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Physiology of the Oppressed

I originally wrote this article for The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2005/Vol.1 Issue 4/Los Angeles. Through my own experiences and the writing of others, I explore the personal implications of social disfunction and point to some possibilities for our collective liberation.

Physiology of the Oppressed by David Murphy

Recovery is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.
-Judith Herman Trauma and Recovery

Over the last 10 years, my experiences working for social justice left me feeling like a boxer toward the end of his career beat up and unsure why I was still getting into the ring. While I’m proud to say that I participated in many hard won battles where forests were saved, grassroots media networks created, oil pipelines stopped, neighborhoods temporarily protected from gentrification, we dont seem to be any closer to ending oppression or creating peace in the world. The conviction that justice would prevail used to pull me through but over time I realized that I had become more angry than when I started along the activist path. I had begun experiencing what I now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), shell-shocked from the continual threat of police batons and rubber bullets, and I resented feeling that there were never enough people to do the work of creating change. It was just too much for one person to stop humanity from committing collective suicide.

I began to ask myself, “What are we trying to activate in people when we protest? I decided that there had to be a better way to create change. So, slowly, over the last 4 years I began to remove myself from activist work to attend to my wounds. What I found when I “retired” was that through those years of speaking truth to power, what had motivated me to do this work was anger at the injustice I was confronting. I began to think that maybe the reason I was feeling less peace at the end of the war was the nature of the war itself. Through the process of my own healing I began working to facilitate the healing of others, and what has emerged is a sense that what is making us all so sick is something larger than our individual psychological problems, and less obvious than the political critique that motivated my activism. In trying to quell my own fathomless rage, I began finding clues to the question that rage desperately begs to have answered what has motivated us all to grow so hopelessly out of balance with the world and each other?

In the words of Paulo Friere, Only as [the oppressed] discover themselves to be hosts of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible& Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. (Friere 1970, p. 48). My growing awareness has begun to feel like a rebirth.

In my own personal healing I had to confront my sense of shame and worthlessness generated from messages sent by parents, teachers and consumer culture- all sounding like “theres something wrong with you. I realized that my youth was motivated by a need to prove I was worthy of love. How could I not rebel as a child? With the need to constantly justify love, there was always the threat that it would be taken away. My healing process began to feel all too much like activism flipped around as I confronted a childhood at war with parents and the greater world; having to struggle, to earn, to jump through hoops to be nurtured, respected, and supported. I soon realized that the best response I could get to the indignant anger in my protest was shame. The public shaming of CEOs often works to motivate a change in large corporations and it was a tactic I participated in gladly. It is an effective way of compromising a corporate brand. Who wants to buy something associated with shameful practices? On the other hand, how could I possibly expect a corporate CEO to take responsibility for their actions when I was using the same tactic that was hurtful to me? As is often the case with perpetrators of abuse, I had fallen in to the same pattern that had been a victim of.

Membership Dues

One of my roommates hosted a dinner party last week. Intense for this casual dinner party, we launched headlong into a conversation about fears that hold us back. Around the table we went, revealing our worst fear. Almost everyone spoke a variation of “Im not good enough to be loved, or the universe doesnt support me.” These fears are almost universal. Given the fear of not getting what we need to survive psychologically and physically, it’s no wonder that we often enter into inherently compromised relationships to get at least some love.

The predominant metaphor of psychology and western medicine is the Cartesian view that we are machines, and feeling sick means that there is something wrong with the machine that can be fixed. The cure, according to this view, is not to improve our relationship with ourselves, each other, or our environment; but to stop the symptom- to fix the machine. These symptoms, however, are the messages our own bodies are telling us about why we are sick. Living in Western Civilization, we are bound to participate in a society built on oppression, and at the same time we are bound to our own nature. If we are to find liberation, we must come to discern [ourselves] as persons prevented from being, rather than objects needing repair. (Friere p.174)

There’s a certain expectation in America that we will compromise with our better nature. There is the understanding that to get terrorists, innocents will die, to get ahead we must step on others. Even if you work to stop the war in Iraq, you have to use petroleum in some capacity to survive. There is an understanding that whether or not we work for change, our actions will have some negative impact. This is the cost of living in our society. Oppression and destruction of the environment are our membership dues. What we are led to believe is that we shouldnt take oppression personally. Our society tells us that if we feel anxiety about our own participation in this process, there is something wrong with us. We are continually asked to collectively disown our responsibility for the impact we each have in the world.

