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Microaggressions

foreverbull

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I’ll start the thread. I will be speaking more broadly to this topic.

I am very familiar with Lilienfeld’s commentary on microaggressions, and some points make sense (I.e. we need to better operationalize the term, ambiguity makes it hard to study, etc.), although I disagree with others (he argues that negative affectivity could explain perceived microaggressions—but couldn’t it be an expected outcome?)

Williams provided a rebuttal (or was a or a rebuttal to a rebuttal)?

What I am particularly concerned about is the way Lilienfeld’s work has been used/interpreted or misinterpreted by others/media as the last word on microaggressions.

In the medical forum, his commentary was used to argue that microaggressions don’t exist and have been “debunked.” As a gay woman, I’ve experienced unintended but very frustrating comments and assumptions from men (e.g. being talked to in simplistic language when discussing house maintenance, being asked if my husband is around to discuss solar energy because he must pay the electricity bill, etc.). Is it frustrating to be consistently treated this way? Absolutely. Does this happen with other groups? Yes. Could it have a lasting effect over time if it happens often enough? I think we could reasonably hypothesize that continued slights could affect well-being.

Unfortunately, our current state of research is not able to adequately capture this nuanced phenomenon at present (qualitative interviews only go so far, but they shouldn’t be dismissed—Lilienfeld seems to dismiss them), but that doesn’t mean that we should toss the baby out with the bath water, so to speak and just claim that there’s no utility in researching them at all. There have been many qualitative/quantitative studies conducted that have merit and add to the overall body of research on micraoggressions.

I think it is unfortunate that I’ve seen Lilienfeld’s articles taken as the definitive “so there” scientifically and we have not had more of a response via research and further rebuttals (I read Sue’s rebuttal and was disappointed that it was so brief and philosophical).

So yes to scientific rigor and questioning, but I find it frustrating that one single person’s opinion and criticisms have been accepted and largely unchecked by many in the scientific community (isn’t that irony when Lilienfeld was arguing that microaggressions as a concept have gone unchecked)?

But where is the response other than by a few folks? Williams noted in her rebuttal that some of the microaggression experts chose not to respond. Why?
 
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WisNeuro

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I've certainly never viewed Lillienfeld's work as the definitive statement on the issue. Any one piece or line of work is usually never the be all end all of a topic or area of scientific inquiry. Rather, I look at it as a way to look at the quantitative data about the subject, and how it could be better, or how it could lead to better constructed studies. Qualitative research is great, especially to start examining topics for which there isn't much about, or that are hard to do experimental studies about. But, we usually have to then take that to inform and design more rigorous studies. I didn't get the impression that Lillienfeld said we shouldn't study this area at all. If anything, he's advocating for more research in the area, just more rigorous research. I tend to agree with him that many people tend to like to keep things in a more philosophical space, and I wonder why that is, especially when some of the same researchers have no problem with scientific writing and peer review on other topics within psychology.

I don't put much into the scientific arguments in the med school forum, by and large, they are not trained as researchers. And most have no idea how to conduct a scientific review of methodology or statistics design. I used to teach this at a residency program for FM, I had to keep it pretty basic level.

I am also interested in why others did not respond in that invited journal issue.
 
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WisNeuro

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Another quick point of reference, here are the areas that Lillienfeld agrees with Williams on in his article, consistent with other passages I've read, he does not dismiss the existence of microaggressions.

"I agree with Williams that we all have our biases and that we must strive continually to compensate for them. I concur with Williams that prejudice and racism are not close to being eliminated in U.S. society and that research on implicit prejudice is important. Williams and I agree that racial prejudice occurs in many guises, some of them covert. In addition, I concur with Williams that most microaggressions do not lie entirely in the minds of observers, although I (Lilienfeld, 2017b) place considerably more emphasis than does Williams on the subjectivity involved in interpreting microaggressions. Williams and I agree that microaggressions in some cases reflect genuine racial prejudice on the part of those who emit them. I further agree with Williams that microaggressions as operationalized by current measures tend to be correlated with adverse mental-health outcomes. In addition, I found Williams’s delineation of the potential reasons why certain individuals may be especially perceptive at detecting microaggressions— such as a past history of exposure to racism, regional differences, and interpersonal skills—to be helpful. Finally, I was pleased that Williams presented data from new lines of research that may help to address several of my recommendations for microaggression research."
 
