Embracing the Shadow: Working with an Internal Oppressor
Originally published in Coaching for Transformation
Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” The same is true about accepting parts. Instead of admonishing or fighting against an internal oppressor, if we simply witness and accept the oppressors’ beliefs and emotions, we move closer to a mindful state that helps parts relax.
If we’re part of a marginalized group and we experience prejudice, we often internalize oppression over time. Consciously or unconsciously, a part of us believes in the stereotypes and holds an oppressive view toward our identity group, whether we’re a person of color, a woman, LGBTQQ, working class or survivors of other social constructs. When we internalize the values, beliefs and myths of our culture, we can sink into profound self-doubt.
We experience internal ridicule, criticism or punishment when part of us starts to use the methods of our oppressors against ourselves. Sometimes our internal oppressors silence us, express hatred or suggest death. But why? What’s the positive intent or deeper purpose when the oppressor tells us, “You’re not good at math. You’re lazy. You probably won’t succeed. You’re so ugly. Too dark. Worthless.” Ultimately the internal oppressor is trying to keep us safe, protect us from pain and ensure survival. But the methods of an internal oppressor can be brutal, so it isn’t easy to open our hearts or even listen to these parts. Often their comments are directed toward the wounded child, which sounds an alarm because we want to protect the child from further abuse.
The internal oppressor seems to be ever present, but lies dormant until a real or perceived threat is experienced or remembered, then springs into action. It is not helpful to try to convince our internal oppressor that we are actually good, worthy or capable. Nor does it help to cast it aside. To negate the impact of the internal oppressor, the temptation is to call in the inner cheerleader to say, “You’re beautiful. Brilliant. Just the right size. Strong. Worthy. So loveable. Perfect in every way.” However, that only agitates the internal oppressor who only wants to be understood and valued.
Not just child parts, but oppressors can also use some re-parenting. Thich Nhat Hahn said, “You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling the mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying.” Through tenderness, it’s possible to create a loving relationship with an emotional upset part, the same way we soothe a crying child. By engaging and respecting troubling, dominating parts of the psyche, intense emotions and outmoded beliefs can be released.
One of the most difficult aspects of Embracing the Shadow is to try to open our hearts to inner tyrants—ours or our clients. To release our own judgments about oppressors supports our clients in releasing theirs. As we gain greater access to our Self, we can be more fully present to engage with our clients’ oppressors. In a compassionate, curious, mindful state, we can learn how the oppressor is suffering or what it is trying so desperately to protect.
Richard Schwartz says, “The Buddhist teacher Tsultrim Allione revived an ancient Tibetan tradition called Chod, which has practitioners feeding rather than fighting with their inner ‘demons.’ She finds that once fed with curiosity and compassion, these inner enemies reveal what they really need, feel accepted and heard, and become allies.”
The Self is not only accepting, but has access to internal wisdom to connect deeply with all parts and has the capacity to heal the system. Instead of admonishing or fighting against the internal oppressor, if we simply witness and accept the oppressors’ beliefs and emotions, we move closer to a mindful state that helps parts transform.
Similar to wounded children, the internalized oppressor is seeking love and support from the Self. As parts develop healthy relationships with the Self, their terror and suffering transform. When that happens the entire internal family deepens its trust in the Self, leading to more functional, fulfi lling relationships.
For example, Noah, a man of color, came to coaching to work on internalized oppression. Most of his life he had diligently avoided behaviors that might reinforce racial stereotypes. The internal pressure to dress impeccably, keep a smile on his face and work long hours were impacting his health. His coach helped him listen for the positive intent of his internal oppressors, which included protecting him from other’s criticism, being seen for his positivity and keeping him safe. Only then could he develop self-compassion, full expression and a healthier lifestyle. Revitalized, he got coaching on having crucial conversations with his boss. Over time he renegotiated his work hours and created more equality in the relationship. His coach helped him bring his parts into alignment. Once he attuned to his spiritual core, he made systemic changes in his organization and expanded opportunities for marginalized groups.
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