Stopping the Cycle of Oppression: How Our Early Hurts Perpetuate Injustice

The Nature of Human Beings: Spontaneous Healing from Hurts

As young people we experienced many hurts. Hurts can be intentional or accidental. They can happen consciously or unawarely. Perhaps, like me, when you hear the word “hurt” you think of physical hurts and those are included here. For example, an unintentional hurt is falling while learning to walk or to ride a bike. Falling and the resulting knee scrapes, cuts, and bruises are physical hurts. As young people, we spontaneously healed when we fell.  

How did we spontaneously heal when hurts happened to us?

Besides the scab (immediately) and new skin (eventually) that sealed the cut, we discharged or released the hurt by crying and, if we got really scared, by shaking. Of course, hurts are not only physical but also verbal, emotional, or psychological. On the extreme end, there are young ones who have experienced quite significant emotional, physical, and psychological abuse. Hurts from adultism, the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment of young people and the training ground for all other oppression, also take more subtle forms, ones we might be tempted to minimize or dismiss or even celebrate or affirm. I can’t help but think of Jamie Foxx’s acceptance speech for his performance as Ray Charles in the movie “Ray.” In that address he thanks his grandmother for “whooping” him. Anything that you heard or experienced that made you feel less than completely human would be considered a hurt. And let’s be clear: oppression is a hurt. You can’t oppress people without feelings.

Humans feels. Even young humans. Oppression is a hurt.

Our healing was disrupted by a society that suppresses emotions. Adults around us, still carrying unhealed hurts from their own experiences with adultism, also suppressed expression of emotions: their own and young people’s. As young people we will try to heal every chance we get. Yet we were discouraged from accessing these forms of discharge. Without a way to heal, we found other ways to cope with feeling defeated, discouraged, insignificant, and powerless, as a result of adultism. We took on patterns of behavior to numb or distract us to cope. The resulting patterns (of thinking, of behavior) protected us and probably helped us survive, but they didn’t end the oppression.

When we acknowledge the impacts of adultism: both in hurting us as young people and in preventing or interrupting our inherent capacity to heal, we begin to understand how good people perpetuate the cycle of oppression.

Human Beings Responding to Oppression: Rigid Patterned Responses

Some of the patterns we developed to avoid getting hurt show up in our social justice work as isolating, over-working to prove our worth or commitment, numbing our feelings through addictions, shunning intimacy and connection or substituting sex for closeness, escalating or avoiding conflict, caretaking or becoming the “savior,” and trying to have the fight against adultism that we didn’t get to have as children. For example, how many of us as adults have stayed up late, long past when were tired and knew it made sense to go to sleep, as a misplaced “fight” against having to go to bed earlier than the adults? How many of us as adults have escalated an interaction with a customer service agent or store clerk for not treating us with the respect we feel we deserve, a misplaced “stand” against people who themselves are by design institutionally disrespected? Or how many of us as adults have “called out” an injustice in an alienating or polarizing way, rooted in a powerlessness or invisibility that kept us silent or timid as young people which we vowed to never be again? These fights are not about the present-time situation, so the fights are inappropriate, ineffective, draining, further isolating, and, in some cases, oppressive themselves.

Our patterns show up in what or how we lead or avoid leading, how we feel about and back or tear down other leaders, and how much or whether we allow others to think about and back our leadership. In fact, those unhealed hurts and the patterns—rigid and unthinking by definition—can be co-opted into the service of other oppressions and become oppression towards others where we as adults now have institutional power. Despite our best efforts, intentions, and what we want for ourselves and the world, unhealed hurts from adultism become oppressive behaviors towards ourselves and towards others. Let me give you an example from my own life.

I was born disabled. The disability, hip dysplasia, wasn’t the hurt. The hurt was being labeled with a “birth defect”—which I internalized. (I only stopped using the word “defective” to describe that experience about 10 years ago.) The hurt wasn’t being put in a brace, which over the course of nine months painlessly guided the path of my left femur bone into its corresponding hip socket. The hurt was being left isolated and alone as an infant. I felt stuck wherever I was put. Unable to move myself (eventually I started “wobble walking,” willing one fixed braced leg to alternate moving forward), I was dependent on others to move me. I couldn’t crawl because I lacked the strength to drag my weighted, brace-laden legs behind me.

I couldn’t heal those hurts while they were happening, nor afterward, because adultism discourages emotional healing. I internalized that I was defective. I didn’t get to heal from that. I was isolated and immobilized with that brace. I didn’t get to discharge that. Once the brace was removed, though, you couldn’t “put” me anywhere again. I never slowed down. The message I internalized, “If you’re slow, you’ll be left alone.” “If you’re slow, there’s something defective or wrong with you.” “If you’re slow, you’re on your own.”

