Toxic Self-Marginalization: How our unconscious addiction to being underdogs harms our work

[Image description: Two super cute little dark brown or black chihuahua puppies, or possibly three. One is facing the camera. The other one is resting their head on top of the first one. Actually, I’m pretty sure there are three now. The other one is also resting their head on the first puppy. They’re adorable and were chose to help you remain calm as we tackle a difficult topic. Hope it’s working.]

Hi everyone. This post is long and will deal with a serious topic that may rile you up.

Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more of us who are supposed to be on the same “side” attack one another. “We progressives are eating our own” is a refrain I hear often. I wrote about this earlier, in a post called “Hey progressives, can we stop using the tools of social justice to tear one another down?” This was followed up with a post to balance things out, called “Hey people with privilege, you need to be OK with making mistakes and being called out.”

The last four years have been rough on many of us. There is generalized anxiety caused by the relentless cruelty, racism, and inhumanity of this administration. My mental health professional friends have been getting more business than they can handle. All of us to a degree feel helpless against the overwhelming forces of hatred that we read about on a daily basis. Our dedication to the fight, though, means that we often channel this energy toward targets that are easier and closer in proximity. And thus, we sometimes turn on one another. As one colleague said to me, “People need closer targets, and ones they can successfully take down.”

In our sector, these “closer targets” are often EDs/CEOs and others in positional power within nonprofits. These leaders automatically become proxies of institutional power, and mobilizing against them in some ways helps to restore a sense of control that many of us have felt like we’ve lost in the face of ongoing horrors. I speak to a lot of nonprofit leaders. They tell stories that, unfortunately, are extremely similar. The ED or senior leader did something the staff didn’t like, often HR-related like the firing of a team member or the retention of a team member who should have been fired earlier. This then becomes a significant issue that rallies the team, who often may not have the full picture, who then start organizing, using accusations of bias and injustice. Often it evolves into what I call the Wheel of Disillusionment. When the Wheel is set in motion, the damage it unleashes takes significant energy and time, sometimes years, to recover from.

What has been really alarming of late is the number of nonprofit leaders of color who are going through this. Including women leaders of color. Including Black women leaders. Just in the last two months I have had conversations with several POC leaders who have been experiencing prolonged internal struggles with their teams, being constantly criticized by staff, continually having their motives questioned, on top of all the other challenges they and their organizations face. Many are leaving or thinking of leaving their position, continuing a severe crisis of leaders of color exiting their post, or even the sector, in droves.

It’s not that the critical feedback is unwarranted; much is valid. And I know there are crappy, abusive, even unethical nonprofit leaders. Like other professions, we have our fair share of both good and bad folks. Taking down the bad ones, the ones who perpetuate injustice through their actions, before they can further harm the people we serve, is something we have a moral obligation to do. But it seems like some in our sector can no longer tell who is good or bad anymore, and they associate any sort of positional power as inherently bad, and any sort of mistake as a sign of corruption to be rooted out and destroyed at all cost, including sometimes imploding the organization.

This affects leaders of all colors and genders. It is warranted for leaders to be criticized, but when women of color leaders, when black women leaders, who experience the most injustice and oppression, are seen as “the Man” to be brought down, something is seriously wrong.

Discussions with leaders of color who are going through similar challenges revealed a phenomenon that may explain these dynamics and possibly help us overcome them. I call it Toxic Self-Marginalization (TSM): The deep entanglement of one’s identity with being marginalized, to the point where one is inclined to destroy anything that jeopardizes that identity. TSM manifests in several ways:

An addiction to being the underdog. Despite fighting to end marginalization, being marginalized in a sad way provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. A WOC ED colleague I talked to mentioned that everyone on her team got along when she was leading a scrappy organization that had little funding and wasn’t taken seriously. They were the underdogs, fighting together against an inequitable system. Everyone was happy, despite the lack of funding and visibility. As soon as she was able to raise money, increase everyone’s pay, and lifted the organization’s public profile, suddenly her team started criticizing her and becoming very unhappy. Nothing she did was now good enough. Every decision was now scrutinized. Every mistake she made was now a big deal.

A deep discomfort with power: The imbalance of power is what drives many unjust systems. So we often associate power as something bad. However, power by itself is neither good nor bad. Like fire can be used for warmth or for harm, power can be wielded for good or for bad. But Toxic Self-Marginalization does not understand that. It assumes that power corrupts, and that anyone who has power—including other marginalized people—must, or will, be corrupt. This helps explain why some leaders that everyone loves becomes hated as soon as they have positional power, even as they try to wield this power for good.

