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What is Internalized Oppression? & How It Prevents Self-Love

When you hear the word “oppression,” you might think of being held prisoner or locked up—a nightmare scenario that doesn’t apply to your daily life. But the reality is that oppression can also happen without any physical force.

In fact, there’s one kind of oppression that takes place all around us: internalized oppression.

Internalized oppression is a toxic and yet prevalent social phenomenon that stops many of us, especially women, from being able to give and receive love. Below, I explain in more detail what internalized oppression is, why it happens, and the kinds of behaviors common among those who experience it. 

What is internalized oppression?

Internalized oppression is what happens when an oppressed group believes, accepts, and adopts negative beliefs imposed by dominating groups as true. It’s a concept in social justice theory that describes what it’s like to belong to a marginalized group.

In the U.S., many women experience internalized oppression because of toxic messages received from all kinds of familiar sources: pop culture and mainstream media, school, work, religious communities, even family and friends.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “Act like a lady.”

  • “Real women have curves.”

  • “Look at what she was wearing—she was asking for it.”

With repeat exposure to these types of messages, we begin to consciously or unconsciously accept them as a part of our identity. They then influence our thoughts and behaviors.  

For women in particular, we often act on these messages by disempowering ourselves and other women. That might look like:

  • Body shaming, or making disparaging remarks about our own or someone else’s body and physical appearance

  • Viewing other women as social competition at home or at work, especially for the attention and approval of others

  • Applying a double standard that favors men and boys over women and girls (i.e., in child-raising, family relations, student treatment in school, employee treatment at the workplace, customer treatment in business, etc.)

  • Making self-deprecating jokes/remarks based on negative gender stereotypes—for example, saying, “I’m a woman, so I’m bad at math.”

  • Discouraging other women and girls from realizing their dreams and fulfilling their higher potential

  • Blaming women for causing our own victimization

These are just a few of the many ways that internalized oppression may manifest among women, the consequences of which can be insidious. 

Because of internalized negative stereotypes and beliefs about their gender, women who internalize messages of inferiority may unknowingly impose limitations on their own aspirations and goals. For example, they may be less likely to pursue leadership positions or advocate for their rights.

Why does internalized oppression happen? And how can you overcome it?

More often than not, internalized oppression manifests as self-critical thoughts. 

That might be in the form of “should” statements: “I should be doing this.” “I should be doing that.”

Or it could be in the deep-seated beliefs that you hold to be true about yourself: “I am unlovable.” “I am unworthy.” “I am not enough.”

The simple answer for why such self-criticism happens is that we’re not taught to love ourselves

If any of this resonates, ask yourself: 

  • Why am I practicing this behavior?

  • Where does the thought behind it come from? 

  • What’s making me believe that?

At the end of the day, how we feel and behave in any given situation is the result of our perception. The events that unfold around us are always neutral, but we interpret them through the lens of our thoughts and beliefs. 

So how are you interpreting the world around you? What do you perceive? And how might someone else look at the same set of circumstances? 

Awareness of your own beliefs and why you feel the way you feel is an important step toward dismantling internalized oppression. 

Spoiler alert: It’s not easy. But when we practice making one small change, like acknowledging the negative beliefs that drive our behavior, it gradually shifts to become an automatic habit.

How to practice self-love

Many of the messages that lead to internalized oppression among women are culturally embedded—they come from long-standing patriarchal traditions. That means it’s often an uphill battle when it comes to loving yourself.

Here’s the truth, though: it's not arrogant to love yourself. It's actually a very beautiful thing. 

Loving yourself means accepting yourself as an individual. It means appreciating who you are without needing to compare yourself to others.

Below are some recommended practices for personal development, including those I adopted in my own journey toward attaining self-love:

  • Write “Morning Pages.” This daily practice, which comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, involves writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts every morning, ideally as soon as you wake up. Morning Pages help clear your mind and express your thoughts without judgment so that you can cultivate more clarity and insight into your internal world.

  • Take yourself out on dates. Going out to eat or to the movies shouldn’t only be social events. Spending meaningful time by yourself allows you to prioritize your own enjoyment and well-being without relying on others for validation or companionship. In addition, solo dates can help build self-confidence and independence.

  • Practice self-care. Along the same lines of taking yourself out on dates, it's also essential to take care of yourself. For instance, prioritize adequate sleep and exercise. Taking care of ourselves is essential because it allows us to recharge; it also demonstrates love and respect for oneself.

  • Meditate. Meditation provides an opportunity to quiet the constant chatter of your mind, including the self-judgment that undermines your self-esteem. By learning to observe these critical thoughts without attachment, you can gradually weaken their hold and cultivate a more compassionate and accepting attitude toward yourself.

  • Meet with a therapist. Therapy provides a safe space to explore and unpack the underlying beliefs, emotions, and experiences that may contribute to internalized oppression. A trusted therapist can also provide empathy and nonjudgmental support.

Trying and combining multiple interventions to take care of your mind and body can go a long way in unraveling the beliefs that have contributed to internalized oppression.

Self-love benefits not just you, but also your community

Recognizing and overcoming internalized oppression often involves an ongoing journey—there is no quick fix. It requires a commitment to self-awareness and transformative change. It requires self-love.

When you love yourself, something incredible happens. Not only do you become more likely to be your best self, you’re also more likely to show up for your community.

You’re no longer playing the comparison game or trying to put others down. In lifting yourself up, you also become more compassionate toward others. 

My hope is that someday, women no longer buy into toxic gender stereotypes because those narratives ultimately hurt us all. As we become more mindful, we can learn to change. Self-love is the catalyst for not just our individual well-being but also our collective empowerment.

What next?

  • If you’re interested in learning more about internalized oppression, listen to my conversation with Nicole Simmons on the Take Action podcast. In it, I share my own journey in building self-love.

  • Maybe something resonated with you above, like some of the common behaviors practiced by women who experience internalized oppression. As a clinical psychologist, I support clients in unraveling negative thoughts and beliefs so they can learn to love themselves. Book an appointment.

  • For teams interested in self-development, I also offer group workshops and trainings on stress management and mindfulness meditation. Find out about upcoming events or reach out to schedule one.

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