We all know the harm that stereotyping others can do, but there is another form of type casting that is just as wide-spread and it affects each of us every single day: self-stereotyping. Now this is my own personal term for the practice, but whatever you choose to call it I bet you will recognize these symptoms:
"Oh I couldn't wear a dress like that it's too colorful for me"
"I'm too stupid to get into that college program, I'm not going to even apply"
"I can't believe I ate another piece of cake, there's no point in going to the gym I'm too fat"
"I never have fun going out with my friends unless I've been drinking"
These are just a few examples of self-stereotypes I have heard among my friends. What makes these statements different from plain old negative self-talk? The key is that when someone self-stereotypes enough, they begin to believe it. Let me give you an example from my own life.
As a graduate student I spend a great deal of time studying, writing papers, reading, and sitting in class. I am constantly surrounded by over-stressed students and we tend to commiserate with one another about our busy schedules, piece-of-work professors, and levels of fatigue. In fact, we are not just commiserating; we are competing to see who is the busiest, who has the worst professor, and who is operating on the least amount of sleep. After enough of these complaint sessions, I have started to believe that I am the busiest, most stressed-out student to walk the earth.
So what happens when we self-stereotype? We prevent ourselves from experiencing change and growth. When we self-stereotype we are limiting our openness to trying new things and our stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy by affecting our decisions: That means my "stupid" friend will never give himself the chance at an education, and my "fat" friend will never be willing to see herself as beautiful and fit. As for myself? I hope to break this cycle before I turn into a sleep-deprived stress-ball subsisting off of Top-Ramen and Diet Coke.
How do we break the cycle of self-stereotyping? More importantly, how do we stop self-stereotyping without losing our sense of who we are? For many people, their own personal stereotype can be comforting; being the "funny one" or the "ladies man" helps us to understand our place in a group. I have a few suggestions that may help all of us to quit self-stereotyping and start opening up to change without losing our sense of identity.
1. Identify your stereotype
The first step to freeing yourself from self-stereotyping is to acknowledge that your stereotype exists. It may be helpful to make a list of the stereotypes you have given yourself. My list may read something like this: stressed student, always busy/never has enough time, always gets the hardest professors, buried in work.
2. Identify ways you encourage your stereotype
Next, it is important to recognize the decisions you make or the actions you take which play into the stereotype you have identified. You might want to break down each item from your first list and think about ways you have lived up to that stereotype in the past. Let's use my example again:
Stressed student - I get worked up over each assignment for class, I frequently hurry from one class to the next instead of enjoying the walk and talking time to relax
Always busy - I pack my calendar too full, I turn down offers to fun events because I don't think I have enough time
Always gets the hardest professors - I complain about how difficult they are and how they don't understand students
3. Identify alternatives
Now that we have outlined the ways we self-stereotype and live-up to those stereotypes, let's think about ways to start breaking down these mental constructs. I think the most effective way to do this is to brainstorm simple actions to take that go against the stereotype you are trying to banish. Let's return to my example one more time for some ideas:
Stressed student - If I were not stressed, I would walk comfortably to class, enjoying the fresh air and noticing the sun on my face. I would smile at the people I pass and ask how others are doing.
Always busy - If I were not always busy, I would take time to do yoga each day and I would accept the invitations my friends gave me. I would not overbook myself with work.
Always get the hardest professors - If I weren't complaining about how difficult my professors are, I could use that energy to visit their office hours and get to know them better.
Notice that each alternative I chose is proactive. If I took these actions instead of the actions I identified in step 2 I would no longer be playing into the stereotype of "stressed student", but rather "successful, balanced student". So go ahead and make a list of simple actions you can take today that go against a stereotype you feel is holding you back. It can be something simple or something grand - whatever you are ready for. Perhaps you can relate to my friend that doesn't think she can pull off a bright red dress because she has always been a wallflower. Take a small step: try wearing red nail polish for a day and see how it makes you feel. You might find that you like having a bit more color in your life after all!
As for myself, I chose to take the evening off from homework to do some yoga and write an email to a friend instead. I still have plenty of time to finish my work during the week, and having some time to relax now will help me to better handle stress later.