A fighting mode that’s difficult to turn off: Fighting unjust systems is what defines our sector and many of us who are working each day to advance a better world. It becomes a problem, however, when we do not know when to stop, or whom we should be targeting to get the systems change we want. When our identity becomes too entangled with being marginalized, with constantly having to fight, we assume this is the norm. We become hyper-vigilant. It’s like soldiers and warriors having a difficult time coping when they are no longer on the battlefield. They may lash out at the people who care about them. In our sector, it means sometimes we attack others who are on our side.

A propensity for self-sabotage: When something comes along that moves us away from being marginalized—for example, when our organization or community starts to get more power or resources—it threatens our identity, and we act to restore equilibrium. In a way, we try to tear something, including ourselves, down before it becomes part of “The System.” At an individual level, it may look like declining, or finding ways to be rejected from, a job with positional power. At the organizational level, it might include turning down funding, jeopardizing meaningful partnerships, and neutralizing those with positional authority who may see strategic value in gaining those resources and relationships.

TSM is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, and an effective tool of the dominant system to keep injustice in place. Getting people to be so used to being oppressed that they feel uncomfortable when they have any sort of power, to the point that they create internal conflict is brilliant. And because it is unconscious, it is difficult for us to recognize and counter. It’s not that some people have toxic self-marginalization, and others don’t. Like the cold, all of us are infected with it from time to time, some occasions more severely or more frequently than others. Some of us have no idea how infected we are, and we spread the infection to others.  

A quick warning before we move forward: Be careful with this term. It does not apply in every situation. If you are a person with positional power and your staff criticize you, do not be tempted to say it’s because of toxic self-marginalization, not without a period of reflection and research. It may be TSM, or it may just be because you are a crappy leader and you need to change or resign.

But I think this is becoming more and more of a problem in our sector. Dealing with TSM is exhausting and leaves us less energy to deal with greater threats, and right now, we need all of us to be focused on dealing with the greater threats. It diminishes our effectiveness when we continue to sabotage our own efforts without even realizing it.

And we need to acknowledge also that this phenomenon, like everything else, disproportionately affects leaders of color. I know a lot of white nonprofit leaders who are experiencing similar challenges. But it seems lately that POC leaders have been having an even harder time, especially with other staff of color. It’s like in some ways, if you’re a white ED, you may get a pass when you make a mistake because you don’t have the lived experience and can rightfully claim ignorance. You have the privilege to be imperfect.

But if you’re a person of color, you’re expected to know better. You live through racism and injustice every day, so you should naturally be able to understand everything and never make a mistake, and you are considered a part of the problem when you demonstrate that you are imperfect like everyone else. Targeting leaders of color who have positional power is an effective way to diminish their effectiveness and serve as deterrence for other leaders of color, thus helping to maintain status quo, including the marginalization status that many of us may be unconsciously most comfortable with. How do we get people of color to assume leadership positions when the pressure is so high and the threshold for being considered a cog in the wheel of injustice so low?

I don’t exactly know how to counter toxic self-marginalization; it will require constant self-reflection and dialog, including about our uneasy relationship with power. I do know that many nonprofit leaders are emotionally drained. Dealing with a broken funding system and daily doses of racism, bigotry, misogyny, ableism, etc., in your work and in society is stressful enough, but to come back to your own team constantly doubting your motives and not giving you the grace to be a fallible human being is soul-crushing. As another frustrated WOC ED said to me, “Maybe this model is not working. Maybe we just need to give all the money back and do something else.”

Perhaps that is the answer. Perhaps we need a completely different system altogether, one that is less hierarchical and can avoid these power differentials and the dynamics they carry. But I’ve also seen those who are trying to do just that, who use their positional power to shift organizational structures and practices, they get railroaded too.

This is something all of us need to reflect on and debate over. Most of us are here because in various ways, we are affected by systems of injustice, or deeply care about those who are. But like that story about the fish who passed another fish, and the second fish asked “How’s the water?” and the first fish is like “What the hell is water?” each of us need to reflect on whether we are so used to existing within a system of inequity and marginalization that if taken out of it, like a fish out of water, we start unknowingly fighting to get back into it.

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