Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, providing an opportunity to reflect on the various factors that influence our mental well-being. While stress and burnout are commonly discussed, there is one factor that often goes unnoticed: stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is frequently encountered in academic settings, but it is applicable to social and professional contexts as well. It refers to the fear individuals from marginalized groups experience when they face situations that could reinforce negative stereotypes about their social group. When people anticipate being judged based on these stereotypes, it triggers cognitive, emotional, and physiological stress responses. The impact of stereotype threat can affect an individual’s performance and overall well-being.
For instance, Latinos may face the negative stereotype of being violent or involved in criminal activities. When entering a new workplace or social setting, they may feel anxious about being perceived in this manner. Consequently, they may hesitate to speak up or advocate for their needs, fearing that their communication will be perceived as overly aggressive. Moreover, if they also experience discrimination, these feelings can intensify.
In my work as a therapist, I have had the privilege of supporting numerous clients in navigating the psychological distress that arises from stereotype threat. However, it is not only in my professional capacity that I encounter this issue. As a woman, sister, daughter, prima, and friend, I have also experienced and witnessed the impact of stereotype threat on the people I care about.
For instance, Latinas often face the negative stereotype of being labeled as “spicy,” which implies being exotic and emotionally intense. In a workplace setting, this stereotype can undermine how seriously one is taken and create discomfort when expressing oneself authentically. Latinas may feel the need to hold back on voicing concerns, fearing that they won’t be taken seriously and instead have their emotions attributed solely to their perceived “spicy” nature.
I recall a vivid memory from my high school days when a substitute teacher assigned nicknames during attendance. When my turn came, he gave me a nickname that played into this stereotype of being an exotic Latina. At that moment, I remember feeling uncomfortable but not fully understanding what that discomfort was about. As an adult, I now recognize the problematic nature of his statement and how it undermined my intelligence. It reduced me to a simplistic stereotype, branding me as a “spicy Latina” in an environment that was meant for learning and growth.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term “stereotype threat,” you may recognize the emotions described. The psychological burden of feeling judged, undermined, or marginalized due to stereotypes can have various negative consequences. It heightens awareness and fear of confirming negative stereotypes, impacting work performance and potentially leading to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Individuals may feel unable to express themselves authentically, doubting their abilities and experiencing the impostor phenomenon (aka Impostor syndrome). This can further decrease their confidence and interest in their work.
Do you resonate with these experiences? If so, here are strategies that you can apply personally or use to support others in challenging negative thoughts and feelings stemming from stereotype threats.
Shift Your Perspective
First, understanding this phenomenon can help you contextualize and comprehend your experience. Shifting your perspective can also be helpful. Instead of perceiving challenges as threats to your ability or identity, view them as opportunities for growth and learning. For example, if advocating for yourself may be perceived as aggressive, focus on personal growth and the lessons learned from advocating. Cultivating a growth mindset is essential in navigating stereotype threat.
Seek Social Support
If needed, seek social support or confide in a trusted manager who can better understand your experiences. Support from others can help reduce any feelings of isolation that may arise. Additionally, consider working with a mental health professional or confiding in a trusted individual to challenge negative thoughts and normalize and validate your experience.
While these strategies can assist in managing the emotions associated with stereotype threat, systemic interventions are also necessary to reduce its impact. Cultivating a diverse and inclusive work environment, where individuals are valued and encouraged to express their unique identities and perspectives, is crucial. Establishing formal support systems such as mentorship programs or affinity groups can also be beneficial. Implicit bias training is another useful tool. Keep in mind that these suggestions are a starting point and not an exhaustive list of the changes needed to foster real transformation.
Overall, stereotype threat can significantly affect an individual’s mental health. The constant pressure to disprove negative stereotypes takes a toll on self-esteem, confidence, and overall well-being. While systemic changes are required, recognizing the role of stereotype threat and its potential consequences is the first step toward mitigating its impact.