This worldview dehumanizes us.

Oppression is in our Psychology

Trends in psychology over the last 20 years, especially in ecopsychology and other body-centered traditions, have supported the idea that we become sick through a separation from the deeply felt experience of our bodies within our unnatural environments, not because we are unable to overcome our base urges. Almost anyone who has taken a yoga class or stopped to listen to the sound of their breath can attest to the benefits of slowing down to reconnect with what is essential about our experience- our beingness.With this essential experience of interconnectedness comes the knowledge that there is nothing inherently wrong with us. When we dont have to confront a sense of being inherently flawed, it is easier to admit to our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions. Knowing this sense of interconnectedness cuts shame out at the roots. But if youve ever tried to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong with you, when your experience is a deep and persistent feeling that there is, you know that it isnt as easy as just changing your mind. What the study of PTSD tells us is that it is difficult to change unconscious beliefs not just because they are unconscious, but because they are in our physiology. When we are exposed to overwhelming traumatic experiences, our physiology is altered to interpret the world as a threatening place. (Levine 1997, p. 156) If our gut feelings tell us that there is a threat, it is only natural to look until we find one, even if it means creating a threat to put ourselves in and a whole world view to make sense of the threat. Our beliefs about the way the world are often a reflection of the messages our bodies are too afraid to tell us.

Physiology of the Oppressed

Why are our bodies keeping secrets?

In my current work as a somatic therapist I combine dialogue with bodywork and movement to help my clients transform their traumatic experiences. Answers to my questions about oppression in our society came when I began to recognize the similarity in my clients conditions with the symptoms of trauma. Many of my patients werent mentally ill, but they had idiopathic illnesses connected to their psychology. In attempts to help my clients I began a 3-year training in Somatic Experiencing (SE), a form of body centered talk therapy created specifically for working with PTSD.

According to Peter Levine, the creator of SE, An event is potentially traumatizing if it is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) to be life-threatening. (Levine 2004) Much of the evidence that supports recent work with PTSD comes from studying what wild animals do that keeps them from being crippled by reactions to stress. When animals enter a potentially threatening situation, they react by running, fighting or ‘playing dead’ to escape from their attacker. Psychologists call this dissociation. When overwhelmed and unable to escape, they most often play dead and freeze. When an animal freezes, its body mimics death to discourage the predator from chasing it. Physiologically this acts on the body as if the brake and the gas pedal of a car were pushed at the same time. If the ruse is successful, the chased animal may get away. When the threat passes, the animal does something to discharge all this energy they’ve mobilized to confront their attacker; run around in circles, shake, convulse. As humans, how often do we have the chance to discharge like this?

When we are unable to discharge this stress energy it gets trapped in our bodies. The symptoms of traumatic stress are caused by our bodies attempts to manage this frozen survival energy. When we put ourselves in stressful situations that are similar to an earlier trauma, it is an attempt to discharge the energy stuck in our bodies. Rarely are these attempts successful, because when we re-enact a trauma, we arent in touch with the psychological resources that would have helped us in the original trauma. Often this energy is directed outward in rage at our imagined attackers, or directed inward, leading to self-abuse.

Some level of stress is healthy to activate our survival instincts, but it is clear that we are overstimulated in modern life. Whether from continual stress, frantic pace or too much input, it becomes difficult to keep our equilibrium. Neurobiologist Bruce Perry describes the effect of traumatic stress in terms of homeostasis. An event is traumatic if it overwhelms the organism, dramatically and negatively disrupting homeostasis. In a very real sense, trauma throws the organism off balance, and creates a persisting set of compensatory responses which create a new but less functionally flexible state of equilibrium. This trauma-induced homeostasis is more energy consuming and maladaptive than the previous state. By inducing this expensive homeostasis and compromising full functional capability, trauma robs the organism. It has survived the traumatic experience, but at a cost. (Perry 1998) This expensive homeostasis makes us vulnerable to further trauma. As we become accustomed to this energy consuming homeostasis, we are often unaware that our stress level has increased. Our bodies attempt to balance unresolved traumatic events with tension or a freeze response often manifested as pain and tension, spaciness or falling asleep. This elevated stress not only protects us from fully experiencing the trauma, but also from a deepened connection with ourselves and each other as we are walled off from what has become an unresolved and overwhelming experience.

