The personal is political – and it is not always serving us well…

The other day I was in a coffee shop talking with an old friend about our personal demons. Demons – we all got ‘em. This friend also happens to be a social activist and a political science professor. It wasn’t long before our talk of the personal turned political. And I got very excited because I’ve been thinking a lot about that seventies feminist catch phrase “The personal is political.” This phrase/idea really resonates with me – but not in relation to what I’ve always took to be its original meaning. These days, I’ve got a new angle on it.

Until the last few years, for me ‘the personal is political’ meant personal issues, e.g., what goes on in our bedrooms, relationships between men and women, childbearing, tie into social, political and economic dynamics – ergo,  they deserve to/needs must have a space in activist and political debates and deliberations. The struggles and power plays in our homes cannot be disconnected from the struggles and power plays on the Hill (or in Westminster).

I still agree with this idea, but now I’m also thinking about the personal being political in relation to our demons – our inner struggles – the stuff discussed (if it is discussed) behind closed doors with a therapist, a counselor or simply in our own heads.   

I have another friend who is very political (well, actually I’ve got a lot of politically active friends) and works in the gender equality arena. I used to work in the race equality arena. We used to compare notes and have a little competition on whose people – meaning colleagues – were more high maintenance – ‘crazy’ is often the word we would use. We would laugh and joke about it, but underneath we were both making a serious point. Between us, we had plenty of experience of working with/in organizations, campaigns, committees, working groups etc., and witnessing a lot of destructive behavior.

These behaviors included people acting like bullies, being very controlling, defensive and aggressive. On the one hand, we’d be together talking about and advocating for equality, fairness, respect and on the other we were treating each other with disrespect, being unfair and playing power games that invalidated any sense of true equality between people. And I raise my hand to confess that, at times, I was a guilty culprit.    

I could easily say I got caught up in the cultures of the organizations I was in or I was responding to how I was being treated – I’ve had my fair share of bullying  and harassing colleagues in the workplace. As true as that may be, that is not the full story. Organizational cultures are strong and can pull people into their ways quite easily. Yet, at the same time, my behaviors were also the result of what I brought to the table – of my demons tied to insecurity, self-esteem, negative beliefs etc.  Thing is, I’m not alone – we’re all bringing our demons to the table.

We bring our demons to our activism.

These demons direct us to create tense, difficult, destructive relationships with each other and the world around us. They influence how we do our work in and out of the office, how we handle negotiations, meetings, protests, etc., What’s significant about our demons is they tend to direct us using fear, anger, rage, and sadness, despair.

While it is often the case that these very emotions are the catalysts that prompt us to get involved in social change – that prompt us to want to stand up and speak – we start getting into trouble if it is these emotions that are guiding our every step.  Imagine if fear, anger, rage, sadness and despair are guiding an individual’s movement in the world. Imagine if they are guiding our collective social movements. Surely, when this happens, we are not at our creative and collaborative best.

As we sipped our coffee and talked about all this, I explained to my old friend what I think frequently happens in activism. Let’s say – for example,, you are in a meeting about some social policy matter. Someone presents a set of policy recommendations. A person of authority (could be from the same organization or could be an adversary of sorts) says that those recommendations are rubbish, impossible, absurd. Sometimes what happens is that an activist – goaded on by their demons – who has worked on those recommendations experiences the criticism as a personal affront rather than a mere challenge to the policy recommendations. The exchange becomes much more loaded and they hear something like this: “You are rubbish. You are absurd. You always want the impossible – you just don’t think.’

They experience criticisms of their policy recommendations as a personal, invalidating, belittling attack.

Thing is, this isn’t consciously done – they don’t know that these thoughts are driving what happens next, which might be a tightness in their belly, a feeling in their chest and/or heat in their face as a anger begins to well up.  Reacting to the strong emotions arising in the moment, our activist speaks full of fear, rage, and/or despair. And perhaps you can imagine the exchange that follows is not hugely constructive.

Wounds. These wounds are our demons and we carry them with us. My point is that we might say we are going into social justice to fight for others – for people living in poverty, for people being discriminated against, for people who are in particularly vulnerable situations etc., and this might be true. At the same time, however, we are often also going into social justice to fight for ourselves – we are reacting to our own wounds. Sometimes we are conscious of these wounds and they are directly tied to the politics at hand – a victim of domestic violence seeks to get better policies to lead to the prevention of violence in the home. Other times, however, we aren’t conscious of our wounds and they aren’t linked to the social-political issues at hand. They are instead battles we fight connected to old, usually subtle wounds that go way back – wounds that might have been created soon after that first wail we gave when we came into world. Often they are tied to a sense of invisibility – a need to be heard, seen, valued, loved.   

And this is what I think of these days when I consider the catch phrase ‘the personal is political.’ Our personal demons/unhealed wounds come with us wherever we go – including the office, the basement, the coffee house, the street, the Occupy camp – wherever it is we are doing our activist thing. And what becomes important is that we develop self-awareness of these demons so that our fights for justice can be separated out from our individual fights for a sense of self-worth and validation – which ultimately must come from within.

What’s really clear to me right now is that when the personal and political get tied up in this way, we do a disservice to our selves, our relationships and our movements. What can we do about it? Become more self-aware and create more spaces that allow for and support internal reflection, work and change.



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4 Responses to The personal is political – and it is not always serving us well…

  1. Great stuff Veena!I’ve been finding myself wondering about some of these questions a lot lately, particularly when I’ve seen negative dynamics arise between activists.Not sure if you saw this blog I wrote a few weeks ago on where organisational culture comes from? Seems very inter-related… – I guess I’d add that – coming from a lot of my own soul-searching in recent times – anger can be a positive force, because it is a proactive one. It *very* easily becomes destructive, but I think we do need to accept what it can contribute, as well as what it can take away from relationships.Thanks for sharing the thoughts!Liam

  2. Veena Vasista says:

    Liam – thank you for commenting and for directing me to your post – which I had not read. Love it! Is very inter-related and I got excited while reading it. You might be interested in a post I did elsewhere about being reactive vs being responsible.… Ties to points I particularly valued in your post: "What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?" and "There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating." With regards to anger – I definitely want to take a deeper look at how we work with it constructively. It is too easy/tempting sometimes to want to confine it to the dustbin of ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ emotion and that, too, does us a disservice. Peace and love. veena

  3. jpflintoff says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. It can be really demoralising to see the negative attitude underlying activist work, even work that I really appreciate. Chris Johnstone ( is very good in his book Find Your Power on how to stop taking part in negative behaviours at work and elsewhere… he says we should stop thinking about what others should do and move towards thinking about what we *will* do. By doing something more wholesome you open the way for others to follow suit – "Styles of interraction are infectious," Johnstone says. J-P

  4. Veena Vasista says:

    J-P – @jpflintoff – Thanks for directing me to Chris Johnstone’s book – will check it out! I wholeheartedly agree that the best way to drive change is to be it – to embody it, model it. I think a great place to start is with how we relate to our selves and one another. We can be and do in the ways that feel nurturing, creative, enlivening. I say ‘Yes" to Johnstone’s point that it is infectious and add that the result is we open up infinite potential for how we can create and collaborate with each other….we become powerful.

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