Do you struggle with your thoughts around your own internalized bias?

I often teach how crucial it is to love yourself as you are, flaws and all, before you try to change.

Before you can change, really.

But it may surprise you to hear that this applies to your thoughts around your biased thoughts too.

This is a blind spot for many of my clients.

They may warily agree that they have to love and accept themselves before they can change…but they don’t challenge the intense guilt and shame they experience around their thoughts about their internalized biases. They tend to either avoid the topic or white knuckle through it.

Neither of those works very well – for you, or for the change you want to create in the world.

There is another way. But first, we have to get honest with ourselves and do some uncomfortable work.

First off, I want to acknowledge that this entire conversation is based on the premise that we live in a society where a lot of people have thoughts about who is better or worse, and those thoughts tend to operate in predictable ways along gender, race, size, ability, sexual orientation, etc.

I choose to believe this premise – some people don’t believe it. But I do. It’s helpful to the work I want to do. If you accept this premise, and want to learn how to change how you show up in the world, I encourage you to read on.

One of the biggest problems is that a lot of us who do believe that premise nevertheless think about their own participation in that society in a way that is totally unhelpful.

Before we can change ourselves and society, we have to understand what we’re working with. We all are prejudiced – but what is prejudice?

Prejudices are thoughts that people think and act on – and they are replicated through society by both explicit and implicit example.

So, if you grow up in a white supremacist society, you’re taught to believe the beliefs that undergird white supremacy.

If you grow up in a patriarchal society, you’re taught to believe the beliefs that undergird the patriarchy.

The same is true of any belief system that elevates some people over others – racism, ableism, sizeism, nationalism, homophobia, etc.

We are taught that men are smarter than women, that white people’s lives are worth more than the lives of people of color, that thin people are attractive and fat people are ugly, that people with a certain set of physical abilities or attributes are “normal” and that anyone else is “disabled.” And that’s just a few examples.

If you’ve ever found yourself unconsciously thinking something you find abhorrent when you consciously examine it, this conditioning is often the source.

Because your unconscious thoughts are shaped by whatever you were taught to think – whether by your parents, your school, your society, etc. That includes all of these kinds of negative biases about other people and ourselves.

We internalize negative thoughts we are taught about other people and ourselves, whether directly or because we are part of a certain group.

So far so good. You probably believe that.

The problem is how you think ABOUT those thoughts.

You think they are shameful.

You think you should feel guilty about them.

You’ve decided to believe that people who have prejudiced beliefs are bad people.

That sounds like the right thing to believe, right? If prejudice is bad, then someone who has prejudiced thoughts must also be bad. Those are the prejudiced people!

The problem is we are all prejudiced people.

The truth is that everyone raised in a prejudiced society has prejudiced thoughts. Everyone raised in a racist society has racist thoughts. Everyone raised in a patriarchal society has sexist thoughts. Everyone raised in an ableist society has ableist thoughts. Etc. etc. etc.

So now you have a catch-22 in your brain. You have those thoughts, if you’re being honest with yourself – how could you not? You were taught to think them. But you don’t want to have them because of what you make them mean – that you’re a bad person.

This creates enormous cognitive dissonance and incentive for yourself to try to avoid those thoughts in your own mind and to believe that you don’t have them at all.

Which means:

  • You avoid being honest with yourself about your biased thoughts
  • You try to prove to yourself and people around you that you aren’t biased or don’t have biased thoughts
  • You constantly try to ACT your way out of feeling guilty or ashamed about the thoughts you have.
  • You’re much more preoccupied with trying to believe you’re not a bad person than with getting to know the truth of your own mind.

Which means you can’t ever get full awareness of all the ways you’ve internalized biased or prejudiced beliefs and how they are playing out in your life or how they are causing you to show up as a member of your community.

So if you want to change how you show up in the world, you have to actually accept these parts of yourself – not reject them.

You likely want to reject these thoughts because you want to be a “good” person. You judge your thoughts and avoid them.

But you can’t actually change a thought if you aren’t honest with yourself about it.