How did we get here?

In 1895, Freud in his co-authored paper, Studies on Hysteria pointed the finger at childhood sexual abuse as the cause of hysteria, essentially implying that mental illness has it’s roots in traumatic experience. One year later, fearing public condemnation, he published his Seduction theory, turning 180 degrees to suggest that neurosis was actually the product of ‘infantile sexuality’, implying that the pre-neurotic child is an active participant in the forming of abnormal sexual experience. (Davis, D.A. 1994) The result was a shift in focus toward fixing the patient rather than helping them to resolve their overwhelming experience. The result of this shift is that what we now recognize as psychological trauma has been dismissed as “shell shock” or adjustment reaction to adult life, (Wylie 2004) for most of the 20th century. It wasnt until in the Womens Movement of the 70s when feminist writers began asserting that rape and domestic violence are potentially traumatic, that psychological trauma began to get attention as a distinct diagnosis. In 1980 psychological trauma was recognized as a formal diagnosis in the third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), but trauma is still often misdiagnosed. In fact, the symptoms of psychological trauma can mimic other diagnosis of chronic mental illnesses in its acute stages.

In the past, if you werent able to adapt to society, the treatment strategy of psychology and psychiatry would be to attempt to correct the mental disturbance to help the patient adapt. This perspective places the blame for mental disturbance with the patient. But what if our difficulty coping with society is because we have internalized what is sick about society itself?

Peter Levine asserts that there is another more important reason for internalizing this unresolved energy turned illness in our society. To commit violence on oneself is the method preferred by our culture for several reasons. Obviously, it is easier to maintain a social structure that appears to be in control of itself. However,& there is another, equally compelling reason-by internalizing the effects of overwhelming or injurious events, we are denying that these experiences have a significant impact upon our ability to function. Where there is no conscious awareness, no need exists for personal or social responsibility. (Levine 2004) When we shoulder the responsibility for our condition as individuals, we face the difficult and often overwhelming task of attempting to heal ourselves by ourselves.

Over 100 years after Freud’s first paper on hysteria, the current research and treatments for PTSD has us going back to his first hypothesis. This research suggests that traumatic experience is the product of a civilization in opposition to the guiding forces of our own inner nature and that asks us to accept overwhelming experience as normal, while separating us from our biggest resource, ourselves. When we face the fact that in our physiology we are animals, we must ask the question that became too overwhelming for Freud; how do we treat traumatic experience in a society that fears looking at the consequences of how we treat each other? What these new treatments give us is hope; that rather than a pill or a new technology, what we need to return our planet back to balance is a renewed connection to ourselves and each other.

The Politics of TraumaPaulo Friere, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes, “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it… They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.” (Friere P.48) Friere could have just as easily been talking about psychological trauma. If the tools to freedom from psychological illness are connecting to our animal instinct toward self-regulation, then Frieres internal oppressor is the desire to safely avoid fear of attack and shame.

This begs the question of whether we can solve the ills of our society disconnected from any real sense of our bodies, our emotions, and each other. It may be that we have to start judging what is healthy for our society by what connects us to ourselves and the planet rather than what gets us what we want, or wins the battles we are fighting. To create political change that fits the vision of a world embracing community, equality, and freedom from oppression, we must learn how to liberate ourselves, not just from the material circumstances of our lives, but also from the disregulation in our physiology that mediates our experience..

What gives me hope now is that the clues to our reawakening are already out there. They are in our own bodies and inherent in the tensions within our culture. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof described a map of three important states of psychic experience that roughly translate to: having a sense of inherent support; a sense of centeredness; and altered states of consciousness that connect us to nature and each other. These states are often found at the core of mystical or prophetic spiritual traditions and are inherent in the world views of many nature based people living in balance with their own environment (Glendinning, P. 20). We regain our connection to these three states when we heal from traumatic experience.

Pedagogy of Lakoff

I recently started a discussion group with representatives of local activist groups to practice working with language on our various campaigns so that we could convey our messages more effectively. We began using George Lakoffs analysis of how Americans use language in politics. Lakoff is a UC Berkeley linguist who has become a hot topic in the left for his ability to break down progressive and conservative rhetoric in terms of how the mind works. It was a difficult task. Many of us in the group were used to strategizing street actions for media impact, and getting a clear message across, but few of us had thought about how the language we use effects the way people receive our message. I realized that while all of us in the discussion group believe in a progressive politic, it was hard for us to articulate our message in language that reflects our collective moral position.

