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The Exhaustion of Inner Oppression

By Lisa Meuser.

Here is the second piece in a series of blog posts exploring discomfort and disconnection.  

I have been noticing in clients, in myself, and perhaps everywhere: tension (and discomfort) goes up when a sense of connection to well-being goes down.  It’s not the tension or push-pull that’s the problem, in fact tension is a normal part of the human experience; it’s the constant lack of well-being amidst the tension. Could you imagine us being a culture that communicated from kindness, that operated from a sense of “we-ness”, or that was rooted in curiosity? Even amidst tension, we could be in connection, supporting one another. But we are a culture rooted in dominant/oppressive narrative[1] behaviors and mores, a culture that is rooted in disconnection, and so along with tension we also feel disconnect, and that changes everything. 

When I think of tension, I think of a “push-pull.” There is something pushing, and another thing pulling, and this creates a tension. We may have literally experienced this in our families of origin – where we perhaps found ourselves in between our mothers and fathers, or, as was in my case, in between my mother and my brother. We may have experienced this in our circles of friends, or in other kinds of engagements, where, for example, there is a sense of pressure to be a certain way. We may have experienced this from groups of people, or from culture itself, particularly if we are from a marginalized population (as deemed by the culture in which one lives).  We often don’t have good skills to navigate these tensions, and we often aren’t with others who have these skills either, who can support us.

Survivors know this territory well, on a variety of levels. Instead of being raised with loving and kind voices and a compassionate culture, we were often raised with external narratives filled with supposed tos and shoulds, as well as other judgements, and sometimes even hatred. We tried so hard to “be good,” but we still got treated the way we were being treated. 

It hurts to be rejected, to be excluded, to be othered, to be harmed, to be left out… to not belong. We so desperately want to be accepted by others, included by others, valued by others, loved… and it can be devastating when we are not. We try so hard to get that approval so that we can belong. Over time we innocently internalize those external judgmental narratives, and they become our own narratives. In the process we begin to turn ourselves into pretzels – fighting with ourselves to be certain ways – still trying to get that approval, to get that belonging. 

We can literally feel this push-pull in our bodies when we are involved in conflict, with ourselves or with others. One part of ourselves may be pushing one way, while another part may be pulling in another way. It can show up differently for each person, based on the context. I often experience it in my solar plexus, but it has showed up in my throat, heart, lower belly and other areas of my body. It is usually very uncomfortable and can create distress in our bodies. You might think to a time when you weren’t sure what to do. You wanted to X, but you also wanted to Y. Maybe it was your belly in that push/pull, and it felt like there was a knot there.  Maybe it was in your heart, with a clenching. Maybe it was in your throat, with a tightening. Or maybe there was overwhelm, and so a sense of numbness came over you. Not knowing how to navigate the discomfort of our bodies, this push-pull often takes us to our minds, where an internal sense of fighting comes alive – a fighting and a franticness in our thoughts, as we’re convinced that we’ll be able to figure it out from there.

Feeling Exhausted?

All that pretzel-making is such burdened, hard work – in an innocent attempt to feel safe, we turn to fighting with our self through our thoughts.  We so badly want this discomfort to end, and we attempt to rely on our thoughts to do it. The unconscious internal narratives may look like, “If I do X, things will calm down,” “If I do Y, they will stop yelling at each other,” “If I do Z, this knot in my belly will go away,” “If I am XYZ, I will be included.” The thoughts can morph into “I should be better than I am”, “I should be like I was when XYZ”, “I should be like XYZ person is,” “I am supposed to be XYZ, not as I am.” The variations are endless.  Hidden within all these unconscious narratives are shoulds and supposed tos and have tos, that we hope and believe will lead us to relief and safety.

Phew. Is it any wonder why we experience so much anxiety, and why we are so exhausted? 

This frenetic state of being is perhaps the biggest clue that we are out of well-being, and that we need to get some clarity. We know that our revved-up thoughts are not helping, and so we must slow down and pause. As we do so, we will be able to step back from the franticness of our minds and start to get conscious with the subtext/subconsciousness of our thoughts by simply asking ourselves, “What thoughts am I having right now about XYZ/myself?”  Having a healthy relationship with our somatic presence is an important part of this process. There are some simple practices to develop this relationship mid-way through this blog post.

Shifting into Well-Being

While this slowing down and becoming familiar with our thoughts is a necessary part of shifting patterns, we may not at first appreciate what we find! For example, we may have considered ourselves to be a rather peaceful person, only to discover this inward fighting and conflict going on! Discovering what had been out of my attention has often been difficult for me – it may bump up against a kind of arrogance I have about who I am and/or my place in the world. Said another way, it often didn’t feel good to my personality to realize how many blind spots I had about myself! Shame and humiliation often surfaced first. After the sting wore off, usually with the help of some loving people in my life, I moved from humiliation to humility, where I could wake more fully to the learning part of being human. Once I re-remember I am a human here to learn, I find the discovery aspect of my human journey less threatening, slowly becoming grateful for the opportunity to unlearn the innocent yet harmful patterning. 

I didn’t have support to help me be aware of my subconscious narratives early in my journey and so it took me a long time to learn that often it wasn’t others who were harming me anymore. Over and over I thought it was other people. To clarify, yes, people had harmed me tremendously in my past, particularly when I was a child. I had minimal sense of autonomy or ability to choose with regards to my predicament. As I matured and was able to make choices for myself, those internalized oppressive narratives followed me, and over time I realized that as an adult, no one was harming me as much as I was harming me through the subconscious mental fights going on in my mind in attempts to feel safe. 

When we argue with who we are and when we are constantly comparing our self to others/imagined selves, it is we who are rejecting our self, berating our self, other-ing our self, excluding our self. What once began as others not being loving towards us and others rejecting and judging us, becomes us not loving our self, rejecting our self, and judging our self. It becomes us who abandon our very self. 

Spotting that internal fight, rather than focusing on the external fight, can be a first step in putting a cog in the wheel of self-violation. It can also be a huge step in moving towards empowerment, because while we can’t control how others respond to us, we can slowly over time learn how to be kind and loving and accepting of ourselves. And for the record, self-compassion is something I had to learn as an adult, because it was never role-modeled to me as a child or even into my 20s, despite my years in a spiritual community.

Loosening the Grip of Oppression 

Naming this happening may seem like no big deal, but naming is one of the most important components of shifting a habitual pattern. A pattern runs at its strongest when it happens without consciousness. As soon as it becomes conscious, it immediately starts to lose power and it will lose more power if there is less judgement associated with the naming. In other words, if I beat myself up for being conscious of the pattern, it will hold it in place. But if, upon recognizing I’ve participated in the pattern, I can factually say to myself, “Ohhh, I just did that. Ok, I can see how that is the pattern of X,” that simple awareness will start to shift the pattern. This is where getting support was helpful for me in shifting the patterning, as I did not know how to treat myself with patience or kindness until it was modeled to me through somatic practitioners trained in trauma healing.  

Once you are able to name the patterning without judgement, you might start to notice it more. As kindly and compassionately as you can, keep naming the pattern as it arises, without trying to fix or change it. The kindness and compassion itself can be profound in shifting the pattern. I found journaling to be useful, in addition to exploring with supportive practitioners and friends. 

Although it may take time, all of this plays a role in shifting the oppressive tendencies we have with regard to how we treat ourselves, as well as others. 

Keep exploring, and please let me know what questions arise for you as you get to know yourself!

[1]  I’ve written about the dominant narrative here and here

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

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