The Cage

Here’s the cage I was caught in for the first fifty years of my life.[1]

As I was growing up I soaked up the cultural conditioning for females (conditioning invisible because omnipresent), so that before I had any idea who I was I had learned how to think about myself in negative and subordinate terms. Still to this day I watch my mind habitually run these tapes:

  • To begin with, I introject the opinions and attitudes of dominant males, so that I automatically agree with them, and believe these thoughts are authentically mine, even though I have not arrived at them through any process of my own.
  • When I actually do feel disagreement, I can’t express it.
  • I believe I am being good when I subordinate myself to others, or when I belittle or criticize myself.
  • I feel that if I want something, I don’t deserve to have it, and will certainly never succeed in getting it.

As a result of this conditioning I have very low confidence in my ability to cope with the world. I struggle with despair and depression and a tendency to make myself a victim—what bell hooks calls “victimage.” [2]. Distress patterns common to a lot of women. My severe medical problems may be partly caused by this programming — or in any case certainly are aggravated by it.

Eventually I started to examine this mindset. According to Western psychology, I needed a stronger ego. This meant

  • being clear about my values
  • setting personal boundaries
  • owning my feelings
  • daring to have my own opinions
  • making conscious choices and decisions.

Understanding these was useful. I engaged in actively working to reprogram myself. But it didn’t seem to correct the underlying distress patterns.

So I tried some psychotherapy. Fairly quickly I discovered the paradox of hysteria: getting fascinated by your problems—identified with them, even: so that you think of yourself as someone with that condition. Therapists often unwittingly encouraged this in me: they urged me to spend more and more attention on bad feelings or memories, and I obliged, happy to perform for them in exchange for their attention.

When I realized this, I turned to affirmations, and other forms of “positive thinking.”[3]

Eventually I noticed that even those techniques were handicapped by what I think of as the Purple Cow Paradox.

No matter how “positively” I phrased each attempt at reprogramming myself, my mind kept responding “yes, but…” —bringing out the old distress pattern.

It’s as though I were trying to tell myself “think of orange grass”—but the association is too close, and too well grooved into me; my mind knows that what is behind this instruction is “don’t think of a purple cow.”

So when I affirm “I choose to be healthy,” up comes my fear of the pain I struggle with every day; up comes “Yes, but I’m crippled….”

Or when I tell myself “I can stand up for myself when my partner is critical,” up comes “But he’ll make me feel bad about how I do that!”

Now what? I tried to simply ignore or shut down or bury the old feelings, but that just added another layer to the problem: “I’m bad to feel that way.” Then the remedy for that was to pay attention to them…. You can see the vicious cycle. I was living on the event horizon of a black hole of depression: all my efforts to reprogram my mind felt superficial in comparison to the powerful pull of that ancient negativity.


[1] Maria Marcus calls this “authoritarian masochism.” I prefer “socially rewarded self-suppression,” awkward as this is.
[2] hooks, 1992,
[3] For a review of techniques of positive thinking, see ny essay on Positive Psychology, later in Persephone’s Choice.

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