ordinary circumstances with extraordinary courage. This depiction is incongruent with many of our experiences. Some of us feel overwhelmed by the obstacles of disability, while others of us don’t see them as obstacles at all, and thus don’t see ourselves as bravely overcoming anything. Further, for those of us who feel that our disability is integral to who we are, the disabled-warrior depiction sets up the sense that we are fighting against a part of ourselves,a kind of unhealthy internal conflict. Conversely, accepting negative events or circumstances is key in several evidence-based approaches to mental health, such as mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy.

The tension between “fighting” and accepting disability was highlighted when I conducted focus groups with middle-aged adults who have multiple sclerosis (MS) a few years ago. In the focus groups, we asked the participants what “bouncing back” or being resilient means to them. Many of their answers evoked images of accepting, rather than fighting, the condition. One participant described “dancing with” MS. Another said, “It’s like a tire, I’m gonna roll with [MS].” The participants described the value of accepting the condition’s presence, planning ahead, and making adjustments (such as cutting back on work, or moving to a more accessible home). However, these participants also described efforts to stay engaged in life despite limitations. One woman told us she competed in a triathlon while she was still physically able. Another said, “You know what? We only got one life. We’re only here one time. We’ve got to make the best of it, right?” The participants told us of their efforts to continue hobbies, to volunteer, to spend time with grandchildren. They made needed accommodations for their disability but refused to relinquish activities that gave their lives meaning.

In another study, people with chronic pain answered questions about their level of “pain acceptance.” This construct was defined as accepting the experience of pain while also continuing to do things in spite of pain. Participants scored higher in pain acceptance if they agreed with statements such as “I am getting on with the business of living regardless of my pain.” People who scored higher in pain acceptance showed improvements in mood and sleep quality over a three-year period, and although many of them still had significant pain three years later, they reported that the pain interfered less with their daily activities.

Healthy coping with disability involves acceptance, but acceptance does not mean surrender. We can incorporate the disability as a part of ourselves that we tolerate or sometimes even appreciate. But we also engage in an active process of doing what we enjoy, despite limitations. In the process, we fight our internalized doubts and fears. We also fight the barriers, big and small, that others might place before us. Many of us fight for an equal education, full consideration for employment, or the right to participate in fun activities. Contrary to the individualism that the disabled-warrior stereotype conjures, our most successful fighting is done collectively-hence why disabled activists have been dubbed the “hidden army.”

The popular Serenity Prayer reads, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Perhaps this statement best illustrates the dance between accepting and fighting. As disabled people, we often can’t change the medical facts of our disabilities, so we find serenity when we learn to accept them. But for the things we can change, the social and environmental oppression, we thrive when we merge our collective courage toward challenging the status quo. And, all of us are on a continuing journey of learning “the difference,” knowing when to accept, and when to fight.

Why We Can’t All Agree (but we can try to get along)

Anyone who has been following U.S. politics, at least a little bit, undoubtedly knows how partisan and polarized our discourse has become. In the halls of Congress, in the televised debates, and even among rank-and-file Americans, both major parties paint each other in shades of criticism and mistrust. Bipartisan policies are becoming almost a thing of the past.
This partisanship is not unique to national politics, and the disability world is just as guilty. People with one disability tell me they feel unwelcomed by people with a different disability. Two consumer groups, based around the same disability, deride one another in their national newsletters. Tensions arise between activists and researchers, or between researchers from different universities. And relations between disabled and nondisabled people, as collectives, have an unmistakable “us vs. them” character. Too often, one member of either group is seen as an ambassador for them all.
I’m an independent consultant, so I have a professional interest in getting along with everybody. I also prefer harmony in my personal life. And, both professionally and personally, I tend to be a pragmatist. I like to get things done, and it’s impossible to accomplish anything when two groups do nothing but sabotage each other. So, all this partisan bickering gets under my skin. Yet I recognize that it’s an inextricable part of the human condition.
Although I’m certainly no expert in conflict resolution, I do want to share three insights that, I think, could help us all cooperate a little better during these tense times.

1. Practice mindful acceptance.
Intergroup conflict is, ironically, critical to our survival as a species. After all, we are social animals who once lived in tribes sharing limited resources. Our ancestors who could secure food for our families, while warding off intruders, successfully passed their genes on to us. Humans are evolved to quickly distinguish kin from stranger, friend from foe, and to act in the best interest of their own tribe.
Along with this, groups tend to splinter along all kinds of dividing lines. Although this phenomenon breeds conflict, it also breeds innovation from a diversity of ideas. I am certainly grateful to have more than one political party in my country’s government. I also appreciate a choice of more than one organization to join, and more than one way to effect change. Perhaps cooperation begins with accepting the fact that partisan divides are inevitable, and if we handle them appropriately, they can enhance progress rather than impede it.
This can be easier said than done. I have trouble “agreeing to disagree” at times. It’s threatening to me when a person I like says things I don’t like. However, sometimes the beliefs I initially dislike can give me a new perspective on an issue. Other times, they give me a deeper understanding of that person’s life experiences, which can strengthen our relationship. It takes work sometimes, but I try to make peace with the disagreement, and to be mindfully accepting of my own emotional reactions so I can get past them.

