Surviving Oppression; Healing Oppression

Surviving Oppression; Healing Oppression

To heal oppression in ourselves and in world, it is helpful to understand trauma. Trauma is a physically or emotionally threatening experience (or series of experiences) that leaves us feeling unsafe and disconnected. When we feel threatened or when something traumatic is happens to us or the people we love, the Limbic and Reptilian areas of the brain activate our automatic survival strategies of fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate (FFFAD).

If these experiences (which can include car accidents, earthquakes, medical interventions, verbal or physical assaults, etc.) are not immediately followed by restorative experiences of finding safety and being acknowledged, these FFFAD reactions become stored in the body. Trauma stored in the body in this way shapes our perceptions and worldview in profound ways; our bodies and the world around us may seem inherently unsafe, and we can become fundamentally disconnected from ourselves, other beings, the earth, and spirit.

Oppression is Social Trauma

Oppression is a social trauma that traumatizes—although in very different ways–both the targets and the agents of oppression.

For targets of oppression (also known as underprivileged people), social trauma impacts entire target communities (for example: youth, working class people, lesbian/gay/bisexual people, transgender and gender variant people, immigrants of color, African Americans, First Nations people, Arab Americans and other communities of color, people with disabilities, etc); is ongoing (it exists over generations and over an individual’s entire lifespan); pervasive (it is reinforced by myriad institutions); and traumatizes the targets of oppression through (actual or potential) physical, emotional and spiritual violence, and through the withholding of basic resources necessary to survive and thrive. These collective, pervasive and ongoing ruptures of safety and connection result in internalized oppression and other coping mechanisms.

For agents of oppression (also known as overprivileged people), social trauma impacts entire agent communities (for example, adults, middle and upper class people, heterosexual and gender conforming people, U.S. citizens, European Americans and able-bodied people); is ongoing, pervasive; and traumatizes the agents of oppression through the enforced rupture of their inherent sense of interdependence with people in the target group; and through being coerced into causing other human beings to suffer. For example, Mab Segrest in her book, Born to Belonging, describes the impact of racism on white people as follows: “The profound damage racism has done to us (because) we… participate in such an inhuman set of practices and belief…there is a pain, a psychic wound, to inhabiting and maintaining domination.”

In addition to these traumas, children in the agent group also experience the implied threat of losing the safety and connection of their caregivers and community if they do not conform to the dominant role. These collective, pervasive and ongoing ruptures of safety and connection result in internalized dominance and other coping mechanisms.

Oppression Survival Strategies Based on Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease, Dissociate

Faced with repeated experiences of social trauma (racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, ageism, and other forms of systemic oppression), individuals and communities in both target and agent groups practice whichever of the above survival strategies have helped them (and their group) survive in the past.

Oppression survival strategies are based on limbic and reptilian brain potentials of fight, flight, freeze, appease, dissociate (FFFAD). These strategies can include caretaking, appeasing, assimilation, hypervigilant scanning for threats, spacing out, emotional and mental denial, defensiveness, attacking, criticizing, avoidance, withdrawal, isolating, refusing to take responsibility or taking on too much responsibility, constant image management, self-absorption, seeking absolution, becoming paralyzed, silent, invisible, etc.

As we repeatedly practice these strategies, they become automatic, habitual patterns that get activated by situations that remind us of the original threat or trauma.

Agent or Internalized Dominance Survival Strategies

Anyone can resort to any of the following strategies to survive being either a target or an agent of oppression, but internalized dominance or agent survival strategies often take the form of:

• denial
• dissociation
• numbness
• obliviousness to oppression and to target group members in general
• defensiveness
• attacking and blaming target group members
• refusal to take responsibility for oppression
• self absorption
• avoidance of target group members
• paralysis

Target or Internalized Oppression Survival Strategies

Anyone can resort to the following strategies to survive being either a target or an agent of oppression, but internalized oppression or target survival strategies often take the form of:

• appeasing
• caretaking of agent group members
• staying silent or attempting invisibility
• withdrawal from and avoidance of agent group members
• isolation
• spacing out
• dissociating
• numbing
• hypervigilant scanning
• interpreting everything in the social environment as a threat

The Non-dual and Complementary Nature of Oppression Survival Strategies

For the sake of clarity, I have separated agent and target survival strategies into two distinct lists. However, both target and agent survival strategies live and operate in everyone’s bodies. All of us have learned to survive being targets and agents of oppression (for example, at the very least, all of us once were children in a world dominated by adults); thus we may recognize any of these strategies in ourselves and our communities.

Target and agent survival strategies often play into and reinforce one another. For example, it is common for white people to become defensive and make verbal attacks when a racist action or policy that they were unaware of is pointed out. It is common for people of color to respond by appeasing and soothing white people’s feelings to protect themselves from backlash and further harm.

Heterosexual people often demonstrate denial and dissociation by acting oblivious to the realities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people; LGBTQ people often resort to the complementary strategy of being silent and invisible by staying in the closet.

These complementary target-agent survival patterns become incorporated into our bodies and behaviors. Since these patterns arose to help target and agent groups survive oppression, these behaviors do little to eliminate oppression. In fact, they support the status quo.