My chronic pattern goes fast. It’s not enough to just keep up, you might fall behind. You must be ahead, faster than everyone else, if you’re going to stay alive. That’s one of my patterns of internalized oppression. And you can see it all over my life. It’s absurd the way that I have set up my life. It’s irrational and anyone from the outside can see it. But for me, it is a survival pattern that’s now become so chronic that it feels like if I don’t do it, I’m going to die. We don’t take these patterns on lightly. They helped us survive. But in the end, these very same patterns will contribute to our demise. These very same patterns unhealed will contribute to our very death. It’s this irony of oppression.

This pattern of going fast is not only destructive to my life, but also oppressive to others. I’m out there on my own, leaving everybody behind. “See you later, people! If you can’t keep up, you’re on your own.” That pattern is passed on as oppression in any place or relationships where I’m in a position of power or the non-target of institutional oppression. I’m going to use the example of classism: where I’m in a position of power in my workplace as both a business owner and as a boss.

How does this pattern impact the people who work with me? Who have less power than me? In a subordinate role in the hierarchy of the organization, they end up feeling inadequate and incompetent—even though this is far from true. I don’t help them. In my own panic, I point out where they’re not keeping up. I make them feel “slow and stupid” because they’re not as fast as I am. I am perpetuating the very hurts that happened to me. And, without healing, the people who work in my organization now end up with these same hurts. And, like me if they don’t discharge and heal, they will pass them on.

Do you see how that passes on? It’s not my fault, I’m not a bad person. I’m not an inherently classist person. I don’t even like or support classism. For goodness sakes, I’m working to end classism. But where I haven’t healed, I’m going to pass this on. Unless we have support to emotionally discharge the early hurts, this is how the cycle will continue. And that’s what we’re offering you as an option that you were born with. You already came with this super cool, awesome capacity to heal. It just got interrupted by adultism.

If you can heal where you got hurt (in this instance where I go fast), instead of continuing to replay your patterns, you will stop the cycle of oppression. The off-ramp is an alternative to replicating and colluding with oppression. This is the option that says, “no more, Cycle. I’m not going to participate. No more system.” This gets us closer and closer to who we were as young people, before the impact of adultism, when we had full access to all our emotional discharge mechanisms we came into the world with, and a clear picture of how good we were and are. And to the incredible capacity we had to know what was fair and just in the world.

Healing for Justice: A Liberation Practice

We have legitimate reasons to be upset and even outraged about what happened to us as young people. When we don’t acknowledge those hurts or minimize them or even struggle to call them hurts, we don’t heal. But not acknowledging them or minimizing them doesn’t diminish the anger or hurt that was left behind. Instead, that anger and hurt leak out in ways that we don’t intend and often don’t notice now because it’s become, in our minds, “who we are.” It’s not who we are, though. It’s how we got hurt. It’s how we haven’t yet healed. 

If you’ve ever seen a young person tantrum, they show all their feelings: crying, laughing, sweating, shaking, yelling, yawning, all at once. On the other side of releasing the hurts through emotional discharge, these freshly-tantrumed young ones are more present, connected, flexible, and light. Adults are under-tantrumed. We’ve built up an inflexible layer of protection that has kept us acting in patterned ways to avoid further hurt and kept us numb to the pain we are carrying around.

It is time to unnumb.

It is time to reclaim our flexible, brilliant minds and give up the patterns that have kept us stuck, hopeless, helpless, waiting for someone else, and/or righteously acting out of our hurts. Doing this healing work by going back, remembering what happened to us in our childhoods, and healing from those experiences is the key to eliminating not only adultism but all oppressions. We call this Social Justice Healing.

Social Justice Healing uses the practice of Constructivist Listening. Constructivist Listening supports our capacity to reclaim our ability to discharge hurts from oppression. Adultism has had a profound impact on us that the oppression itself wants us to minimize. Resist that pull. Social Justice Healing work is not therapy. This healing work does not require a trained professional and doesn’t happen within a “mental health” framework. This approach comes from an oppression and social justice framework and requires making a commitment to oneself, human connection, and liberation.

After nearly three decades as a social justice and equity practitioner, I have witnessed the profound effects of Constructivist Listening: in at least 100 different languages, on tens of thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations, and in every region of the U.S. and more than a dozen countries on five continents. I have witnessed the rage of the long-held hurt melt into forgiveness and compassion, clearer-thinking, and courage. I’ve seen radical shifts, renewed energy and repair demonstrated by participants once they possess a language and understanding of institutional adultism and commit to their healing journey for social justice.

Systems of oppression are made up of human beings, just like me and you. We cannot change these systems, at least not in a permanent and sustainable way, without committing to healing from the hurts of adultism: the training ground for all other oppressions.  We are longing to heal from the hurts of oppression (whether we use that language or not) when given an opportunity to do so. None of us wants to pass on our hurts. None of us wants to perpetuate the cycle of oppression. Another way is possible. A path to healing and liberation and justice for all. And it begins with healing from adultism. It begins with you.

To learn more about adultism, read our blog Adultism: The Training Ground for All Other Oppression.