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beginner2011

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I would appreciate it if someone could provide links for all the relevant articles/rebuttals for the Lillienfeld/Williams conversation. Hopefully this is not a big ask, as it seems some folks have this stuff at their fingertips? I'm not familiar, but am very interested to learn more.
 
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Fan_of_Meehl

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I’ll start the thread. I will be speaking more broadly to this topic.

I am very familiar with Lilienfeld’s commentary on microaggressions, and some points make sense (I.e. we need to better operationalize the term, ambiguity makes it hard to study, etc.), although I disagree with others (he argues that negative affectivity could explain perceived microaggressions—but couldn’t it be an expected outcome?)

Williams provided a rebuttal (or was a or a rebuttal to a rebuttal)?

What I am particularly concerned about is the way Lilienfeld’s work has been used/interpreted or misinterpreted by others/media as the last word on microaggressions.

In the medical forum, his commentary was used to argue that microaggressions don’t exist and have been “debunked.” As a gay woman, I’ve experienced unintended but very frustrating comments and assumptions from men (e.g. being talked to in simplistic language when discussing house maintenance, being asked if my husband is around to discuss solar energy because he must pay the electricity bill, etc.). Is it frustrating to be consistently treated this way? Absolutely. Does this happen with other groups? Yes. Could it have a lasting effect over time if it happens often enough? I think we could reasonably hypothesize that continued slights could affect well-being.

Unfortunately, our current state of research is not able to adequately capture this nuanced phenomenon at present (qualitative interviews only go so far, but they shouldn’t be dismissed—Lilienfeld seems to dismiss them), but that doesn’t mean that we should toss the baby out with the bath water, so to speak and just claim that there’s no utility in researching them at all. There have been many qualitative/quantitative studies conducted that have merit and add to the overall body of research on micraoggressions.

I think it is unfortunate that I’ve seen Lilienfeld’s articles taken as the definitive “so there” scientifically and we have not had more of a response via research and further rebuttals (I read Sue’s rebuttal and was disappointed that it was so brief and philosophical).

So yes to scientific rigor and questioning, but I find it frustrating that one single person’s opinion and criticisms have been accepted and largely unchecked by many in the scientific community (isn’t that irony when Lilienfeld was arguing that microaggressions as a concept have gone unchecked)?

But where is the response other than by a few folks? Williams noted in her rebuttal that some of the microaggression experts chose not to respond. Why?
On the topic of the relationship between microaggressions and negative affectivity, I took one of his points to be that we can't begin to address the direction of causality between these two variables with cross-sectional research results. I think he recommended that people look at doing more longitudinal research which--although such research would not directly/definitively establish causal relations--would at least allow an examination of how two variables progress over time within the individual and if there are any effects that develop over time (e.g., as someone becomes more likely to perceive microaggressions over time, does that person also exhibit an increase in negative affectivity over time)? Maybe a cross-lagged panel design could examine whether or not one variable at Time1 tends to predict the other variable at Time 2, but not vice versa...which would have interesting interpretive implications.
 

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I would appreciate it if someone could provide links for all the relevant articles/rebuttals for the Lillienfeld/Williams conversation. Hopefully this is not a big ask, as it seems some folks have this stuff at their fingertips? I'm not familiar, but am very interested to learn more.
I am not at my desktop with access to OpenAthens until this evening but I'd be glad to upload some of these when I get home.
 

WisNeuro

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I would appreciate it if someone could provide links for all the relevant articles/rebuttals for the Lillienfeld/Williams conversation. Hopefully this is not a big ask, as it seems some folks have this stuff at their fingertips? I'm not familiar, but am very interested to learn more.

Lillienfeld's 2019 Article


Williams' first rebuttal


Lillienfeld response


Williams' Second Rebuttal



I think that does it, it's a lot of copying and pasting, and I usually have like 30 tabs open, so let me know if anything didn't work. These are all freely available, so there is no copyright issue for posting here.
 