These survival strategies have proven to be effective in protecting target group members from even worse harm, and in protecting agent group members from self-hate; this effectiveness is the very reason these strategies persist; and why they deserve to be honored and appreciated for getting us here. Gratitude is an appropriate first step.
The next step—if our goal is to move beyond maintaining our survival and the status quo into creating a just world—is to choose and practice new strategies that give us more options. For example, members of both target and agent groups can consciously choose to practice behaviors such as being present; treating self and others with compassion; listening before reacting; and speaking their truth. Humans become whatever we practice, and life-affirming behaviors such as these are antithetical to oppression.

Discussing Oppression Means Revisiting Trauma

When people come together to look at oppression we revisit profound social trauma. We bring our complex identities and traumatic target and agent group experiences to the mix; we bring our hurt and shame and hope for honesty, healing and redemption. The stakes are high. In this vulnerable atmosphere, our limbic and reptilian brains register the uneasiness. Our oppression survival patterns tend to become re-activated in our bodies and in the group space. It is important to remember that when agents and targets attempt to dialogue about oppression of any kind our “lizard” brains are present for the discussion.

If our limbic and reptilian brains are in charge of the space, dialogues about oppression can swiftly become hurtful, re-traumatizing miscommunications. There is the risk of oppression being recreated and reinforced by our complementary survival patterns.

To encourage constructive, healing discussions about oppression, it is important to cultivate an atmosphere of safety, compassion and mindfulness, and to have tools at the ready to help us recognize and soothe our inevitable reactivity when it comes up. It is also important to practice creative, empowered responses to triggering situations, so that our focus moves beyond survival reactions such as denial and blame into practicing and creating the loving and just environment and community that we long for.

with gratitude to Staci Haines, Denise Benson & Generative Somatics


You can find out about Dr. Vanissar Tarakali’s upcoming workshops or make a somatic and intuitive coaching appointment at 

You can also connect with her on Facebook at Tarakali Education.

7 thoughts on “Surviving Oppression; Healing Oppression

  1. bruce jackson

    Thank you for this article. I am currently developing a presentation to a group of ‘agents of oppression’ at the Banff Men’s Conference in October 2010. Subject of the presentation is ‘teaching peace in a culture of war’. The theme speaker is a retired Lt. Colonel Canadian Military. The material here would be helpful in helping the participants to examine themselves as agents of oppression as I try to help them examine the choices made in the name of patriotism, democracy and other cliches used to promote war. Would you have any objection if I name source and website in my resource list?

  2. Vanissar Post author

    Dear Bruce: that would be fine. I also highly recommend Steven Wineman’s online book: Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. be well, Vanissar

  3. Kathryn Barlow


    I realise you wrote this article years ago but I am just reading it this morning.

    There seems little information about healing or empowering people who have internalised oppression to the extent that they no longer appear to participate in mainstream society in terms of accessing health care, education or even welfare.

    I am particularly interested in how to identify these folk and even if that is possible (by utilising government agencies?) I wonder if once ‘found’ the people would engage with health or education providers .

    Given how difficult it is to convince people in general regarding what society deems to be good for their health, wellbeing or education ( 2 simple examples being campaigns to encourage men to have prostate checks and to support smokers to quit) how does the ‘perceived oppresser ‘ help the oppressed? How to change the way they think?

    It seems (anecdotally) that there are many in our communities who have almost literally disappeared – the welfare saftey nets have not worked and they are only identified when they are incarcerated or when they are hospitalised or when they die.

    So many times I read of organisations, charities, government agencies “stepping in” and providing support and then being dismayed when it didn’t work.

    Anyway – it is a dilemma and I would appreciate your thoughts. I have just completed a B.A. double major Education and Philosophy and am considering attempting a Ph.D. and this area is close to my heart!

    I have a B.Com. in Accounting and have worked for over 20years in Financial Management – only because I was a single parent to 2 boys under 5 and needed to provide for them. I had the personal strength, attitude and foundation in education to make it happen and the world was a different place in the late 80s.

    I have been fortunate where so many others are not.

  4. Martina

    Thank you very much, Vanissar, for pointing out and describing the connections of oppression and trauma.

    I would like to follow on on Kathryn’s thoughts and your article with the question how healing can happen when the oppression continues on.

    It is good to create an “atmosphere of safety, compassion and mindfulness,” and it can be a good relief and especially help agents of oppression to better understand the dynamics, but for the targets of oppression, their experience of oppression will continue.

    So one central element of typical strategies for healing of trauma is missing: the trauma is not in the past, it continues to happen. So strategies of empowerment, as mentioned by Kathryn, could be more helpful than trauma healing. But that is less clear how it could be done.

    I think this could also be an answer to Kathryn’s question about why people just disappear or don’t react to the offers made for them: their oppression continues to happen, they need their energy to survive in that situation. For example smoking is often an important tranquilizer in service or care jobs that require a lot of emotion labor.

    I am at a loss as to how to actually improve situations of continuing oppression. There are some empowerment strategies, there is theatre of the oppressed,, there is community support structures, but in the end, the onus for improving the situation of targets of oppression should not be with them but with the agents of oppression.

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