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Hope for a Better Future Is Possible Through Decolonization

Improving your mental health and relationships from a decolonizing perspective.

Key points

  • We need to be aware of how our country’s history of colonization continues to influence our behaviors and belief systems.
  • Colonization has affected our current thinking in many ways, such as creating a hierarchical and scarcity mindset.
  • Healing the wounds of colonization starts with how we behave in our own relationships and move through the world.

This guest post is authored by Dr. Chelsea Twiss.

Source: Olga/Pexels

Our country’s history of colonization has long impacted our mental health, relationships, and wellbeing to an extent that many of us may not be fully aware of. If we are to hope for a better future for our country, it is imperative that we begin to understand the ways in which this history of colonization continues to influence our behavior, beliefs, and interactions with others.

White supremacy and patriarchy are two problematic belief systems that were brought to the Americas on a large scale by the European colonizers. These belief systems show up in our relationships, therefore impacting our mental health as well as hindering the quality of connection we have with ourselves and the connections we have with others.

This post will discuss how we can increase awareness of the ways in which colonization continues to influence our mental health with the ultimate goal of liberating ourselves from these problematic belief systems.

Effects of colonization on mental health

One example of the way these problematic belief systems manifest is in hierarchical thinking. Currently, straight, white, wealthy cis males sit at the top of our cultural hierarchy. People of Color, women, animals, and the wellbeing of the earth are seen as less valuable than the life, wellbeing, and right to comfort of the straight, white, wealthy cis male. This belief system leads to many problems, one of which is the difficulty it creates in establishing and maintaining healthy and equal relationships between people due to the inherent inequality associated with hierarchical thinking.

People don’t often consciously realize when they are favoring individuals with privileged identities because this way of thinking is so deeply entrenched in our ways of behaving. In working with women navigating heterosexual relationships in psychotherapy, I often hear stories about how my clients put their needs second to their male partners without realizing they are doing so. This behavior often results in depression, anxiety, and chronic resentment within the relationship.

These clients often find that they are met with defensiveness or dismissiveness from their male partners when attempting to communicate their feelings and needs, leading them to feel stuck, dissatisfied, and helpless in their relationships. This is one great example of the way in which the hierarchical belief system and patriarchy directly impact an individual’s wellbeing in addition to impeding healthy connection in the relationship with their partner.

Another example of a problematic belief system associated with colonization is the scarcity mindset. We often see this phenomenon reflected in cultural depictions of people from marginalized groups in the media. For example, women in popular movies are often pitted against each other in order to secure a particular resource, whether that is a promotion at work or a relationship with a man. This belief in a scarcity of resources or access to power is no accident. It is a product of the scarcity mindset or the idea that we must compete for resources because there isn’t enough wealth to go around.

Our society often reinforces this mindset since the majority of resources are allocated to those at the top of the hierarchy; e.g. white, straight, wealthy cis males. The scarcity mindset is also reinforced within our larger institutions such as education, medical care, government, sciences, and the legal system, as these institutions still favor individuals with privileged identities over those with marginalized identities primarily in regard to compensation and representation.

My clients who hold marginalized identities often observe that they work much harder than their more privileged counterparts for less recognition and compensation. They worry more about being fired if they make a mistake at work. They fear that they will lose their loved ones if they do not give everything to their relationships without asking for anything in return. These experiences often result in anxiety, depression, and chronic illness as a result of overworking and sacrifice.

White supremacy and patriarchy both deem certain values or characteristics in humans as more valid, real, or valuable than others. Some examples include the beliefs that: Thoughts are considered more valid than feelings, the interests of an individual are placed over those of the collective, and people should be admired for their accomplishments or material wealth rather than for the way they treat other humans, animals, and the environment. Furthermore, traits associated with femininity or non-white cultural traditions and practices are belittled, mocked, and otherwise deemed as undesirable or even dangerous.

My female clients in heterosexual relationships will often share that when attempting to navigate conflict with their male partners, their feelings are not valued or listened to. They are often dismissed as nagging or otherwise creating unnecessary problems in the relationship when they share what they are feeling. This chronic experience of feeling misunderstood and devalued results in a great deal of relationship distress as well as anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.

Human beings need free access to all parts of themselves in relationships. There must be space for feelings in the process of conflict resolution and individuals must work toward a common goal if we are ever to make real change happen. If we continue to dismiss or deny inherent parts of ourselves and others as undesirable or invalid by the belief systems of patriarchy and white supremacy, we are not likely to navigate the waters of relationship complexity and conflict successfully.

So what can we do?

If we work to reject the belief that white, straight, wealthy, cis males are superior to people holding other identities, if we work to allocate resources equally, if we embrace and accept all parts of ourselves as worthy of love and valid, then we can begin to heal the wounds colonization has left on this earth. We must see the micro and macro ways these belief systems surface and are perpetuated in our everyday interactions with others. There is no better place to start healing the wounds of colonization than the way we behave in our own relationships and in the way we move through the world.

It is imperative to accept that the belief systems associated with colonization harm everyone to varying degrees; even those who benefit from these oppressive belief systems. Those who do benefit from the resources of the system as it currently stands are especially responsible for being aware of the ways in which they unfairly benefit from the system as well as the ways in which they are harmed or deprived of real and healthy connection by these belief systems. If you are someone who holds privileged identities, it is important to reflect on the ways in which patriarchy and white supremacy have both helped you and hindered you.

 McKenzie Tharp
Source: Credit: McKenzie Tharp

The more awareness we have of the ways in which we behave in line with colonial thinking and practices, the more power we have to dismantle these oppressive systems. There can be great consequences to not maintaining the status quo and continuing to abide by philosophies and values that serve to oppress rather than liberate; to divide us rather than unite us. This is true especially for those with marginalized identities. If you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by the violence and hate that permeate our culture, know that you can make meaningful change by working toward decolonizing your own life. The power of greater change begins within each one of us.

Chelsea Twiss, Ph.D. LP is a licensed psychologist based in Colorado. Chelsea works primarily with women and genderqueer folks around attachment, family of origin trauma, and relationship healing. Her work is done through a decolonizing framework that recognizes the impact of greater systems’ influence on human behavior, mental health, and wellbeing.