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foreverbull

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Also, Lilienfeld's oft-cited 2017 article:


Sue's response:


(Published before the articles @WisNeuro posted above).
 
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WisNeuro

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Oh, oops, I'm on my office computer, we must have institutional access. I think at least the recent articles are open access, though


Edit: I guess not, color scheme for full vs open access is weird, I misinterpreted. If someone wants any of the 4 articles, they can PM me.
 
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DynamicDidactic

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As a gay woman, I’ve experienced unintended but very frustrating comments and assumptions from men (e.g. being talked to in simplistic language when discussing house maintenance, being asked if my husband is around to discuss solar energy because he must pay the electricity bill, etc.). Is it frustrating to be consistently treated this way? Absolutely. Does this happen with other groups? Yes. Could it have a lasting effect over time if it happens often enough? I think we could reasonably hypothesize that continued slights could affect well-being.
When I first learned about microaggressions it was revolutionary for me. Even as a straight white male I could easily understand the phenomenon b/c I had experienced it. Now I had a name for the phenomenon.

However, when I went off to doctoral training I started thinking very differently about the consequences of microaggressions. If someone could enlighten me, has there been any tightly controlled lab studies examining causal harmful outcomes of microaggressions? How about educational outcomes? And, as Lilienfeld states, do any well controlled correlational analyses show a moderate-strong effect of microaggressions (outside of mental health)?

Otherwise, "affect well-being" is still too broad, for me.
 

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Sue makes some interesting points in that response to Lilienfeld that largely have to do with questioning the dominant paradigm of 'scientific research' in psychology in academia--i.e., that it depends upon a logical positivist (or empiricist) approach, operationism, intersubjective agreement/specification of variables, 'testable' hypotheses and a spirit of skepticism. I took a PhD level course in the philosophy of science in grad school with the philosophy PhD candidates and it was one of the most useful courses I ever took. Of course, we were exposed to authors who critiqued the dominant logical empiricist approach to science (Feyerabend comes to mind) and that's all well and good, I mean, there are certainly reasonable critiques of 'scientific psychology' and I make many of them myself from time to time. And there's no doubt that reading empirical articles isn't the ONLY way to get meaningful information about how to be a psychologist, how to be a therapist or how to live (e.g., movies, literature, mythology, spirituality, etc. are all informative and have utility in this regard). But what bugs me about the rebuttal is it feels like Sue is sort of 'changing the game' or changing the subject a bit. If we're playing chess, then we agree to use the rules of chess. If we're playing baseball, the rules of baseball. The whole point of a lot of social justice advocacy (or my impression of it) is that they're saying, 'We play by the rules of science and we have strong (some would say incontrovertible) scientific evidence to support our claims and our directives for how society should change or how trainees should be trained.' It seems a bit odd that you'd just say, 'meh...the entire scientific paradigm as utilized by mainstream psychology (logical positivism, empiricism, statistical hypothesis testing, skepticism, etc.) ain't the only way to learn about what's true in the world.' It's sort of like the critics have said: 'Your science/methodology is flawed in the following ways, what do you have to say about that?' and the response is, 'Meh...what is science, really? What is evidence? How do we really know what we know (epistemology)?' It seems like they switch from 'science has the answers, and those answers support our position/advocacy' but then switch to 'well, the scientific method isn't really the approach that should be used to address these questions.'

One of the first points covered in that philosophy of science course had to do with how one separates scientifically meaningful statements from statements that are not scientifically meaningful (or testable). A statement is scientifically meaningful (and therefore testable) only if it's possible to state the circumstances under which it would be shown to be true or false. And the empiricist component is: these 'circumstances' must be traceable to sensory experience--to what can be shown or pointed to. Basically, if your theory doesn't make any potentially falsifiable predictions, then it's not a (scientifically) meaningful statement. It may be a religiously meaningful statement, it may be a personally meaningful or even profound statement...it's just not a scientifically meaningful statement and therefore lies outside the bounds of the game of science.
 
