Microaggressions at work are more than mere faux pas or annoyances. They have a real impact on our emotional well-being and our careers. San Francisco psychologist Maya Borgueta shares about microaggressions and mental health, and how you can respond when you experience one.

If you’re not a white, cisgender, able-bodied, straight man, chances are high that you’ve experienced a microaggression at some point during your career. Depending on your industry and your workplace, microaggressions may be an everyday reality. 

There’s been heightened awareness of microaggressions in recent years, but the term is still confusing to some. Psychology professor and activist Kevin Nadal, PhD, defines microaggressions as “the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.”

Microaggressions can take many forms: A female physician being asked by the patient when the doctor will see them. An Asian American interviewee being complimented on their strong English skills. A Black employee being assumed to be a “diversity hire”.

Because microaggressions are expressions of bias, they can be unconscious. They may go unnoticed by the offender or bystanders. Sometimes, they are even enacted by those people who strive to be allies to marginalized colleagues.

Microaggressions and Mental Health

Microaggressions’ subtlety can make them tricky to deal with — even hard to recognize at times. But their impact is very much real, and documented by a growing body of psychological research. 

Repeated exposure to microaggressions is correlated with a host of negative mental health outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. People experiencing this type of discrimination are more likely to engage in unhealthy coping behaviors, such as smoking or disordered eating. They can also impact physical health, and has been implicated in digestive issues and heart disease

When it comes to the workplace, microaggressions can have are correlated with higher rates of burnout and lower job satisfaction. What’s more, navigating them takes up considerable psychological and emotional resources, leaving employees less able to focus on their work.

A group of workers chatting informally at work, with serious expressions on their faces.

What makes microaggressions so insidious?

As a clinician who works primarily with professional women of color, I hear about microaggressions and their impact on my clients often. You might expect that the subtle nature of microaggressions makes them easier to tolerate than outright aggression or bigotry. But for many professional women, folks of color, and other minoritized workers, this isn’t the case. 

Microaggressions can leave people feeling unable to trust their own perception of what they just experienced. Employees find themselves questioning themselves and their abilities. Was I left out of that meeting because of my race or gender? Or because I’m not performing well? This can manifest in what appears to be imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence. 

Ambiguity can also make microaggressions difficult to address head on. Bystanders are often likely to write them off as misunderstandings or faux pas, especially when the perpetrator is well-regarded. If reported through official channels, microaggressions can be especially hard to prove. Often, people seeking support and validation around a microaggression find their concerns minimized. 

When confronted, a colleague who has committed a microaggression can become defensive or attempt to explain away their action. They may in fact be well-intentioned and unaware of the impact a comment had. But the bias underlying their action, and the ripple effects it can have on an employee’s career and sense of well-being at work are no less real. 

A single microaggression may be annoying but easy to brush off. But over the course of a career, these experiences add up. It’s not about having thin skin or being oversensitive. It’s about recognizing and responding to an underlying message. Microaggressions communicate information about how we’re being valued by our colleagues, whether or not we’re seen as outsiders, and what expectations or limitations others are putting on us. In other words, they can signal a workplace where we’ll struggle to achieve our goals — not because of our actions or abilities, but because of who we are. That means we can experience them not merely as insulting, but as a threat to our livelihood, autonomy, and well-being.

A woman sits with a laptop on her lap. A man is sitting across from her, explaining something he is showing to her on his tablet.

Responding to Microaggressions in the Workplace

My clients often struggle with knowing how to respond when they’ve experienced a microaggression at work. Figuring out the “right” way to respond is complicated, personal, and dependent on a variety of factors.

Are you likely to face retaliation or apathy? How might speaking up impact your working relationships? Are you seeking a concrete change, or looking to restore your sense of dignity by speaking up? Knowing what your priorities are can help to determine the best course of action.

Responding to a microaggression puts us in a vulnerable position. Anxiety, shame, anger and guilt are common emotions that come up.

To help my clients through the process — and take some of the pressure to do it perfectly — I created this short “Bill of Rights”. I’m sharing it here in the hopes it may be helpful to you.

