I live with a nagging, undermining, questioning, downright-insulting voice inside my head; the voice of an unreasonable, overly demanding oppressor. 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 have worked with 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, now somewhat quieter, is still present.
Like oxygen, I needed acceptance and success so, I fell in line. And by Gawd, I achieved. And perfected. I earned awards, opportunities, and advanced my career but, in the end, the doubts just kept asked more and more of me. This was echoed by others in my workplace and sometimes in my family. I couldn’t find the finish line.
Over the years it has ground me down and tricked me into believing that perfecting and achieving and being conventionally attractive and easy-going and likable was the key to success. Like oxygen, I needed acceptance and success so, I fell in line. And by Gawd, I achieved. And perfected. I earned awards, opportunities, and advanced my career but, in the end, the doubts just kept asked more and more of me. This was echoed by others in my workplace and sometimes in my family. I couldn’t find the finish line.
I was exhausted and sad and on one of my many healing journeys (around the year 2000), it dawned on me that I’d didn’t want this. My inner critic was wrong. The relentless demands were harming me. I began to slowly alter the structure of my achievement and perfection in my work, my family, and my friendships but, as you might imagine, that inner voice kicked up a duststorm 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 I try to craft an increasingly artistic, spiritual, and healing life. 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 oppressor doesn’t belong to me. This voice – at least in large part – is the byproduct of a patriarchal, dominance culture that I was taught, measured against, and that I ultimately internalized as ‘the way things are’. I INTERNALIZED THE CULTURAL OPPRESSOR!!!!
Have we all done this?
This dehumanizing, brutal overseer inside my head holds me to endless ever-changing 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.
Dehumanizing, impossible expectations were embedded in policies, expectations, conversations, and contracts and I couldn’t get enough distance to 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 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. I WANTED TO DEFEAT THIS OPPRESSOR BUT THROUGH TACTICS OF NONVIOLENCE AND DIGNITY AND KINDNESS. Not just for myself but because I know that the values of white patriarchy are imposed in dehumanizing and dangerous ways in every corner of our 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 be part of ending 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 is through kindness and dignity that we change things.
I will refuse these dominance values. 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. Now that is a form of broad kindness I can get behind!
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, Kindness Redefined, chronicles her exploration of deep versions of kindness & respect as a lens on power, social inequity, & mindfulness.