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If someone could enlighten me, has there been any tightly controlled lab studies examining causal harmful outcomes of microaggressions? How about educational outcomes?
I think a really difficult piece of this, as a researcher, is that microaggressions are conceptualized to add up over time (a "death by a thousand papercuts" scenario), so that can't really be tested well in lab settings.
 
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WisNeuro

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So, in reading more content, as well as integration with other things we know, I have a point of discussion. If we consider the possibility, at least for some people, that some terms, microaggression being one of them, have sometimes broad and fuzzy boundaries, some may see it and other terms in the SJ context as jargon. We know from various literature in health literacy and business literature that use of jargon, particularly with terms that are not well understood, leads to ineffective communication and understanding of what is trying to be conveyed.

With this in mind, how can some of these concepts be talked about and conveyed to elicit greater understanding, particularly with a lay public, who, by and large, aren't going to be delving into the literature? I know it'd be great if people took initiative to expand their knowledge and read into this lit. but, we all know that is unlikely for large segments of the population.
 
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Fan_of_Meehl

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I wou
So, in reading more content, as well as integration with other things we know, I have a point of discussion. If we consider the possibility, at least for some people, that some terms, microaggression being one of them, have sometimes broad and fuzzy boundaries, some may see it and other terms in the SJ context as jargon. We know from various literature in health literacy and business literature that use of jargon, particularly with terms that are not well understood, leads to ineffective communication and understanding of what is trying to be conveyed.

With this in mind, how can some of these concepts be talked about and conveyed to elicit greater understanding, particularly with a lay public, who, by and large, aren't going to be delving into the literature? I know it'd be great if people took initiative to expand their knowledge and read into this lit. but, we all know that is unlikely for large segments of the population.
l'd think that--wherever possible--we should look at utilizing terms (and constructs) that already exist in the literature or just in the English language in general to cover the phenomenon and avoid stretching the boundaries of terms like 'aggression' to cover situations to which it may not apply--or apply shakily. In the mainstream literature I believe that an intent to do actual harm to the target is a central feature of the labeling of an act as 'aggressive.' I think that if the term 'microaggression' applies most frequently to situations where it is perceived or conceptualized that harm is being done out of ignorance or insensitivity (without intent to harm), then there is a surplus meaning attached to the concept by using 'aggression' as part of the term.
 

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I don't think the term is going away, so we're working within the framework of communicating the concepts using the terms as they now exist. As for the presumed loaded meaning of aggressive, in our society I'd argue that its valence is both positive and negative. Aggression in sports is usually a good thing. Anecdotally, I've been told by many coaches across many sports over the years that they'd rather I be too aggressive than not aggressive enough, and I'm pretty aggressive in sports contexts. Otherwise, being aggressive in career pursuits has also been praised. So, while there are definitely some negative connotations, it is also a praised characteristic in many settings.
 

Fan_of_Meehl

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I don't think the term is going away, so we're working within the framework of communicating the concepts using the terms as they now exist. As for the presumed loaded meaning of aggressive, in our society I'd argue that its valence is both positive and negative. Aggression in sports is usually a good thing. Anecdotally, I've been told by many coaches across many sports over the years that they'd rather I be too aggressive than not aggressive enough, and I'm pretty aggressive in sports contexts. Otherwise, being aggressive in career pursuits has also been praised. So, while there are definitely some negative connotations, it is also a praised characteristic in many settings.
Okay.

So are you asking for ideas on how to modify the definition of the term 'microaggression?'
 

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Okay.

So are you asking for ideas on how to modify the definition of the term 'microaggression?'

I'd say it's more an issue of how to convey the meaning of the word to people. There is significant variability and understanding of the meaning even in the academic settings, and that is just magnified in the community at large.
 
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One point I struggle with understanding while wearing a clinician hat is 'what do we do with micro-aggression related stress'. Some microaggressions may be intentional (I think that would still fall under the umbrella of the term), from a place of harm, but my understanding of the term as presented by some researchers suggests that microaggressions are statements that also do not 'intend' for harm, but may be a product of ignorance and misunderstanding. I have seen the example given of someone asking 'where are you from' as an introductory statement to a person of color. I can imagine times when this is asked out of rudeness (the underlying 'where are you really from'), and out of general curiosity as you may ask any strangers where they are from.

