Discrimination over race, gender identity, health, financial status, sexual orientation, or any other perceived “difference” is a global problem. In many instances, the problem is systemic or institutional, making lasting change a challenge for regular citizens who desire a more peaceful, equitable society.
We as humans continue to explore ways to influence and alter the systems that discriminate and oppress. But while that evolves, the mental/emotional impacts of being discriminated against keeps many from feeling and achieving their best.
Can mindfulness help?
The Psychological Effects of Prejudice
Everyone struggles with feeling less than worthy. We berate ourselves and battle negative self-talk. When the negative messages are coming from the outside world around us, it’s more difficult to combat. After all, we cannot control other people’s thinking and behavior.
Research suggests that facing discrimination can increase depression, anxiety, and general feelings of sadness. It lowers self-confidence, and in certain ethnic groups, discrimination is linked to higher rates of substance abuse.
This has a trickle-down effect. A marginalized person may not have the confidence to pursue the job they deserve. Their sadness may interfere with the way they engage with their children. In this way, prejudicial comments and actions keep the cycle going.
Separating from External Judgment
Mindfulness may help oppressed individuals reduce the harm prejudice does to them. According to the authors of a comprehensive scientific review:
“Mindfulness is associated with an improved understanding of personal emotions, which is thought to improve one's ability to regulate emotions and hasten recovery from negative emotions (Coffey, Hartman, & Fredrickson, 2010). Second, mindfulness is thought to improve individuals’ ability to mentally separate experiences from a sense of self-worth (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007), a trait that predicts fewer automatic negative thoughts and greater ability to let go of negative thoughts (Frewen et al., 2008). Finally, mindfulness has been linked to lower general emotional reactivity (Arch & Craske, 2006), allowing for more objective observations and more appropriate and deliberate responses to situations (Barnes et al., 2007).”
Mindfulness makes it possible to see discrimination from a new angle, one where a prejudiced person’s judgment doesn’t say anything about who we truly are.
That doesn’t mean that some experiences won’t still get under our skin. But with regular meditation, we become better at accepting and processing difficult emotions - so we can eventually let a large part of that negativity go.
A Way Forward
There’s one glaring problem with touting mindfulness as a way to heal from the effects of prejudice. The individual or institution that really needs to work on themselves is the one who is prejudiced, not the person being discriminated against.
Indeed, research indicates that practicing mindfulness makes you less likely to be prejudicial. So why should the victim be left to do this often-difficult introspective work?
Ultimately, people suffering from prejudice should set intentions for what they wish to accomplish with mindfulness. It isn’t their responsibility to solve the problem of prejudice or learn to “shake it off.”
But if someone wishes to move forward with a peaceful and healthier life, able to properly process and maintain their self-confidence in the face of discrimination, mindfulness is one way to achieve that.