We get messages from all around us in many different forms – from words, behaviors, images, books, television and more. Negative messages can leave us feeling that we don’t belong, we’re not enough, we’re too much, we’re unlovable, or we’re undeserving. This post provides some tips for resisting and countering those messages. Read on for ways to support young people, adults, or for your own self-care.

When my child was growing up, he was teased a lot and I worried that he would feel terrible about himself. Years later, I found the following in my journal, written when he was around six:

“Danny…told me he likes himself and that makes me feel good. He understands how dumb it is that some toys are for girls only and others for boys. He also understands that the most important thing is for him to be who he is and not let others define what is okay for him. I think he has a lot of inner strength and courage – to be different from the norm – even though he gets teased.”

I believe that Danny’s ability to resist negative messages helped protect him from the bullying he experienced later on and develop pride in who he is. I didn’t know it then, but Danny was developing counternarratives. Counternarratives can be useful for people of all ages, in all kinds of situations. 

What’s a counternarrative? It’s a narrative (story, way of looking at things) that counters another narrative. You’re probably already using counternarratives, whether or not you use this term. I use counternarratives on a regular basis when I notice myself getting stuck in negative stories and thoughts. They have also proven very useful in coaching people who work in nonprofits and other settings. 

 Counternarratives aren’t new. They’ve been part of storytelling by many cultures throughout history. For people in marginalized groups, counter-narratives are a way to resist stigma, develop pride, and create a sense of belonging. 

 Counternarratives aren’t about glossing over painful situations. I’m know I’m not alone in feeling a lot of gloom and doom these days.  A tough situation doesn’t disappear by putting a positive spin on it. What a counternarrative can do is help us find possibilities in difficult times.When we recognize that negative messages aren’t necessarily true (or the whole truth), we can create a narrative or belief that is more empowering and true to us. 

Counternarratives can be for ourselves, for responding to others, and even for public advocacy. The focus in this post the messages that we internalize about ourselves, other people, and situations. 

Steps – Below are some steps you can use to counter negative messages, with a few examples based on real-life. You can apply these skills in many different situations. Remember, these are examples! Use your own judgment about how to respond and use words that feel authentic to you.

Young Child Example

Adult Example (Work Environment)

1. Hear the message.

Kai: “Dylan says I shouldn’t play with dolls because I’m a boy.”

“That hurt my feelings and also made me mad.”

Jo: “I told my coworker I was offended when they made a joke that I thought was__________(racist, sexist, etc.).  They said I was being too sensitive. I guess maybe that’s true.” 

“Then I  felt really uncomfortable and wished I hadn’t said anything.”

2. Listen, affirm, and be present.  (See tip 1, below.)

“I can understand why you are mad and why you feel hurt. ”

“I get why you were upset and uncomfortable. It can be hard to hear a joke like that. It can be even tougher when you bring it up and get feedback like that.”

3. Challenge the message as the only truth.

“Do you believe what Dylan says?” OR “Some people think that way, but a lot of people don’t.

“It sounds like you kind of believe that you were being too sensitive, but you aren’t sure. What does the part of you that doesn’t agree think?

4. Support in creating an alternative message that is true for them. (See tip 2, below.)

“What do you think about who can play with what toys?”

 “Are there boys who play with dolls?”

“What’s another way to think about your reaction that honors your feelings as being valid?

5. If needed, offer an alternative perspective, or ask questions to help them get a different perspective.

“What do you like about playing with dolls?” 

“I think it’s pretty cool.”

 “I think anyone should play with any toys they like.”

“If this happened to someone you care about, would you think they are being too sensitive? What would you say to support them?”

OR

“Your needs matter. Why is it important to you not to hear jokes like that?”

6. If relevant, make connections with oppression, fairness, or justice. (See tip 3, below.)

“Do you think it’s fair to say someone can’t do something because of their gender?”

“Who else  has been called “too sensitive”?”

“Sometimes labeling people is a way of silencing them.”

7. Check in to see how they are doing and if any action steps are needed.

“How are you doing?”

“Is there anything you want to say to Dylan?”

“Do you want me to talk to your teacher?”

“What could you do if that happens again?

“How are you feeling now?” 

“How can I support you?” 

“Is there anything else you want to say to your co-worker?”

A Few Tips: 

  1.   Listen first, rather than jumping right into counternarratives. Sometimes what people need most is to express themselves to a caring person who can be with them and their feelings. If you notice strong feelings, you might ask “How did you feel when that happened?” Be there, show you care, and let the person know that you understand why they are having feelings. This gives them the message that they aren’t alone and that their feelings and needs matter. Avoid the tendency to fix the person or come to the rescue. If you think listening is what’s most needed, don’t go into counter-narratives, Ask permission, before offering support.
  1.  Remember that children and adults have what it takes to challenge negative messages. Give them support and space to develop their own counternarratives. Allow them to take ownership of the ideas that feel most true to them. When people get very stuck in the negative messages, it can help to bring in examples, but keep the focus on their process.
  1.  Notice when a negative message is rooted in racism, sexism, able-ism, or other forms of oppression. Consider naming the oppression. Understanding the source of negative messages can help us resist them and realize that we are not the problem. 
  1. Read and sharing stories about valuing difference. There are many great books and videos with positive messages about difference.  Check out the children’s book I wrote, One of a Kind, Like Me/Único como yo.  Based on Danny’s childhood, it’s an example of a positive narrative about a child who resists gender-stereotypes. 

Acknowledgements: This post was inspired by a workshop that Sandra Collins and I co-designed and co-facilitated at Gender Spectrum’s conference for the past three years.  Thanks to folks who anonymously reviewed this post and gave valuable feedback. 

The Photo is from a statewide gathering of Latinx families of LGBTQ children, hosted by Somos Familia in May of 2019. We wrote messages of love for our LGBTQ loved ones on the Arbol de Orgullo/Tree of Pride.

Here’s a related post that you might enjoy: Finding Freedom from Self-Limiting Mindsets.