Stereotypes And Imposed Family Roles Us Can Affect Who We Are
In our NYC therapy practice, we often see how others characterize us can become a part of our personality. Over time any significant influence–whether cultural stereotypes or overdetermined roles within the family–can affect who we are. Overcoming this is no small part of good therapy, which is perhaps why Refinery29 contacted Tribeca Therapy to speak about stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat, as noted in the article, is a psychological phenomenon related to anxiety around potentially enacting negative stereotypes about your identity, often racial, sexual or gender identity. As our director Matt explained to Refinery29’s Sarah Coughlin, “There are certain stereotypes which are not inherently or universally true, but simply by virtue of their existence–by a shared belief in those stereotypes among a group of people–they become true…They become a sort of self-fulfilling phenomenon.”
While the article centers around how stereotype threat relates to people conforming to their zodiac signs, it also explores how presumptions within families can affect how people see themselves, such as “the oldest girl is such a great caretaker or the youngest boy is really naughty.” Matt notes, “In the case of positively perceived traits, a young person responds with pride and works to fulfill the promise of that attribute. In the case of negative traits, the young person may feel things are hopeless.” Even though this is not always harmful, it can be limiting of possibilities (rather than allowing a child to discover for himself or herself) and problematic when the traits imposed are harmful or negative.
Family Overdetermination Doesn’t Just Impact A Child: It Can Carry Into Adulthood
Although beyond the scope of the article, the way these roles are assigned or exaggerated doesn’t just impact how a child functions within a family, it carries over into adult relationships. A common example is that a particular child is seen as prone to overreacting or being overly sensitive or emotional. The implicit intent is for the child to feel shame and bear responsibility for what are nearly always understandable reactions to upsetting situations. An understandable result, then, is shame in adult life for feeling upset and emotional, a tendency to take on excessive self-blame rather than stand up to others who are causing harm.
Another example, which is commonly seen in our NYC therapy practice, is the notion that a particular child is shy. It should be noted that this is often said about girls. This, then, becomes an identity resulting in a reluctance to take on activities like speeches, leadership roles, speaking up in class or the performing arts.
In therapy, it is often helpful, though not always essential, to look at the historical origins of these identities. Our task in this work is to “shake loose” these notions, and look at them as more complicated than their default understanding. Rather than saying, “I simply am this way,” it’s super powerful to come to realize, “I am this way but perhaps not simply so. Perhaps this part of me isn’t simply an expression of my true nature, but rather formed by complex circumstances and therefore more open to being changed than I’ve previously thought.”