There are two main forms of oppression, and we’re candidates for unnecessary suffering if we can’t distinguish between them. Oppression when imposed on others is obviously cruel and harmful. Yet there exists another kind of oppression, a torment we unconsciously place on ourselves.
Oppression might be impossible to avoid under a dictatorship, yet multitudes of prospering people in democratic societies experience painful feelings of oppression. This self-imposed oppression is the freedom we deny ourselves.
A sense of oppression is associated with feeling trapped, restricted, inhibited, controlled, disrespected, helpless, and imposed upon. It’s common for people to feel oppressed by bosses and work, as well as by customers, clients, and the demands of the rat race.
We can also feel oppressed by corporations or by federal, state, and local governments. Christians can feel oppressed by secularists, and vice-versa. We can feel oppressed by constant cravings, everyday desires, sensible and necessary laws, nagging self-criticism, along with physical ailments, disease, or emotional problems such as moodiness, anxiety, fear, and depression.
Weighing oppressively upon many people are the challenges of keeping up with rapidly advancing technologies, the rough-and-tumble of democracy’s politics, the rush of cultural change, and even the necessary chores of daily life. Some men feel oppressed by feminists, and vice-versa. Husbands can feel controlled by wives, and vice-versa.
It all feels like being strong-armed by an invisible commanding presence. A client of mine described it as “being in the driver’s seat of your life, but only as the chauffer.”
Many people are easily convinced that they’re oppressed by outside forces. Both white supremacists and terrorists are able to convince disaffected young males that they’re being oppressed and need to fight back. Masses of Americans, fed conspiracy theories by certain media, believe they are being oppressed by a malicious deep state in the bowels of the federal government. This is a projection of the deep state of oppression holed up in their own psyche.
There’s a tendency to believe that feelings of oppression are caused solely by the external world around us. For instance, the Wikipedia entry for oppression lists 14 types of oppression (including racial, class, gender, religious, and age)—and yet the entry does not mention self-imposed oppression. That is a significant oversight considering how just about everyone is oppressed, often to an intense degree, by his or her inner critic or superego. We have in our psyche a passive relationship with our inner critic, which is the source of our tendency to embellish feelings of being oppressed by outside forces.
This unconscious relationship with our inner critic is facilitated by inner passivity, which creates a tendency and even willingness to experience ourselves as if we’re at the mercy of situations and events. Because of this psychological condition, we have difficulty assessing accurately the degree to which an external situation is legitimately oppressive. Our worries, anxieties, fears, and feelings of helplessness all contribute to feelings of oppression because we’re unwittingly using the challenges of daily life as a means to feel victimized, passive, and oppressed.
Many people, for instance, are “injustice collectors.” They are prone to see the daily jostle of life in terms of victims and injustice. Injustice happens, for sure, but it can also be used by us for psychological mischief, namely to deepen our own sense of helplessness and victimhood. This self-defeat can occur compulsively when one’s inner conflict remains unrecognized and unresolved. Injustice collectors unwittingly feed their weakness, namely their readiness to feel oppressed by real or imagined injustices or to identify in self-defeating manner with people who are actually or supposedly being oppressed. Hence, they produce emotionally biased interpretations of reality.
We create this irrationality because of the degree to which we are under the influence of conflicting dynamics in our psyche. (Read, “A Chaos Theory of the Mind” and “12 Ways We Fail to See and Experience Reality.”)
Unwittingly, people sometimes create props and situations through which they can stage feelings of being oppressed. One client of mine (I’ll call her Judy) kept “a little spiral notebook” in which she listed her daily chores and duties. “The list is my boss,” she said. “It comes out first thing in the morning. It’s checked over before I have my coffee. Then I have another separate list for work. I’m always looking at it and feeling bad about what I haven’t gotten done.”
Judy suffered from an irrational impression that everything would fall apart if she didn’t have the list. She strove, as she said, “to be in some sense of power.” Describing the feeling, she said, “Somebody has to do this a certain way, things need to be monitored and pushed. I don’t exist if I don’t strain. I’ll collapse into nothingness if I’m not buzzing around in some stress and agitation.”
Judy had clear evidence she was colluding in accentuating the stress level and sense of oppression. She had to leave her house by 8 a.m. for work, and she had plenty of time to prepare for the day when she got up at 6:30 a.m. But she frequently pushed the snooze button on her alarm clock and arose a half-hour late. Then she had to scurry about, feeling “pushed, rushed, squeezed, and under the gun.” That oppressed feeling persisted throughout the day.
“That oppressed feeling,” I told Judy, “is pure inner passivity, particularly in the sense that you are choosing unconsciously to experience oppression in conjunction with a felt inability to rise above it. Feeling passive in this way is an emotional attachment, which means you feel fated to go on living like this. You can break free of this passivity as you come into a deeper recognition of your affinity for it and your identification with it.”
