Within the Margins: Unveiling the Inner Dynamics of Marginalised Experiences and Coping Strategies
In our contemporary multicultural communities, I wonder how many of us have a regular experience of being marginalised.
This could look like being the only or one of a minority group: the only person of colour in a room, the only queer person in a work space, the only middle aged person at a youthful event, or the only young person at a special occasion. Maybe you have been a minority due to your gender, your class, where you grew-up, your accent, your nationality, because you love travelling, love psy-trance, love God. Maybe you have been the only liberal thinker in a discussion group, the only feminist at a social occasion, the only introvert, foreigner, nationalist, conservative, pro-lifer, flat-earther, pretty much anything can set you apart these days and push your experience to the sideline. The experience of being side-lined due to what you believe or how you see things is something most of us can relate to in some way.
How did you deal with that experience?
Were you able to represent yourself and feel seen and accepted?
Did you feel obliged to keep yourself small and fit it?
Did you leave the experience feeling unseen and unheard, with lots of unexpressed comments whirling around in your head?
Maybe there was someone else at the event who seemed that bit more curious about you so you were able to make a good connection and avoid feeling isolated, disregarded or ignored. If you have ever witnessed life from the margins, it’s highly likely that someone said something that triggered you in some way. How you deal with those triggers can impact your sense of self or mental health.
Can you imagine how it is for people who spend years of their life as a minority within a dominant culture? What about a community that is marginalised within an oppressive system for decades? What about a group who are segregated and seen as inferior or through a lens of contempt?
Over time, repressed reactions can build up within someone's body and mind. Feelings that go unnamed, emotions that are unprocessed, words that are never spoken, pain that is never acknowledged, shut-downs, overwhelms, constrictions, limitations, heaviness, tension, until one day…
As someone who has experienced marginalisation throughout their whole life, my journey of awakening has been to uncover the truth of my personal experience outside of a cultural system of oppression which objectified me as part of a generalised group, putting me along with others, in a box. Being a minority has taught me how important it is to focus on myself and those relationships where I feel there is space to be seen. Many of us have experienced moments of self abandonment within our social life, these moments are often amplified and continual within the marginalised experience. The coping strategy of ‘mask wearing’ in order to fit-in clearly highlights the difference between real connection and superficial relating. This can lead to periods of feeling lost, empty and unsupported but in our current culture it is easy to hide from these deep feelings through distraction.
The ignorance and passivity inherent in any dominant and oppressive culture can be viewed as a collective avoidance, this could be due to the repression of internalised pain, lack of awareness, a superiority mindset, attitudes of entitlement which can contribute to the lasting suffering for those who have been suppressed.
It's a common occurrence for the mind to hold onto outdated ideas about people, often not accurate to who they are in the present moment. Connecting with others can sometimes mean defaulting to the mental version that resides in our thoughts—a version shaped by storytelling, fantasy, assumptions, or bias. This can lead to a lack of presence and reliance on superficial understanding can lead to emotional responses that are disconnected from a shared experience or trigger reactions associated with miss-communication or cognitive dissonance.
Assumptions often lead to the alienation of others from real connections because someones inner dialogue leaves no emotional space for authenticity and curiosity in the moment. This internal glitch can lead to projection, transference, and bypassing—three functions that can disrupt relational experiences and leave someone feeling sidelined. As a layperson, it took me a while to unpack these terms and understand them through my own experience. By interpreting them, I can recognize what I have often been unable to name. Moving forward, this helps me to address these moments and confront the interaction in a way that is hopefully valuable for the other person as well as myself.
Projection is a psychological defence mechanism where individuals attribute their own unconscious thoughts, feelings, or impulses to another person. In intercultural interactions between minority individuals and those from a dominant culture, projection can manifest as the dominant culture projecting its stereotypes, biases, or assumptions onto the minority individual. This process can be fueled by societal narratives, historical prejudices, or ingrained biases.
Consider a woman of colour who is a professional working in a predominantly white male corporate environment. The dominant culture in this setting might hold certain stereotypes about female identifying individuals, such as assumptions about their work ability, authority, or even preferences for certain roles within the organisation.