Your Bill of Rights for Responding to Microaggressions

You have the right not to know the perfect way to respond to a microaggression. More often than not, “the perfect way to respond” does not exist. 

You have the right not to respond immediately to a microaggression. The ways that our brains & bodies function when we’re surprised, hurt, scared, retraumatized or humiliated often make it impossible to offer a considered response. 

You have the right not to respond to every microaggression. There are times and places where it does not serve your well-being, your safety, your needs, or your community to confront a microaggression directly or indirectly. 

You have the right not to take on the role of educating others or convincing them that a microaggression is worthy of your feelings about it. That emotional labor is a gift you may choose to offer, not an entitlement. 

You have the right to feel hurt, upset, offended or angry even when a microaggression was committed unwittingly or with good intentions. Its impact on you is no less harmful than if it was committed with malice. 

You have the right to take the time you need to think through and plan your response to a microaggression. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask others to circle back to address it even if they’ve moved on.

You have the right to respond to a microaggression simply by seeking support, comfort, and safety within your community. You are allowed to talk about microaggressions in therapy, and you have a right to find a therapist who will take your experience seriously.

Our Shared Responsibility for Responding to Workplace Microaggressions

If we want workplaces that are healthy, inclusive, and equitable for everyone, the onus for responding to microaggressions cannot remain on the individuals experiencing them. We have a shared responsibility to look out for our colleagues and address bias when it arises. 

When someone commits a microaggression against a peer, bystanders can have a powerful impact in shutting it down — especially when the bystander also comes from a the dominant group. Stating disagreement or questioning the message behind a microaggression are simple but often effective interventions. 

Colleague: “You’re a really strong engineer for a woman.”

Bystander: “What exactly do you mean by ‘for a woman?'”

Colleague: “Oh come on man, you know there aren’t that many women engineers.”

Bystander: “I disagree that means they’re not strong. Comments like that are part of the problem.”

A common complaint among my clients is that people wait to express disagreement or sympathy to them in private. While they may appreciate the sentiment, they’re often left feeling alone and unsupported where it counts. Being willing to disrupt a microaggression publicly makes clear to everyone present that those views are not universal or accepted. It can take pressure off of the person experiencing bias, and also model healthier interactions for colleagues who witness it.

That said, if you’re stepping in as a bystander, make sure you’re not speaking over someone who is directly impacted. And if they’ve expressed a need for particular support (or for you to leave it alone!) those wishes should be respected. When we step in as bystanders, we want to avoid making it all about ourselves.

Another frustration in corporate settings is an expectation that workers cannot bring up a problem without a solution to propose. This philosophy tends to be passed down from the highest leadership in a company. It’s intended to prevent useless whining and encourage everyone to take ownership. However, when it comes to bias and discrimination, it’s a setup. People at the receiving end of microaggressions in the workplace don’t have the power to solve these problems. If you’re a leader who cares about equitable workplaces, you need to be proactive. That includes setting clear limits around acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Therapy for Navigating Toxic Workplaces

If you are experiencing microaggressions or other forms of bias at work, a therapist can help. No, we can’t fix systemic discrimination. But we can provide a safe space for you to talk about it and figure out what comes next. You deserve a therapist who believes what you’re experiencing and won’t gaslight, shame or blame you for those experiences. 

If you’re in California, Stella Nova therapists specialize in supporting women and nonbinary professionals’ mental health. We’re a feminist practice that strives to support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks to thrive at work and at home. We currently offer services online and in person in San Francisco.

Schedule a free, 20-minute consultation today to get matched with the best therapist for your needs and preferences. 

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About the Author

Dr. Maya Borgueta is a licensed clinical psychologist in San Francisco, CA. She specializes in supporting professional women’s mental health, in the workplace and beyond. Her clients are primarily women of color, adult children of immigrants, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Maya’s clinical specialties include workplace trauma, perfectionism and self-criticism, and managing chronic stress & anxiety.