The whole reason we don’t want to have biased thoughts is that we don’t want to be the “kind of person” who has those thoughts. We think the thoughts are bad and harmful.

But this belief actually perpetuates some problematic behavior.

First, it makes it more likely that we will keep thinking those same thoughts, unconsciously, forever, without changing them or even knowing that they exist.

Second, it keeps the focus on you and your own emotions. Your guilt or shame about your own internalized biases doesn’t do anything for people outside of you.

Guilt or shame just create uncomfortable sensations in your body that you want to avoid. That’s it. They don’t help anyone else, and they don’t help you.

Because you take action from guilt and shame, you don’t feel confident, you don’t think strategically, and you don’t have a good result. You are just agitated and trying to get out of the shame.

If someone points out you’ve said something biased for example, and you feel shame – do you reflect thoughtfully and work on seeing what that thought is, choosing for yourself what to think about it, and changing it if you want to?

No. You feel defensive and ashamed and you either fall over yourself apologizing to try to get validation from that other person that you’re not a bad person yourself, or you get defensive and try to argue with them (really arguing with yourself) about how you aren’t actually biased.

One of those may look more like taking responsibility than the other, but neither one actually creates real understanding or real change.

The only way to create real change is to accept what is happening in your brain now, with compassion, before you try to change it.

Just because you’re dealing with thoughts about your own internalized biases (about yourself or other people) doesn’t mean that the principles of non-judgmental observation, compassion, and curiosity don’t apply.

You have to be willing to love yourself through the struggle – that is how you can actually make some progress and focus on loving other people too.

I know that some people are going to hate that I am saying to be nice to yourself about your biased thoughts and prejudiced beliefs.

But if there is one thing I know in my bones, it is that there is no way to create effective personal or social change without changing people’s hearts and minds. And unexamined guilt and shame won’t get that done.

When you are willing to love yourself even with those thoughts, you can finally show up authentically and honestly.

You can feel confident to speak up when it’s your time to speak up, and to be quiet when it’s your turn to be quiet. You can lead when it’s your turn to lead, and follow when it’s your turn to follow. Because you have taken your ego out of the equation. You aren’t looking to be validated, because you have your own validation. So it actually becomes about the work, not about you.

You can accept that you are all of the things that you fear – sexist, racist, homophobic, ablist, transphobic, all of it – because you are part of a society that perpetuates these beliefs. You can have all those thoughts and still be worthwhile as a human. And because you’re not lying to yourself about it, you can own that and do the internal work to change how you show up.

And that only leads to even more growth. Because you know that you have your own back enough to be willing to be wrong.

When you love and accept yourself unconditionally, and are genuinely curious about your mind, it’s not a problem to be told you’re wrong.

It’s an opportunity.

You won’t feel immediately defensive and ashamed.

You’ll actually be curious.

And you’ll be able to use your independent judgment to decide what you want to think and believe.

Because – it may surprise you to hear this – there’s actually no “perfect” way to be an ally or to be a feminist.

A lot of what holds people back from deprogramming themselves and being more vocal about what they believe in is the perfectionist belief that there is a right way to be an ally, to be feminist, to be anti-racist, to be fat-positive, etc.

That there’s a perfect ideology to follow, and anything that falls short is shameful and not worth doing.

But there is no certified set of opinions from the universe on How to Be Woke.

I’ve been a professional feminist for 20 years, and there are plenty of people who think I’m doing feminism wrong. I know because they tell me on the internet about it all the time!

Social movements are made up of a bunch of human brains with human thoughts, some of which are the same and some of which are very different.

There is no “right” way to do any of this.

No matter what you say or do, someone may tell you that you did it wrong.

A lot of us see that as a reason to give up before we start.

But it’s the opposite.

It’s the best reason to try something.

Because there’s no objectively right answer and there’s no perfect way of being anything.

All you can do is be honest with yourself about your thoughts, educate yourself about experiences different than your own, and work to make the world a little better than you found it – however you define that.

And through it all, you will try and fail and still be worthy of your own love.