The personal growth world tells us that we have “core” beliefs or “limiting” beliefs that hold us back from being ourselves and doing what we want in life, and that these beliefs come from ourselves. They might tell us that we have learned some of these beliefs from our parents or families growing up, but, they fail to recognize another root cause of our negative “core/limiting” beliefs, which is societal oppression. This is called internalized oppression.
What is internalized oppression?
I define it as: Harmful beliefs and stereotypes that we have taken on from society/our oppressors that aren’t who we are and don’t serve us.
The urban dictionary defines it as, “The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to them as a group.”
Kim Tran, PhD, feminist writer defines it as: “The personal projection of unrecognized and unacknowledged practices of systemic oppression in everyday life.”
At the #feministstory chat on Twitter that I host every Thursday (at 5pm PST), we discussed internalized oppression. Below are responses from some of the participants in the chat about some of their experiences with internalized oppression.
Here are some examples of ways we internalize oppression:
Internalized oppression is not something that we talk about much. We recognize that there is social oppression: White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, heteronormativity, etc. We recognize that we believe certain things that hold us back, but we don’t often connect the two. We are taught that our negative “core” beliefs come from ourselves. One example of what the personal growth world tells us is a “core” belief is that we feel unworthy or undeserving. We are told that this belief comes from inside of ourselves, but this core belief of feeling unworthy or undeserving can stem from societal oppression.
The systems of oppression (White supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, capitalism, heteronormativity, etc.) give us various messages that we are unworthy and undeserving. Patriarchy tells women that they are inferior. White supremacy tells people of color that they are inferior and undeserving. Capitalism tells us that our value and our worth is directly connected to our labor. Ableism tells disabled people that they aren't fully human. So on and so forth. We are not born with these negative core beliefs; we have learned/internalized them from society, often from the time we were born. Thus, they do not come from inside our being (since our being is worthy at its core); they come from societal oppression. When we acknowledge that we have core/limiting beliefs that stem from societal oppression, we are able to better understand that having those beliefs is not our fault, but that we have internalized oppression.
Some examples of how we connect our core/limiting beliefs to oppression:
- If we are feeling shame about our body because we think it’s too fat or not perfect enough, the personal growth world tells us to look inside ourselves to undo this kind of belief, and completely ignores how the patriarchy and White supremacy and systems of oppression have influenced our body shame. The systems of oppression tell us that there is one ideal body type, and, for women, this usually looks like White, cisgender, thin, long lean limbs, and able-bodied. This ideal image has been seeped into our society in so many ways, especially in the media and fitness industry. Many (if not all) of us have internalized this ideal/belief in some way, but we don’t see it as a societal problem, we see it as an individual problem, and that there’s something “wrong” with us, as individuals, because we believe it. We all have internalized some kind of oppression, and there is nothing wrong with us, as individuals.
- When cis men, in particular, believe that they shouldn’t show or feel their emotions. Patriarchy tells men that they need to be “strong”, and that part of being “strong” is not showing or feeling emotion. That women feel and show their emotions, not men, and men should not be like women (which is misogyny and a perpetuation of the heteronormative gender binary). When men feel that they can’t express their emotions because it would mean that they are not “real men”, they have internalized patriarchy. Understanding this will help men come back to who they are behind the masks, underneath the various layers of societal conditioning.
- A common belief that many of us have internalized in the United States is that our productivity equals our worth. Capitalism tells us that our value is directly connected to our work and how productive we are. If we are feeling unworthy or not valuable because we aren't producing as much or working as "hard", then we have internalized the oppressive belief that our worth is our work. When we recognize that we have internalized these beliefs from capitalism, then we can better understand that we are worthy, at our core, without having to produce for others or for society, or without having to do anything at all, period. We simply are worthy already.
When we recognize that it’s not our fault that we have internalized oppression, which is different from taking responsibility, then we can truly detach ourselves from the beliefs that are not serving us. We take responsibility by recognizing where the belief comes from and letting go of it. Of course, it may take years or a lifetime to truly let go of certain beliefs, which is why self-compassion is important. We don’t need to add more shame or blame onto ourselves when we already have enough of that that we’ve internalized. As Najya Williams points out, “Be kind to ourselves and know that undoing years of this internalizing won’t be complete in a small amount of time.”
Not only do we need to change the structures outside of ourselves and outward oppression, but also inward oppression, the unhealthy and unsupportive thoughts and beliefs we have latched onto about ourselves that aren’t actually a part of who we truly are. Becoming more aware of the oppression we have internalized is the key to our liberation.
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