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Equity & Identity
September 14, 2020
How Oppression Impacts Self-worth

Shift Team

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Social Oppression

Oppression comes in many forms and has long-standing impacts on individuals, families, and communities.

To fully understand the depth of its impacts, it’s important to recognize that we live in societies that continue to compartmentalize people into hierarchies that dictate their value. These hierarchies draw lines through age, class, ability, gender, race, skin colour, sexuality, body size, and other categories. Growing up within these social hierarchies impacts how we experience the world and how we experience our own selves in the world.

How Oppression Impacts Self Worth 

We learn self-worth from the approval and disapproval of others beginning in infancy. A baby’s ability to survive depends, quite literally, on being accepted by a caregiver(s). As we grow, our self-worth still depends on the acceptance of other members of society—classmates, teachers, employers, colleagues, etc. What we learn about our value, from infancy to childhood to adulthood to elderhood, has a significant impact on our self-worth and self-image. What we experience consistently over our lifespan either teaches that we are valuable and wanted or that we are replaceable, shameful, and unworthy. Oppression is not simply a few minor incidents of being devalued that come and go. It’s a chronic, long-term experience of continually being made less than or powerless.

This experience impacts our ways of thinking. It affects our perceived and real personal safety and our livelihoods, which results in a fear and stress response. A chronic state of fear or stress impacts cognition and mental health processes. Research shows that when humans are chronically treated differently, unfairly, or badly the impacts range from developing low self-worth to developing stress-related struggles, like anxiety and depression. 

To survive our environments, we adapt our ways of living and our choices to minimize feelings of rejection and pain. These can include avoiding certain people, situations, or choices. The far reaching impacts of low self worth, anxiety, depression, or changes in cognitive processing then influence our relationships, careers, and the way we engage in all our life interactions. This, in turn, impacts our access to opportunities, health, income, and education.

Moving Forward

Before we spiral into needing to change more things about ourselves, it is important to recognize there is nothing wrong with us. Neither is this a reflection of our true worthiness. Our fear response to oppression is a response that is trying to keep us alive in an environment that has been unsafe for us. In fact, we can thank our body for this response. It has worked hard to keep us safe and to make sure we are accepted in our family, school, society, etc. Instead, we can be grateful to it for keeping us safe and then choose if we want to learn another way of being.  

Rather than blame ourselves for having low self confidence, anxiety, or depression, we can understand ourselves better. Understanding how oppression impacts us according to hierarchies like age, class, ability, gender, race, skin colour, etc we can understand and have compassion for ourselves and our bodily reactions to our experiences. It makes sense then, when we understand our experiences related to these and therefore, how we experience our own selves and our safety in the world

Footnote: When writing about oppression I believe it is important to note my own location within systems that historically and continue to oppress. I am a White immigrant woman living on the traditional lands of the Sinixt, the Ktunaxa, the Secwepmec and the Syilx. It has been through my work with Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and communities that I have learned the importance of recognizing symptoms of oppression and marvelling at the resiliency of individuals to survive their environment rather than making the symptoms an individual’s deficiency or problem to solve

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