Internalised Oppression

Internalised oppression is the name given to the psychological condition in which an oppressed individual comes to view themselves with the same negative attitudes that their oppressors show to them.  Once the oppressive view has been internalised it can be extremely difficult to break its hold.

In situations of domestic violence, a victim can come to identify themselves with the aggressive behaviour and attitudes of their aggressor.  So a victim comes to believe they are as worthless as their partner tells them.

As the internalised oppressive forces take hold, the victim can become more self-critical about themselves. The victim might start to think that they deserved the abuse they received. 

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Domestic Violence – Internalised Oppression

When people are abused in relationships, it is often the element of internalised oppression that keeps them stuck in the negative cycle that they cannot escape from.

The victim finds themselves controlled or coerced or threatened. Usually, this involves a partner or ex-partner. Domestic abuse is frequently based around issues of inequality in a relationship. One partner has more money, power, muscle than the other. It is this inequality that is often the gateway that lets in the internalised oppressive attitudes.

Internalised Oppression and Mental Health

Attitudes that encourage a sense of inferiority in other people and particular social groups, can have a destructive effect on mental health, and lead to the development of harmful emotional states of mind. 

Childhood issues and internalised oppression

  • Do we develop the habit of remaining in abusive relationships because of problems in our childhoods?
  • Why are we compelled to seek out partners who are likely to bully and abuse us?
  • Are we just unlucky in the kinds of partners that we pick?

People who have grown up being bullied, oppressed and traumatised in their childhood may be more at risk of becoming bullied by other people because they have internalised the oppressive forces, and so are more prone to develop relationships with people who will repeat the dynamic.

Once we have internalised oppressive ideas about ourselves we have a difficult problem to unpick.  We are caught in an Orwellian ‘double speak’ world, in which to complain about our situation is proof that there is something wrong with us.

Negative Body Image

Another example is problems with body image when someone develops feelings of inadequacy about their physical appearance and consider cosmetic surgery to change something that they come to see as unacceptable about themselves. They have internalised an oppressive negative attitude.

Race and internalised oppression

People who have been colonised frequently internalise a sense of inferiority about themselves and their own culture. Once the colonising power leaves, the internalised oppressive attitudes can live on for generations. Edward Said’s (1978) work ‘Orientalism‘ is a compelling exploration of such destructive cultural forces.

History shows us that these ideas are much older than post-colonial theorists.

Internalised oppression – ‘mind forged manacles’

In the eighteenth century, The Romantic poet William Blake recognised and challenged the limiting attitudes that people internalise about themselves.  In Blake’s view these self-imposed social and intellectual restrictions stop us from experiencing our true human potential and creativity.

Plato – the allegory of the cave

In ancient Greece, in Plato’s allegory prisoners are shown mistaking shadows for real people.  Only when they are freed from the invisible ties that hold them prisoner, are they free to see the world and their situation for what it is.

The chains that bind us have been internalised.

In terms of trying to understand our own psychologies, the dynamics of internalised oppression are complex and difficult to address on your own.  A dominant person or group of people start to dominate a subordinate group.  Once the oppressive mindset has been internalised it continues to oppress the victim from within.  Once the internalised oppression has been established it is then reinforced by particular thoughts and behaviours.

  • How oppressive forces become internalised, and how that internalised pressure is relieved, is a complex subject that requires careful attention. Psychotherapy provides a confidential professional relationship in which these issues can be explored without fear of some aggressive attack.

Signs of Internalised Oppression

  • you doubt yourself at every turn
  • you punish yourself and think you deserve to be punished
  • you cut yourself off from people, events and things you used to enjoy
  • you blame yourself for everything that is wrong in your home

I think I knew from early on that my relationship was bad for me, but the longer I stayed in it the harder it was to think about being able to leave.  My partner became violent towards me.  It started with verbal abuse but developed into physical violence.  After I had managed to leave people asked me what it was that kept me in such a bad relationship.  It is a hard question to answer, but I think it was because I internalised the oppressive attitude that he had about me.  I started to think that I deserved to be punished.  This might make no sense to someone who hasn’t been through it, but believe me, you can internalise the toxic mindset.  After a while I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.

Anonymous client

Psychotherapy for internalised oppression based issues

  • How do we unpick such pernicious and harmful ideas about ourselves?

In psychotherapy we work to create a safe predictable and containing environment.  As we do this we try to recognise and observe any signs of the oppressive system at work.  Usually this becomes evident in the way the client relates to the experience of coming to see the therapist. 

For example, the client might project an idea of their inferiority to the therapist.  In therapy, care is taken to try to understand the way such dynamics work and to try to reduce their power.

It takes time to identify and start to undo the systems of internalised oppression. The oppressed person has to develop trust in the psychotherapist they are working with, this cannot be forced. 

The first step is to be able to recognise that the internalised oppressive system operates within the mind of the victim.  If we can start to be able to see it, to reflect and think about it, we may start to loosen the oppressive power of the system.

The more we can find ways to work on these internalised oppressive forces, the more chance we have of reducing their destructive effects.

Contact me to discuss further

If you feel that your life is compromised by internalised oppression, that you are living by rules that seem unhelpful and unkind and which are not your own, then it might be helpful to talk about it.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live.  In helping you develop a better understanding of why you feel the way you do about things?

Contact me to arrange a free 15 minute conversation to discuss how my work might be useful to you. I have a lot of experience of using telephone and online platforms and I would be pleased to hear from you.

Mobile: +44 7980 750376