I live with a nagging, undermining, questioning, downright-insulting voice inside my head; the voice of an unreasonable, overly demanding overseer. A voice that has been inside me for as long as I can remember. The incessant and often inconsistent requirements of this voice pushed, pulled, evaluated, dragged me about everything I did: no idea, project, insight ever escaped strict scrutiny.
I attempted to uproot this voice with psychotherapies of all variety, listening to my nightly dream images, visiting shamans, trauma specialists, and past life regressionists, and chunks of slow time with Mother Nature and the arts. I tried owning the voice, destroying the voice, befriending and healing the voice, ignoring the voice. Things improved and I developed deep insight, great compassion and healing skills, but this voice, somewhat quieter, is still present.
In my younger years it ground me down and tricked me into believing that perfecting and achieving and being attractive and likable was essential. That this would ease the anxieties and doubts caused by this voice. And boy! I needed ease. Like oxygen. So, I complied. And by Gawd, I achieved. And perfected. I earned awards, opportunities, and advanced my career but, in the end, the anxiety and doubt just asked more and more of me. I couldn’t find the finish line.
And perfected. I earned awards, opportunities, and advanced my career but, in the end, the anxiety and doubt just asked more and more of me. I couldn’t find the finish line.
I was exhausted and sad and on one of my many healing journeys (around the year 2000), I realized that I’d been duped. My inner voice was wrong. The demands were harming me. And I began to slowly alter the structure of achievement and perfection in my work, my family, and my friendships but, as you might imagine, that inner voice kicked up a shit-ton of dust and truckloads of doubt. For nearly two decades I’ve been in a long-term Aikido match ducking and navigating the inner pressures to perfect as, externally, I craft an increasingly artistic, spiritual, and healing life. How am I doing? I’m bruised but holding my own.
How am I doing? I’m bruised but holding my own.
I realized recently something that had never occurred to me over all these years: my inner overseer doesn’t belong to me. This voice – at least in large part – is the byproduct of a white supremacy culture that I was taught, measured against, and that I ultimately internalized as ‘the way things are’. I INTERNALIZED THE CULTURAL OPPRESSOR!!!! I think all white people have done this.
This dehumanizing, brutal overseer inside my head holds me captive and holds me to endless expectations that ask the impossible. And, over the years, I might have been able to untangle my internal bondage and free my mind had this oppressor not been mirrored and reinforced in every institution and relationship outside me too. White supremacy values are embedded in policies, expectations, conversations, and contracts so I couldn’t see the oppression for what it was. Each time I’d discover a little inner freedom and bring it into my actions, I’d feel the pressure back into old familiar patterns of compliance — from inside my head as much as from my world.
This Spring I stumbled onto Tema Okum’s list of characteristics that define white supremacy culture and it become a freedom song of sorts. Her discussion blew open my doors. Thank you, Tema! I don’t know you but I owe you! I ran this list through my mind and lightbulbs flashed in every direction. I recognized the list as the precise laundry list of demands my inner voice had been placing on me since I was a child.
… perfect yourself … achieve … delay gratification … defer to power … don’t make people uncomfortable … some truth doesn’t need to be spoken … don’t show vulnerability … don’t cry …. don’t feel too much … intellect and logic the only truth … have your ducks in a row before you speak … don’t disagree with power … don’t be different … don’t see the truth … the experience of body is not important… use it to achieve
If I could recognize this drumbeat of dehumanizing expectations for what it was — a power and control tactic with a long sordid history — then I had a some better chance of resisting. AND I WANTED TO DEFEAT THIS OPPRESSOR. Not just for myself but because I know that these very same values are imposed in dehumanizing and dangerous ways in every corner of white culture. And are responsible for a history of harm to all but particularly to Black and Brown people, children, the poor, women, and all marginalized for being ‘different’. I want to end this — inside my head and outside of it as well.
Each of these characteristics has been alive in me – and sadly, if I’m truly honest — I’ve subjected others to them in overt and subtle ways. Even the people in my life I hold most dear — my children. Just as I’ve internalized them, battled them, been knocked to the ground by them, and cried tears over them, I have relied on them in my interactions with others to hold influence. This is how oppression works.
Uprooting the internal oppressor is profoundly vital, essential to health, and is a meaningful act of resistance. It heals to fight this way.
I have committed to deep awareness of this. And to action. I can and will act differently. I will refuse these values; choose better ones. They aren’t my values, I just absorbed them when I didn’t know better. I strive to see my blind spots and write about my journey here to support remembering. In every interaction as much and as often as I see clearly, I can act on my better values: accept imperfection, create and express over achievement, speak truth to power, make people uncomfortable with my words when it serves equality, know that vulnerability is a beautiful part of being human, and always take good care of the body, mind, and spirit over the demands and expectations of the culture.
Uprooting the internal oppressor is profoundly vital, essential to health, and is a meaningful act of resistance. It heals to fight this way. And this resistance will ripple so that, one conversation at a time (internal and external), we re-humanize. It can’t be done unless we ally and support each other along the way. Ready?
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Jamie is a psychologist, mindfulness teacher, college professor & writer. She is dedicated to healing, truth, and creating a just and inclusive world.
Her blog, Uprooting Supremacy, chronicles her exploration of the roots of white supremacy culture and her journey with power, social inequity, & mindfulness.