According to Lakoff, the language of values in American politics has historically been articulated using the unconscious conceptual metaphor of the family. Conservatives tend to use a “Strict Father” metaphor that emphasizes moral strength. Progressives often use a “Nurturing Parent” metaphor that emphasizes moral empathy. “The primal experience is one of being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care. The Strict Father teaches right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment… (Lakoff, p. 65-6) The Strict Father metaphor emphasizes Moral Authority over experiential morality& (Lakoff, p.382-3,). Strict Father morality sees the world in terms of Good and Evil, and has the tendency to lean toward us against them dualities, while Nurturing Parent morality sees threats as something that undermines community and social connection.

Without going far into this complicated linguistic argument, it has some relevance to trauma and healing. While these are metaphors we use in our language and are not our actions themselves, they represent an underlying set of beliefs. In our discussion group, we were so used to presenting our arguments in terms of what we are against, or what we are afraid of, that we naturally fall into a Strict Father articulation of our progressive politics. It is a common symptom of traumatic stress to see threats where there arent any in an attempt to resolve a previously threatening situation. Empathy is often the first thing that gets lost in traumatic experience. From this position of traumatic stress, values like ‘community’ and love can feel like a threat. If we are unable to embody these values, they can become difficult to manifest or even to articulate.

Lakoff asserts that if we are to look at his two models of the American family in terms of developmental psychology, much of the literature supports the idea that the puritanical strict father model harms children. (Lakoff 1996, p. 340) In an exhaustive cross cultural survey, James Prescott clearly shows that violence is much more prevalent in cultures that deny pleasure and that lack early childhood affection. (Prescott 1975) Neurologist Bruce Perry in research on childhood development and trauma asserts that, “what is safe and comfortable becomes so through experience; something in the present moment matches the associated, stored memories of previous safe, pleasing or rewarding experiences. In contrast, when the environment, internal or external, matches with stored neuronal patterns associated with a previous threatening experience, the brains stress- response systems will be activated. Key signs and symptoms of trauma-related neuropsychiatric disorders result from these memories of fear storing elements of traumatic experience, making associations, generalizing and, later, triggering complex, multi-system responses (i.e., cognitive, emotional, motor, state) reflecting these memories.” (Perry, 1998)

From this point of view then, the strict father model is a self-perpetuating creation of stored negative experience. Strict fathers condition unhealthy responses to fear in children. Their physiological reactions are awakened in the climate of fear perpetuated in contemporary public life. Homeland Security’s terror alerts and recurring airport and subway station warnings, be aware of suspicious packages, only help to enforce these neuronal fear patterns that tell us the world is a threatening place. Could it be that it is so difficult to articulate a progressive politic using Nurturing Parent metaphors because many of us, while believing in progressive values, have tenuous physiological connections to nurturing? It may be that, not only are we fighting conservative politicians, but also the conservative politicians in our nervous systems.


According to a January article in the Village Voice, “almost half of all Americans believe that man was created in his present form about 10, 000 years ago…”. (Giuffo 2005) I’m actually starting to believe they’re right, not because of the calculations of biblical scholars, but because this may be when our current relationship with oppression began. There are a number of authors, (DeMeo 1998, Glendinning 1994, Shepard 1998) who are making historical and psychological connections between the roots of our civilization and the current state of the planet. Their evidences suggests that for roughly a million years we homosapiens lived in balance with the rest of nature, and that it wasn’t until 10,000 years ago that we began to shift out of balance with nature. It was not until 10,000 years ago that technology helped us build fences between ourselves and the natural world. Maybe the book of genesis was right. Maybe we really did get kicked out of the Garden of Eden 10, 000 years ago when we learned about the difference between good and evil that is at the foundation of the Strict Father moral view. Maybe that difference we saw was really about our separation from ourselves and the natural world.