In a team meeting, the female professional suggests a different approach to a project. However, her suggestion is dismissed by a colleague from the dominant culture of men who unconsciously projects the assumption that the female individual is more suited for administrative tasks rather than strategic decision-making.
Here, the dominant culture's preconceived notions about the capabilities and contributions of women become evident through the act of projection. The colleague, influenced by societal stereotypes, might be projecting their own biases onto the female professional.
This dynamic illustrates how projection can perpetuate stereotypes and limit opportunities for minority individuals in professional settings. Breaking through this mechanism requires awareness, open communication, and a willingness to challenge and dismantle biassed assumptions. By recognizing and addressing projection, individuals can foster more inclusive and equitable interactions.
Transference involves the unconscious redirection of emotions, often shaped by past experiences, onto someone in the present. In the case of minority individuals interacting with those from a dominant culture, historical power dynamics, stereotypes, and biases may influence the transference process. These dynamics can be deeply rooted in societal structures, historical events, or personal experiences, creating complex emotional landscapes.
Consider an Asian individual who has experienced marginalisation due to stereotypes perpetuated by the dominant culture, such as being labelled as perpetually foreign or having assumed proficiency in specific skills like maths. In a workplace scenario, this person may interact with a colleague from the dominant culture who unintentionally reinforces these stereotypes through subtle behaviours or comments.
The Asian individual might unconsciously transfer past feelings of marginalisation, frustration, or the need to prove themselves onto the colleague. They might interpret neutral comments or actions through the lens of their past experiences, assuming that the colleague holds stereotypical beliefs. The emotional charge associated with these past experiences influences the present relationship, potentially creating tension or misunderstanding.
In this example, transference is a mechanism through which historical and societal dynamics impact the emotional exchanges between individuals. The dominant culture's historical role in perpetuating stereotypes and biases becomes a backdrop against which current interactions are unconsciously filtered, affecting the dynamics of the relationship. Understanding and addressing transference requires both parties to be aware of these dynamics and engage in open, empathetic communication to break free from the shackles of preconceived notions and biases.
By-passing is a communication behaviour where individuals prioritise their own perspectives, beliefs, or narratives, often neglecting or overlooking the opinions and experiences of others. In intercultural interactions, particularly between minority individuals and those from a dominant culture, by-passing can manifest as a failure to acknowledge, understand, or engage with the unique challenges or perspectives of the minority individual.
Consider a workplace scenario where an employee who identifies as Queer is sharing their experience of navigating both personal and professional challenges. They express the need for more inclusive policies that consider diverse cultural backgrounds.
A colleague from the dominant culture, rather than engaging with the specifics of the minority individual's experience, responds by emphasising the universality of workplace challenges. They may say, "We all face difficulties; Let's focus on common issues."
In this case, the colleague is engaging in by-passing by downplaying the importance of cultural considerations and emphasising a generalised perspective. The dominant culture colleague might be unintentionally dismissing the unique challenges faced by the minority individual due to experiential differences.
By-passing in this context perpetuates a lack of awareness and understanding about the experiences of minority individuals. It implies a failure to acknowledge the validity of their perspectives and the need for tailored solutions that consider diversity. Addressing by-passing involves actively listening to and valuing the diverse experiences of all individuals, fostering an inclusive environment where everyone's unique perspectives are recognized and respected.
Unfortunately, when a relationship consistently prioritises someone else's reality and feels suffocating to your own experience, a sense of separation can form and actualize. If you've ever felt that someone from a minority experience distanced themselves from you, it might be the realisation of a pre-existing distance due to a lack of relatability and mutual curiosity in the relationship.
Coping Strategies of Minority Individuals
Mask-Wearing to Appease:
Minority individuals may adopt a strategy of wearing a metaphorical mask to appease others, especially those from a dominant culture. This involves presenting a version of themselves that aligns with the expectations or norms of the dominant group, reinforcing an imbalanced power dynamic. An individual from a minority background may downplay or hide aspects of their cultural identity in a professional setting where the dominant culture prevails, fearing that embracing their true identity might lead to exclusion or bias.
Internalisation and Gaslighting:
Due to a lack of space, safety, or curiosity from others, minority individuals may internalise their experiences and feelings. This internalisation can lead to self-doubt and gaslighting, where the individual questions the validity of their own emotions and experiences.
