Abstract: It's the Little Things: Microaggressions & Micro-Affirmations Experienced by Individuals in Recovery from a Substance Use Disorder

◆ Tracy A. Ippolito, Florida State University
◆ Jessica Wendorf Muhamad, Florida State University

Microaggressions and micro-affirmations refer to ephemeral, at times unconscious, messages that are anything but ‘micro’ or insignificant in terms of their potential impact. Sometimes characterized as “minor” slights or snubs, microaggressions subtly convey invalidation, disapproval, and/or bias towards an individual or a group. While not always intentional or explicit, microaggressions can be detrimental to people who experience them (Torino, Rivera, Capodilupo, Nadal, & Sue, 2019). Micro-affirmations, on the other hand, are characterized by Rowe (2008, p. 46) as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion or caring.” They provide encouragement and convey legitimacy to message recipients. Because microaggressions and micro-affirmations can be verbal, behavioral, or tied to the physical or cultural environment, they are often introduced and reinforced in day-to-day exchanges.

A large body of research exists on the prevalence and potential trauma caused by microaggressions among different marginalized communities and identity groups (e.g., Nadal, 2018; Sue et al., 2007), while research into micro-affirmations has revealed their potential to help others succeed (Molina et al., 2019). Notably, a study by Topor, Bøe, & Larsen (2018) suggested that micro-affirmations have the potential to improve an individual’s wellness, specifically individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD).

This research study focuses on the experiences of this subpopulation, as they face unique challenges in that they must deal with both the chronic nature of an SUD and the pervasiveness of alcohol and other substance use in American society (SAMHSA, 2019a). It investigates the particularities of SUD-related microaggressions and micro-affirmations by collecting and analyzing narratives of recovery and social integration among individuals committed to maintaining a recovery lifestyle (N = 20). There is no commonly accepted and operationalized definition of the term ‘recovery’ (Laudet, 2007; Borkman, Stunz, & Kaskutas, 2016). This study operationalizes recovery as “a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential” (SAMHSA, 2019b, para. 2).

Data for this study was collected via narrative interviews and participants were recruited via purposeful and snowball sampling methods. In order to provide a basis for understanding the potential consequences of exposure to microaggressions and micro-affirmations, the study presents a taxonomy of the type of micro-messages encountered by individuals in recovery through a review of the personal narratives.