Owen, J., Tao, K. W., Imel, Z. E., Wampold, B. E., & Rodolfa, E. (2014). Addressing racial and ethnic microaggressions in therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(4), 283–290.
Overt forms of racism and prejudice still occur in society, and less overt forms are likely more prevalent. Microaggression are those less overt forms of racism and prejudice that may include direct and indirect insults, slights, and discriminatory messages. Specific types of microaggression are: microinvalidations (e.g., denying that racism exists), microassaults (e.g., direct racism but done in private), and microinsults (e.g., believing a group’s cultural norms are pathological). Microaggression are by definition ambiguous and subtle, and they may target culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other group identities. Microaggressions are associated with psychological distress in the recipient. Microaggressions can also occur in therapy if a patient perceives a therapist’s dismissing or negating messages about the patient’s culture, or if a therapist engages in culturally inappropriate interventions. Microaggressions represent a special type of therapeutic alliance rupture that could lead to negative patient outcomes. It is also possible that therapists and clients who address microaggressions after they occur are capable of repairing the alliance rupture and moving forward with a stronger relationship. However, there is very little research of the impact of client perceived microaggressions on the therapeutic alliance. In this unique study, Owen and colleagues asked 120 racial and ethnic minority university counselling centre patients treated by 33 different therapists (23 of whom were White) to rate their experience microaggressions, to indicate if the microaggression was discussed, and to rate the therapeutic alliance. In total, 53.3% of patients experienced a microaggression in therapy, and of those patients, 68.4% were treated by a racial or ethnic minority therapist. Clients who reported fewer microaggressions also reported stronger therapeutic alliances (r = .28, p = .01). Of the patients who reported a microaggression, only 24% (13 patients) reported that the microaggression was discussed by the therapist. Of these 13 patients, almost all (12 patients) reported that the discussion was successful. Therapist and patient dyads who successfully discussed the microaggression: (1) had alliance scores comparable to patients who did not experience a microaggression, and (2) had alliance scores that were significantly higher than dyads who experienced but did not discuss the microaggression.
Microaggressions appear to be ubiquitous in daily life and in psychotherapy – no therapist is immune. More than 53% of patients in this study reported a microaggression, despite what was likely their therapists’ good intentions. Microaggression are a special case of therapeutic alliance ruptures, which are known to be associated with poor patient outcomes. Therapists must develop a strong multicultural orientation and take a culturally humble stance with clients from a different culture or group. This involves therapists being attuned to the possibility of committing a microaggression, inviting patients to alert the therapist should a microaggression occur, and being open to clarifying misunderstandings and owning missteps.