If the general goal is to help clients navigate a difficult and stressful world in a way that will help them cope with the daily stressors they encounter, what sort of clinical intervention is going to be helpful for managing microaggression? I certainly don't know, and I imagine it will still be some time until that question is answered.

The clinician in me wonders if someone is hearing those words spoken and is taking them as a personal attack, then there could be a cognitive distortion happening where the individual is feeling persecuted and attacked by what could be a genuinely harmless question. So would the approach be to work with an individual to help them challenge their thoughts and interpretations, trying to learn not to guess the intent and meaning of other's statements? That also sounds awfully invalidating, but so are the kinds of cognitive challenges made to manage social anxiety and other anxiety disorders.

Obviously this isnt even a fully fleshed out thought from myself yet, just something that this whole debate makes me wonder about.
 
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WisNeuro

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One point I struggle with understanding while wearing a clinician hat is 'what do we do with micro-aggression related stress'. Some microaggressions may be intentional (I think that would still fall under the umbrella of the term), from a place of harm, but my understanding of the term as presented by some researchers suggests that microaggressions are statements that also do not 'intend' for harm, but may be a product of ignorance and misunderstanding. I have seen the example given of someone asking 'where are you from' as an introductory statement to a person of color. I can imagine times when this is asked out of rudeness (the underlying 'where are you really from'), and out of general curiosity as you may ask any strangers where they are from.

If the general goal is to help clients navigate a difficult and stressful world in a way that will help them cope with the daily stressors they encounter, what sort of clinical intervention is going to be helpful for managing microaggression? I certainly don't know, and I imagine it will still be some time until that question is answered.

The clinician in me wonders if someone is hearing those words spoken and is taking them as a personal attack, then there could be a cognitive distortion happening where the individual is feeling persecuted and attacked by what could be a genuinely harmless question. So would the approach be to work with an individual to help them challenge their thoughts and interpretations, trying to learn not to guess the intent and meaning of other's statements? That also sounds awfully invalidating, but so are the kinds of cognitive challenges made to manage social anxiety and other anxiety disorders.

Obviously this isnt even a fully fleshed out thought from myself yet, just something that this whole debate makes me wonder about.

I can definitely see the "where are you from" as being interpreted differently in certain contexts. I'd say that question is pretty common in the healthcare world, particularly in doctoral levels of psychology, as many of us have moved all over the country. Off the top of my head, I can't name a single local neuropsych colleague of mine who is native to this state. But, that question could have a completely different connotation in general discourse.

I'm also curious as to the clinical applications. I think it's great to say that social change is needed to address the underlying issues. But, large scale change happens over great lengths of time, what do you do with people now who are experiencing clinically significant distress?
 
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Clinically, perhaps third wave CBT strategies could be helpful:

1) being able to differentiate between behaviors of others and internal responses through mindfulness and merely increase awareness of behavior vs interpretation of behavior. Using mindfulness to recognize the limits of our own observations (ex. “My interpretation is that the person said this to me because of my skin color but I have not observed all of their interactions with white individuals).

2) when one experiences these encounters, acknowledging other possible (including neutral or benign) interpretations without necessarily agreeing another interpretation is true

3) in an ACT way, not challenging the interpretation but rather looking at how that functions in the person’s behavioral choices in response. Work with them to change behavioral responses in a way that empowers them to respond to these situations with increased adherence to values and their sense of meaning and connection. Probably much of the same tx as ACT for PTSD could work here.

4) Linehan has a portion the Manuel called “responding to invalidation” that can be helpful.

5) helping the person radically accept these encounters (and the ambiguity of some) as a part of their past and future life (not in a hopeless “give up” or
“Approve of” way) in a “ok, this happens to you, how do you want to respond” way.