2. Look for the third side of the story.
When I was in college, I read quite a bit about theories of conflict resolution, compromise, and negotiation. To be quite honest, I remember little of what I read. The one lesson I still recall to this day was not acquired in a classroom, but during a random late-night phone call with a friend.
“You know there’’s three sides to every story,” he said.
“Three sides? Not two?” I asked.
“Yeah, three. There’s what you think happened. There’s what they think happened. And then, there’s what really happened.”

Too often, we assume our side is right, and their side is wrong. We may hear a story and assume our friend is telling the truth, and our enemy is lying. However, it’s rarely that black-and-white. Usually, the reality of a story is somewhere in the middle between two opposing accounts. Two people may present different facts in their stories. Or, two people may interpret the same set of facts very differently. The third side of the triangle appears only when both participants have had a chance to tell their full account without interruptions or attacks. At that point, places of agreement become apparent between the two accounts, along with possible resolutions. Looking for the third side of the conflict triangle involves acknowledging that both parties bear responsibility for the conflict as well as the resolution.
As an advocate, when I hear about instances of discrimination, my first impulse is to ask what the second side of the story is. This is not to invalidate the experience of the person who encountered discrimination. Rather, it is to understand the motives behind the discrimination so that we can find the third side of the story, where resolution can occur. I believe that most people who discriminate against us are not bad people. They generally believe that their behavior is justified, whether by safety concerns, by a lack of understanding of disability, or by a belief that making things accessible is beyond their means. Only by understanding these motives can we find a solution that gives the disabled person opportunity while also addressing the other entity’s concerns or fears.

3. Find a more inclusive “us.”
One of the most interesting experiments on intergroup conflict was done at a boy scout camp in Robbers Cave, Oklahoma, in the 1950’s. Twenty-two preteen boys, who didn’t know each other, were randomly divided into two groups. Each group was brought to camp, unaware of the other group’s existence. Both groups engaged in team bonding activities and chose names for themselves, the Eagles and the Rattlers. After a few days, the two groups were brought into the same camp space. The researchers contrived a series of competitive games where only one group could win a prize. After only a few days, members of both groups began taunting each other, throwing food, and raiding each other’s cabins. At one point the two groups had to be physically separated so they wouldn’t hurt each other.
Then, the researchers tested peacemaking strategies. They first tried bringing the groups together for shared, noncompetitive events like watching a movie. This didn’t work to lessen the conflict. So, they devised a series of problems that required members of both groups to work together in order to solve, such as staging a bus breakdown and a water pipe failure. The boys from both groups found themselves working together to solve these common problems, first out of necessity, and eventually by choice. By the end of the camp session, the two groups were intentionally sitting together and even pooled their money to buy a shared treat.
It is not surprising that the groups with the most intense conflicts are often in close proximity. After all, we call it sibling rivalry, not third-cousin rivalry; and college sports fans most eagerly anticipate the showdown between two teams from the same state. Groups in close proximity have more resources to fight over, both physical and social in nature. However, such groups are also in a great position to discover identities and goals that they share in common. We can short-circuit our evolved tendency to pit “us” against “them” by generating a more inclusive “us” The social psychologists refer to this as “superordinate identities.”
However, just expanding the definition of “us” isn’t quite enough. After all, reminding Democrats and Republicans how much they love their country could only intensify tensions. It is further necessary to come up with shared goals, and strategies that rely on input from both groups. Disability groups focused on different impairments may benefit by collaborating on cross-impairment issues. Activists and researchers can pool their complementary expertise to conduct participatory community research on important social problems. And so on.
The above recommendations are not meant to be a panacea for all conflicts. Certainly just bringing people together to work on common projects can’t undo conflicts that are decades or centuries old. I do hope that the concepts of accepting disagreement, looking for the third side of the story, and finding a more inclusive “us” can help stretch our thinking when we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Although we can’t (and shouldn’t) all agree, I believe we are capable of giving each other the respect that moves us closer to achieving joint progress.

A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Affect Us, and How We Can Rise Above Them

I’m walking home from the bank, along familiar sidewalks. My mind wanders from thoughts of my latest project at work, to the book we’re reading in my book club, to thinking about dinner. It’s my turn to choose the restaurant my husband and I will visit for our weekly date night. Amid my internal debate about whether I feel more like Indian or Chinese food today, I absently round the corner onto my street, a moment too late. My cane misses the street sign and, instead, my head slams into it. I freeze in shock, pressing my fingers on my forehead to extinguish the pain. After a few seconds, the pain subsides, and I keep going.