Judy was beginning to understand the underlying dynamics whereby she used her lists to embellish upon feelings of unresolved passivity and disconnect from self. “I can now see the inner defense I’m using to cover up this self-sabotage,” she told me. “It goes like this: ‘I’m not identified with being passive and alienated from myself. Look at how active I am. Look at how much I want to be strong and effective and get things done.’”
Judy was playing in her mind a refrain that is common to many of us: “Oh my, there’s so much I need to do and think about. How can I ever manage to take care of it all!” She was using her tardiness in getting out of bed to accentuate this feeling of being pushed and rushed, thereby intensifying the passive experience. Common symptoms of such self-defeating behavior include feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even guilt and shame when we begin to flounder under the sense of urgency. When we fail to keep pace, our inner critic can impose the sentence of guilt or shame as punishment for our alleged failure. This keeps us entangled in inner conflict and inner passivity.
Some people believe themselves to be oppressed (trapped, frustrated, helpless) in their relationships. Often, they’re unable to identify what their partner could be doing that would cause them to feel oppressed. Much of the time their partner is not doing anything that could realistically be considered oppressive. The oppressed feeling is being manufactured internally, the dynamics of which are understood by depth psychology.
Political and social relationships are also affected. Political polarization, for instance, can be intensified by our readiness to feel oppression and thereby to feel oppressed by one another. In this way, humans act out the unresolved inner conflict between wanting to feel self-respect versus harboring emotional resonance with feeling that one’s essence and values are being disrespected. Entangled with these dynamics is the psychological resistance we all have to freeing ourselves of inner conflict and negative emotions.
Among mentally ill people, the sense of oppression can reach levels of insanity. A man with malignant paranoia can feel oppressed because he’s not legally free to do harm to certain people who he dislikes. The only way he can lift his sense of oppression is to imagine carrying out a mass killing or perhaps to actually do it.
As mentioned, we can feel oppression directly from our environment and indirectly through the plight of other people. We embellish feelings of oppression by identifying emotionally with people who we perceive to be oppressed. Many kind people are indeed sympathetic and compassionate toward those who, like political prisoners, are indeed oppressed. Yet just as many get into psychological mischief by “sneaking in” emotionally the feeling of oppression as they identify with the oppression that some other person might or might not be feeling. Codependents do this all the time. This produces emotional distress that serves no purpose, along with distorted perceptions.
Case in point: People who accuse others of “microaggressions” (a term that condemns subtle derogatory or hostile intentions toward others, often in reference to minorities) usually haven’t taken into account the possibility that their own neurotic sensitivity to feeling slighted, disrespected, and oppressed is clouding their judgment. Those hurling the term at others are often identifying with real or alleged victims of so-called microaggressions, which means they’re resonating in themselves with emotions associated with oppression and disrespect. They’re sneaking in the side-door to feel through others what is unresolved in themselves. When we’re strong emotionally and have established self-respect, we don’t easily get triggered by the foolish microaggressions of others. When we haven’t established enough self-respect, we’ll likely be on the receiving end of microaggressions from our own inner critic. Accusing others, then, is only covering up what we’re doing to ourselves.
In other words, the unconscious intention of the neurotic person is not to redress an alleged microaggression but instead to repeatedly experience within himself or herself the unresolved feeling of being disrespected, unworthy, or oppressed. When someone blames a “microaggressor” for causing his distress or shame, he’s unconsciously employing a psychological defense to cover up his own emotional resonance with feeling judged in a negative light.
“Fat-shaming” is another term that’s applied with a lack of insight into self-imposed oppression. It’s true that overweight or obese people are often mocked in a way that’s unkind and abusive. But it doesn’t necessarily help to become overly protective of overweight people. If they want to avoid suffering, they have to make some effort to be strong enough emotionally to avoid feeling shamed or oppressed by boorish behavior. Overweight people can be first in line, through their inner critic, to shame themselves. Their unrecognized inner passivity makes them inwardly receptive to scorn and mockery from their inner critic. This means they feel, to some degree, that the scorn or mockery has some validity and that their guilt or shame is thereby appropriate. To cover up their secret willingness to accept punishment in the form of shame and guilt, they claim to hate feeling judged and they become upset or angry at those who are allegedly judging them negatively. This claim serves as an unconscious defense covering up their willingness to passively soak up the feeling of being mocked and scorned, whether from their inner critic or from others.
Evidence for this insight from depth psychology can be seen in many people who, just slightly overweight, believe they’re perceived negatively by others for their physical appearance. Their misperception is based in inner conflict, in this case the dynamic between inner passivity and the inner critic, whereby they are compelled to use the fact of being even slightly overweight as an excuse or a means to perpetuate unresolved inner conflict. They don’t understand the inner struggle taking place, in which they’re trying frantically to minimize the punishment demanded by the harsh inner critic.
When we access the right knowledge in these and other situations, we’re able to acquire a highly developed sense of what is happening. We can now begin to realize our inherent goodness, integrity, and strength, and rescue ourselves from self-imposed oppression.