Many other posters pointed out the possible invalidation of working on interventions at an individual level for a social problem. I agree and I think just acknowledging that out loud can be helpful. Perhaps giving an example to help the person understand why these interventions are being proposed and that it doesn’t invalidate their experience of dealing with injustices. For example I may say that helping a survivor of child sexual abuse reduce PTSD symptoms and trauma-related distress does not mean I think nothing should be done on a systemic level to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse. This is often similar to how we have to clarify that “radical acceptance” of an experience of a trauma of child abuse does not excuse the abuse or say it was ok. Part of their tx plan could also be supporting them in figuring out and acting on ways to address change at a societal level.

There are a whole host of other ways to possibly help build resilience through increasing social supports, tolerance to unpleasant emotion, and other life changes without focusing directly on microaggressions.
 
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beginner2011

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Clinically, perhaps third wave CBT strategies could be helpful:

1) being able to differentiate between behaviors of others and internal responses through mindfulness and merely increase awareness of behavior vs interpretation of behavior. Using mindfulness to recognize the limits of our own observations (ex. “My interpretation is that the person said this to me because of my skin color but I have not observed all of their interactions with white individuals).

2) when one experiences these encounters, acknowledging other possible (including neutral or benign) interpretations without necessarily agreeing another interpretation is true

3) in an ACT way, not challenging the interpretation but rather looking at how that functions in the person’s behavioral choices in response. Work with them to change behavioral responses in a way that empowers them to respond to these situations with increased adherence to values and their sense of meaning and connection. Probably much of the same tx as ACT for PTSD could work here.

4) Linehan has a portion the Manuel called “responding to invalidation” that can be helpful.

5) helping the person radically accept these encounters (and the ambiguity of some) as a part of their past and future life (not in a hopeless “give up” or
“Approve of” way) in a “ok, this happens to you, how do you want to respond” way.

Many other posters pointed out the possible invalidation of working on interventions at an individual level for a social problem. I agree and I think just acknowledging that out loud can be helpful. Perhaps giving an example to help the person understand why these interventions are being proposed and that it doesn’t invalidate their experience of dealing with injustices. For example I may say that helping a survivor of child sexual abuse reduce PTSD symptoms and trauma-related distress does not mean I think nothing should be done on a systemic level to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse. This is often similar to how we have to clarify that “radical acceptance” of an experience of a trauma of child abuse does not excuse the abuse or say it was ok. Part of their tx plan could also be supporting them in figuring out and acting on ways to address change at a societal level.

There are a whole host of other ways to possibly help build resilience through increasing social supports, tolerance to unpleasant emotion, and other life changes without focusing directly on microaggressions.

I haven't gotten to the Lillienfield/Williams articles yet, but I wanted to respond to this. I can see where you're coming from, and I also think it's important to consider the context for this discussion. This is a board filled with people who wield a lot of power at the institutional level and at the individual/therapeutic level. I think we'll have a more productive and valuable conversation about microaggressions if we can focus our attention on our own behavior as we wield the institutional/individual power, and less on how to instruct those on the receiving end of microaggressions.

To apply this to your analogy regarding child abuse: If we're having conversations with and about CSA perpetrators (people with power), maybe thinking about how we can apply psychological science to the development/implementation/delivery of interventions that would reduce the incidence of CSA perpetration, and not focus so much on treatment of CSA sequelae for victims (perpetrators don't care, anyway).
 

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I haven't gotten to the Lillienfield/Williams articles yet, but I wanted to respond to this. I can see where you're coming from, and I also think it's important to consider the context for this discussion. This is a board filled with people who wield a lot of power at the institutional level and at the individual/therapeutic level. I think we'll have a more productive and valuable conversation about microaggressions if we can focus our attention on our own behavior as we wield the institutional/individual power, and less on how to instruct those on the receiving end of microaggressions.

To apply this to your analogy regarding child abuse: If we're having conversations with and about CSA perpetrators (people with power), maybe thinking about how we can apply psychological science to the development/implementation/delivery of interventions that would reduce the incidence of CSA perpetration, and not focus so much on treatment of CSA sequelae for victims (perpetrators don't care, anyway).

Completely- merely just responding to the question of what to do when someone presents for therapy with clinically significant distress related to this issue when not related to clinician behavior. I think we can achieve a dialect between external interventions (on the level of society or the clinician) and internal (at the level of the clients response) to maximize positive outcomes.
 
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