The physical pain is gone, but a new sequence of thoughts takes hold. I wonder how many people saw me crash into that sign? And what were they thinking? These bystanders had no idea about the paycheck I just put into the bank, no clue about my taste in novels or ethnic cuisine. They only know that I carry a white cane and my eyes dart around. To them, I’m likely just a poor blind lady who ventured out by herself and crashed into a pole. I wouldn’t mind much if they just thought I was a klutz. But the fear that they could blame my accident on blindness cuts to my core. Might my accident confirm their belief that all blind people (or, at least, most of us) are bumbling fools? And, at the root of my worries is a fear that they are right. What if there is something fundamentally wrong with me because I am blind? What if I’ve just been tricking myself into thinking that I have a happy, well-rounded life, when most of society seems set on telling me that my existence is flawed?

As I turn into my driveway, I feel the blood pulsing in my forehead where I bumped it. A welt is forming, a visible mark of shame. I’m relieved to get back home, away from the judgment.

The above scenario is hypothetical, but the thoughts and feelings described are common to many minority groups. It’s a phenomenon known as stereotype threat or, more broadly, “social identity threat.” It’s the fear of being judged based on stereotypes about one’s group—be it one’s race, gender, disability, or other characteristic. The pioneering social psychologist Claude Steeledescribed social identity threat as a “threat in the air” because it can hang over any setting where stereotypes might come into play. It may be felt by visibly disabled people, or by people with invisible disabilities asking for accommodations. It may hang over the female engineering professor who’s the only woman in the department meeting, the African American teenager checking the race box on his SAT, or the low-income person using food stamps at the grocery store. Regardless of the particular identity, social identity threat comprises a series of interrelated worries: Do people think less of me because of their stereotypes? If I mess up on some task, or do something else stereotypical (like getting emotional as a woman), will they judge me even worse? Will my actions or mistakes reflect badly on other people who share my identity (other disabled people, African Americans, etc.)? And, are their stereotypes actually true? Is there something fundamentally wrong with who I am?

Notably, we often aren’t consciously aware of these worries and fears. But, like carbon monoxide poisoning, this “threat in the air” can quietly pull us down.

Social identity threat has a number of negative consequences. The distracting worries it brings can hurt our performance on any kind of situation where we are being evaluated (like a standardized test or a job interview). In fact, research suggests that much of the racial difference in standardized test performance can be linked to social identity threat. The poor performance, in turn, can fuel our fears, leading to a vicious cycle. Another way we might cope with social identity threat is by hiding the identity, if we can. After all, if others don’t know I am blind, they can’t judge me based on that. So, people may choose not to use assistive devices like canes or hearing aids, even if those devices could help them. People with invisible disabilities may not request needed accommodations, or people with low incomes may not ask for financial assistance. Finally, if we have an identity which can’t be hidden, we may just try to avoid the situation by not doing things or going places where we might be stereotyped. The woman may not major in engineering; the African American student may opt for a two-year college that doesn’t require the SAT; and I might get a ride home from the bank, even though I can walk it.

But, there is a positive approach we can take to keep stereotypes and judgments from ruling our lives.

In a separate line of research, Dr. Steele described how humans have a fundamental need for “self-integrity” which he defined as:

a phenomenal experience of the self … as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes … (Steele, 1988, p. 262).

In other words, we are driven to see ourselves as fundamentally “OK.” Steele theorized that self-integrity is a flexible system. So, when we take a hit in one area, we can preserve our self-integrity by building ourselves up in another area. He called this approach “self-affirmation,” and over the past three decades, researchers have found that simple self-affirmation exercises can reverse the course of social identity threat. The most commonly studied exercise involves having people choose their most important values, such as their friends or family, religious values, having a sense of humor, or being good at art. People then write or talk about why these values are important to them, or specific things they have done to uphold their values. Such exercises can have dramatic benefits for people who are stereotyped; for example, they can boost the grades of minority studentsWhen we think about our values or things we are good at, we may be less bothered by other people’s judgments or stereotypes. We remember that we are fundamentally OK in the end.

It’s important to note that a self-affirmation isn’t just chanting “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough ….” In front of the mirror. In fact, such empty platitudes can backfire. Instead, we can affirm ourselves by reflecting on real, tangible indicators of who we are. For example, before going into an identity-threatening situation or after getting out of one, you might:

  • Think about something nice you’ve done for someone recently.
  • Think of a recent accomplishment you’re proud of.
  • Carry a symbol with you that represents your passions and connections to others. For example: a family picture, a wedding ring, a religious symbol, or button or ribbon from a political group.
  • When you get a written compliment (like a good performance review at work), save it, and review it if you’re feeling down or insecure.
  • Phone a friend. Talk to people who see you positively and love you unconditionally. Processing identity-threatening events with others who share your experiencescan be particularly helpful.
  • Laugh. There’s a reason why TV shows like SNL and John Oliver’s show became more popular among liberal Americans after last year’s election. Humor disarms fear and can counteract physical stress responses.
  • Above all, remember that we can control what we do, even though we can’t control other people’s judgments and stereotypes. We have the power to be the best people we can be.