Communing with the Oppressed

So if we must reconnect with a deeper sense of ourselves to find balance, where are we to begin? Eco-psychologist, Chellis Glendinning suggests that we can begin learn from nature based cultures praising creation. “We Westerners have long since discontinued a communal practice of praising creation and in so doing, of aligning ourselves with the continuity of life on Earth.” (Glendinning, p.212) Upon reading this in the last chapter of her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, I realized how disconnected I was from my own environment. I began walking around my seemingly un-natural neighborhood of Brooklyn and began to find a sense of connection to the living things around me. This created a profound shift in my sense of place as I noticed both how few opportunities for connection to nature there are in my neighborhood and also the profound sense of support that came from the little that was available to me. In praising creation we must also begin to ask for forgiveness from the natural world, others we have harmed, and from ourselves, and to take ownership for our impacts from the perspective of understanding our connection to others as one of community.

Dr. James Gilligan writes, “The first lesson that tragedy teaches is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, so as to receive whatever retribution or compensation the violent person feels is ‘due’ him or ‘owed’ to him… Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.” (Gilligan, p.11-12) In other words, “when people cannot ward off shame by nonviolent means, and it is overwhelming to them, there is always a strong pressure to do so by violent acts.” (p. 265) The person who is overwhelmed by feelings of shame, writes Gilligan, is by definition experiencing a psychically life-threatening lack of love, and someone in that condition has no love left over for anyone else. (p. 113) By learning to find support for the healthy resolution of our shame and fear we create space for peace in our lives. In the same way that Friere asks us to commune with the oppressed, communing with the oppressed within ourselves is the greatest act of non-violence we can do for ourselves. It creates space to support others through the same process. Communing with the oppressed is ultimately an act of love.

Resolving our Collective Trauma

To resolve traumatic experience, we must embody the overwhelming fear that threatens to throw us out of balance- but in manageable doses. We must do so with an awareness of the resources that will help us move towards resolution or we risk becoming re-traumatized. Rather than being dependant on speaking, SE and other somatic approaches to working with trauma help the client to notice, track and engage with these animal-like responses in our bodies, providing support for the safe discharge of this stuck survival energy.

Something I work on with my clients quite a bit is identifying their own resources. This often means helping to find distractions from their narrowed focus on negative experience in their lives. This can be as simple as reminding them of activities that give them joy, a bodily experience that feels good, or remembering people who they feel supported by, past or present. It is through a process of rediscovering our resources that we are able to create a positive force in our lives to counteract the pull of traumatic experience.

The resources we need to heal are in each of us. Part of life is being exposed to experiences that overwhelm us. When we find the support we need to allow the natural processes in our bodies to resolve traumatic experiences, rather than inhibiting them, we survive difficult experiences more whole, more full of energy, and better able to survive.

Reconnecting with our animal selves can be a daunting process. But by re-regulating our physiology, we reconnect with our own inherent power. Empowerment doesnt have to be a slogan, a concept or a recipe for utopia. When it is fully embodied, it can be something we experience in our bones. We no longer have to seek justice for wrongs done to us, we can live a sense of empowerment that empowers others.

What would our protest look like if it came from a place of love for our oppressors and a desire for them to enter into community with us? What would a protest look like if the message we articulate supports people to feel good about change and feel safe enough to do it? It might not be protest anymore. We might have to call it healing.
(In chronological order)

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International: New York.

Levine, Peter. 1997. Waking the Tiger-Healing Trauma. North Atlantic: Berkeley.

Perry, Bruce D, Pollard, R. 1998. Homeostasis, Stress, Trauma and Adaptation – A Neurodevelopmental View of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7; 1:33-51,

Davis, D.A.. 1994. A theory for the 90s: Freud’s seduction theory in historical context Psychoanalytic Review, 81, 627-640.

Wylie, Mary Sykes. 2004. The Limits of Talk. Psychotherapy Networker, Jan/Feb.

Levine, Peter A. 2004. Trauma – the Vortex of Violence. Foundation for Human Enrichment,

Glendinning, Chellis. 1994. My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambhala.

Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Prescott, James W.. 1975. Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.
The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, November, pp. 10-20.

Giuffo, John. 2005. Debunkd. Village Voice. Jan 12-18, p.44.DeMeo, James. 1998. Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence In the Deserts of the Old World. Orgone Biophysical Research Lab: Ashland, OR.

Shepard, Paul. 1998. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Island: Washington, DC.

Gilligan, James. 1997. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic.
Vintage: Canada.