If a person consistently encounters dismissive attitudes or lack of interest when sharing their cultural experiences, they might start to doubt the significance of those experiences, leading to self-gaslighting. They may convince themselves that their cultural perspective is not important or valid.
Repression and Sidelining:
In situations where there is a lack of genuine interest in the depth of a minority individual's experience, they may resort to repressing certain aspects of themselves. This can result in a sense of being sidelined, as the individual feels their true self is not welcomed or valued.
Imagine a person sharing personal stories related to their cultural background but receiving minimal engagement or interest from others. Over time, this individual might repress their inclination to share such stories, feeling sidelined and concluding that their experiences are not of interest to the dominant culture.
These coping strategies highlight the adaptability of minority individuals in navigating environments where their cultural identity might not be fully embraced. However, they also underscore the need for creating inclusive spaces that allow for genuine expression and understanding of diverse perspectives.
Recovering from the enduring impact of marginalisation requires a substantial investment of time and effort. Engaging in healing, psychotherapeutic development, and self-inquiry becomes a necessary journey to reclaim one's true self. It involves confronting repressed pain, acknowledging suppressed feelings such as sadness, and accepting survival actions that may not align with one's authentic values. Part of this transformative process is reframing one's worldview to see life through a new lens. Learning to speak one's truth about these experiences is a gradual process of development that unfolds over time.
Avoidance of pain is a common coping mechanism, and during the journey of self-recovery from survival traits, it's easy to recognize the inclination to turn away from the pain of others as a way of denying one's own. However, my healing journey led me to a profound depth of love through empathy, a dimension beyond the self-imposed walls of pain.
In my own life, the internalisation of emotions and experiences compelled me to embark on a journey of articulation. It was a crucial step to move beyond the grip of anger and approach conversations with renewed confidence, fostering the ability to stand up for myself and communicate non-violently. Despite the progress made, the process remains messy, with lingering anxiety around communication and occasional reminders of past pain.
Recognizing that I had been conditioned to self-repress and conform to others' dominant reality was a pivotal realisation. This conformity damaged me in numerous ways, leading to continued disappointments, a sense of being unseen, and the accumulation of beliefs about being treated as less than. The result was a closed heart, shattered hopes, and a loss of trust in others.
Not every conversation is meant to be deep and open, but when engaging with someone of a different background, set of beliefs, or identity, recognizing cues for stepping into the intersection of shared space is essential. It's crucial to show genuine interest in their experience and perspective of life—faking interest can create dissonance. Remember, if you're talking at someone as though you know them, chances are you're not truly relating. Ask yourself why you do this and consider being present with who they are today.
For those who consider themselves friends with someone from a different background, allowing space in every conversation to be genuinely curious about the depth of their experiences is vital. Bypassing or making assumptions about the level of connection might be happening without awareness. It's worth checking in with your friend to ensure the friendship feels mutual and balanced.
Marginalisation isn't solely experienced by those from a minority background; it can occur socially. Anyone with an 'Alpha' friend could relate to a similar situation. The key is awareness of power and the unconscious behaviours connected with power, superiority, and domination. Beneath these, we often find shadows of fear, sadness, guilt, and shame.
Individuals dominating others often avoid their own sadness, projecting it onto others. The shadow of sadness intertwines with feelings of being unseen, unheard, and unvalidated. Chronic marginalisation can leave someone drained or uninspired to invest in a relationship lacking mutuality or space for authenticity. Genuine interest is either present or absent. If relating superficially or focusing solely on personal beliefs and interests, the relationship quality may deny someone else's suffering.
To be more inclusive in conversations:
1. Take time to listen and ask questions.
2. Inquire beyond the surface to understand someone deeply.
3. Challenge assumptions and question the idea you hold of someone.
4. Assess how present you are in relation to who the person is today.
5. Allow time to relate authentically.
Remember, marginalisation can't be changed solely by the marginalised. If there's no space, there's no space. Individuals from dominant cultural experiences or those inclined to dominate interactions bear the accountability to shift into a receptive mode and truly see others as they are.