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How To Use Mental Toughness To Face Down Stereotypes



All Hell’s Angels members wear black leather biker jackets, right? That’s what I thought when I accompanied my fellow FBI agents into a grubby bar where an old Don Williams song was playing.

I had been shown a photo of the Hell’s Angel guy we were looking for—he was described as tall, shaved head, with a single silver hoop in his left ear. 

My fellow agents and I were wearing suits and carrying concealed weapons—we stuck out like a sore thumb in the biker bar. Only a few continued their conversations as the bartender greeted us—the rest were waiting for our response.

Suddenly, a guy in a black leather jacket got up and started walking out the door. His head was shaved, but he was a little shorter than the man we were looking for. Still, he looked like a Hell’s Angel and I stepped in front of him, raising a questioning eyebrow at the case agent.

The case agent shook his head so I stepped out of the way. The guy in the leather jacket smirked and headed out the door.

The Hell’s Angel we were actually looking for was sitting at the bar in a white t-shirt, khaki shorts, with the single silver loop in his left ear. The case agent had seen him the moment he walked in.

I had a stereotyped idea of what a Hell’s Angel guy should look like. Stereotypes can become a burden—or in my case, an embarrassment.

The truth of the matter is that we all stereotype and generalize—we have to! Generalizations make our lives easier to manage because they help us manage the constant information that bombards our brain. Generalizations are conclusions we make about people and situations that come so fast that we don’t have to spend time thinking about them. 

But negative stereotypes that are dangerous and inaccurate are alive and well, so how can facing them down make us mentally strong enough to overcome them?

Here are 3 ways you can use mental toughness to face down negative thoughts, bias, and stereotypes:

1. Recognize Your Brain Has A Built-In Confirmation Bias

That means your brain stores information that is consistent with your own beliefs, values, and self-image. This selective memory system helps keep the brain from getting overloaded with too much information. 

Research suggests that while we like to think that our beliefs are rational, logical, and objective, the truth is that our beliefs are usually based on the information that confirms our ideas while we ignore other information that challenges them. 

Generalizations are unstable because they change over time. As more information becomes available, make it a habit of educating yourself on what is new and different. Too often, we create a rule of thumb at one point in life and never take the time to re-evaluate its credibility. Times change—and so do you.

  • Which generalizations have helped you make smarter choices?
  • How important are hunches in setting rules of thumb?
  • How do you probe further into issues to make your generalizations?
  • Are these rules of thumb can you rely upon in the future?

If we’re aware which generalizations influence our choices and responses, we can identify the ones that help us to react with resilience and accuracy.

2. Understand How Stereotypes Can Affect Your Performance

stereotype threat occurs when a negative stereotype about your situation or your abilities weakens your confidence in yourself and interferes with your effort to move toward success

If we know that we’re not expected to perform as well as others, this increases our stress levels and hampers performance.

For example, in the U.S. women are very scarce in math-centric fields. Girls are told from an early age that they do not have an aptitude for Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) so they opt for other professions. 

This is a stereotype threat that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy since most women opt out of STEM careers because of the bias and isolation.

On the other hand, in a research study that presented a positive racial stereotype concerning their superior quantitative skills, Asian American women performed better than men or non-Asians on math tests. In this case, the stereotype boosted their confidence and behavior. 

3. Acknowledge Your Barriers And Burdens

When you face down a negative stereotype about yourself, your situation, or others on your team, you are developing the mental toughness to acknowledge your burdens and barriers. 

2012 study indicates that when we have to stretch our minds to come up with less predictable and mundane solutions, we stimulate creativity and mental flexibility. When we are mentally strong, we are able to acknowledge the burdens and barriers in our life without giving up hope of our future success. When we do, several things happen:

  • Develop effective strategies to deal/cope with negative stereotypes
  • Encourage flexible thinking and improve cognitive performance
  • Change the way women see their careers
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Cultivate a flexible mindset capable of counteracting a stereotype threat

Women in STEM careers who challenge the stereotypes they encounter in their field actually develop the same cognitive skills that are so highly valued!

Research shows that the mental effort of imagining someone behaving in non-stereotypical ways can actually make the mind stronger and more resilient. Just as the body eventually adapts to increased physical demands so that muscles become stronger, the mind adjusts to the burden of deflecting stereotypes.

Mental toughness is learning how to control our mind, rather than letting our mind control us. Awareness of how positive and negative generalizations affect our behavior is essential for our success. 

How have you faced down negative and dangerous stereotypes? 

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