How to Free Yourself from Your Internal Oppressor
As I was watching the latest Middle Eastern uprising unfold this week—this time in Turkey—I thought a lot about freedom. Often, when we hear about freedom, we think of the kind of freedom that Turkish citizens are demonstrating for—freedom from an external oppressor, their government. But, there’s an internal kind of freedom that many people also lack. It’s what I talk about with my clients all the time.
Their internal oppressor is set up very early in life in the process that forms their sense of self. You can think of the sense of self as a battery that is generating every moment of our lives. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, we all absorb how people around us feel about being human, and what we absorb from them turns into this sense of self—the way we feel we have to be to survive and fit well in the world. Part of what we absorb is what I call Learned Distress, the feeling that there’s something wrong with us being just the way we are. This Learned Distress becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative moments and situations.
People’s internal oppressor is generated by the Learned Distress that makes them feel that the only way to survive is to keep themselves under control in some way. It can be in any area of life, including personal expression, relationships, achievement, physical health. This control mechanism can be about keeping negative feelings under wraps, like, “I don’t matter,” “I don’t fit,” “I can’t achieve,” or, “I’m not perfect enough.” Because feelings all come through one pipe, this control mechanism also shuts off the parallel well-being: “I matter just as I am,” “I fit just as I am,” “I have within me what I need to achieve,” or, “I’m perfect as the unique person that I am.”
Sometimes, the internal oppressor is shutting down the energy that we use to go out and get things done in the world—to make friends or collaborate with others, to express our uniqueness in the world, to achieve what matters to us, or to take care of ourselves physically. Clients tell me it feels like there is a heavy weight sitting on top of their ability to do the things they know they should to succeed in these areas. Or, that it just doesn’t feel safe to put themselves out in the world in these ways. I’ve experienced this as feeling silenced or squelched by something within me.
This internal oppressor generates situations for some people in which they are also controlled by some external factor, like a controlling spouse, limiting career, lack of adequate income, or physical condition that they find limiting. These external situations just pile on more of this feeling that they aren’t free to live their lives or express themselves in the way they would most love to. And, these are often the people who, when they manage to get themselves out of one oppressive situation, quickly find themselves back in a very similar or even worse situation. Of course, the fact that their sense of self is generating all of this from their side never excuses anyone else’s abusive behavior towards them.
When I start working with clients on peeling away layers of their internal oppressor, it is often a scary prospect. Just the word “free” is often anxiety-producing, because their sense of self says that to survive, they need to be under control in that realm. But, when they are able to more forward with change in that arena, they start expressing themselves in ways they never have. I know that this change has kicked in when they say something like, “The strangest thing happened. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. And, people around me reacted so positively!”
Can you feel an internal oppressor at work? We are all meant to have the freedom, internally and externally, to express our uniqueness in the world. It’s what allows us join and collaborate with others to create a better world for everyone. Here’s to your freedom to be you!