Check Your Privilege: Peddling Positivity and the Illusion of Control

If you’re on any form of social media, you would have very likely seen ‘positive’ and ‘motivational’ quote-pictures and memes shared and re-shared, informing you that if you want to make a change in your life positive thinking (to attract ‘positive energy’ and therefore positive outcomes) and ‘just doing it’ is the way to go about changing your life.

Some people add their own stories, usually concluding “I have under X circumstance(s), so why can’t you/what’s your excuse?”

Below are a few I have seen on my social media timelines over the last couple of days.

People often share these messages as a way of spreading positivity and hope, which isn’t a bad thing in itself as humans generally love to help other people (presumably to help offset our inherently negative bias). But is it really as simple as “If you don’t like your life, change it”? “If you don’t like where you are, move”? “If you don’t like your job, quit and get a new one”?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big believer in positive thinking, and reframing your thoughts to look at things in a more positive way (I’ll come back to this later). But when sharing these, have we really thought about how it may have been as simple as “just changing” our job/location/life for us not just because of the power of positive thinking, but because of other influences in our lives that others may not have?

These messages imply that we have complete control over the all possible outcomes in our lives, when for many this simply isn’t the case; so well-meaning people in more fortunate positions are unintentionally perpetuating this illusion of control to those less fortunate. This blog post will briefly explore the concept of ‘Privilege’, and put it into context with the types of pictures shown above.

The phrase ‘Check Your Privilege’ has been quite popular political statement on the internet over the last 10 years, but especially since around 2013. The term privilege, in this context, can be traced back to Peggy McIntosh’s 1998 essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, but it became more popular after being posted on the social justice blogging site shrub.com in 2006.

Rather than being a fashionable phrase or a tactic to shut down a conversation (although, as with anything, it has been misused in this way) it’s designed to open debate and encourage people to recognise when they are commenting on an issue that they may be speaking from a position of privilege. This could include a person born into wealth claiming that they do not care about the plight of the poor, that their financial problems are their own doing, or they should just “work harder” or “get a new job”; or a white person claiming they do not care about representation of people of colour in the media.

No-one likes to believe they have had an additional leg up when compared to others – who wouldn’t want to believe they got somewhere entirely of their own volition with no help from anyone ever? But it’s important that we do recognise when we have had some advantages over others trying to reach the same goal as us (the picture below summarises it quite well), and to not see it as a source of shame; a financial leg-up or help in achieving your goals doesn’t mean you haven’t still worked hard to get where you are.

Let’s take one of the first pictures I shared as an example: “If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree”. Seems simple, doesn’t it? For some, it really is that simple. But here are a few situations where it may not be as cut and dry as “just move”:

  • Being financially tied to an area because the rent/house prices are only affordable in the area in which they currently live
  • Unable to get a mortgage due to being a bank worker/on a zero hours contract/self-employed/being in debt/low credit rating (keep in mind this can happen as a result of unfortunate financial circumstances and relationship breakdowns, not always because of irresponsible spending)
  • Unable to save for moving costs/house deposit due to being on a low wage, and unable to progress to higher paid work due to lack of qualifications or experience
  • A single parent living in council accommodation only able to live in an area to which they can prove they have ‘ties’ to, but can’t afford to rent privately
  • Being tied to an area because of work, or their children’s school (such as a specialist school)
  • People in war-torn countries not having the money, health, or any other means to travel and settle in a new country (that may not accept them)

In a similar vein are motivational statements surrounding work, such as “If you don’t like your job, change it!” It works on paper, but in reality:

  • There may not be any other jobs in the vicinity within the person in questions’ profession, and may not be in a position to move to where the jobs are (see previous example)
  • If in a skilled position, they may be underqualified for any other jobs that allow them to have the same salary they are currently on, so cannot afford to leave because of financial commitments (such as rent/mortgage/childcare)
  • There may not be any other jobs available during the hours they are able to work (this is common for school hours and term-time only work; doing a quick search for TTO jobs usually results in ‘lunchtime supervisors’ or ‘catering assistants’ at between 5-10 hours per week at minimum wage, or teaching assistant positions which now require a qualification costing over £1,000)
  • Retraining may not be an option financially, either due to course fees, childcare costs, and/or because of having to leave work/reduce hours while studying (this also highlights a flaw in the childcare system, as a person earning the ‘equivalent’ of a 16 hour week at minimum wage over 3 hours [eg £50 an hour] would theoretically be eligible for 30 hours subsidised childcare, but a minimum wage employee working 10 hours a week but spending 3 days at college would not be entitled to it as they haven’t earned the equivalent of 16 hours at minimum wage). Those with children often lose out here if they do not have family/partners/government assistance to rely on for childcare – and it’s very easy to forget how fortunate one is when they have this help as a given and claim they “did it all on their own”.

Privilege is also present in the world of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

  • Therapists have to finance their own training (with courses in this area often excluded from bursary awards), and pay for their own mandatory personal therapy, CPD, and monthly clinical supervision during and after qualifying – whereas other professions have this included as a given. This can immediately exclude those who cannot afford the high cost.
  • BACP’s 2014 Membership Survey tells us that the average counsellor is female, aged 53, works 12-13 hours a week, and earns less than £10,000 a year. Despite this, the average counsellor would fall into the ‘affluent achiever’ bracket (defined by a lifestyle containing things such as a luxury car, detached house, an iPhone, and buying books and wine on the internet). There is a strong implication that the disparity in income and expenditure implies a solid financial backing; possibly through not being the main breadwinner in the house.
  • With the above in mind, There is an expectation, rightly or wrongly, for qualified therapists to volunteer their time for free to “give something back”, or to gain hundreds of hours for (voluntary) accreditation; which isn’t expected of other professions in healthcare (or otherwise). This “giving something back” is portrayed as something positive and altruistic (in line with the what was talked about earlier). A quick job search shows many positions for ‘volunteer’ counsellors, but little in the way of paid work. Many therapists are taking on unpaid volunteer roles and supplementing their income with another part-time job, and some are leaving the profession altogether because they do not have the financial backing – and are not in a position of privilege – to be able to work for free, and refuse to don sackcloth and ashes for asking to be paid (the expectation of volunteering as positive work often comes from therapists who are in a financial position to be able to volunteer, and/or who are in paid counselling positions). Approximately 72% of counsellors are struggling to find paid employment. Counsellors Together UK are working towards ending this expectation of unpaid work.
  • Additionally, there is an assumption within healthcare that patients/clients will pay for private therapy if they are not happy with the long waiting lists for NHS therapy; when many simply cannot afford it.

The main point of this blog post is to gently encourage people to be aware of any privileges you have that have enabled you to get to the position you are, and to be aware of claiming simple ‘hard work’ and ‘positive thinking’ got you there in an attempt to motivate others in less privileged positions.

That being said, I do not want to discredit the power of adopting a positive attitude and reframing your thinking – especially if you aren’t in a privileged position to be able to change your situation (such as your job). Viewing the glass as ‘half-full’ rather than ‘half-empty’ can be extremely helpful helping you get through the day, and viewing your situation in a more positive light until you are in a position to make a change.

  • A lack of promotion at work could be viewed as more time for yourself and less responsibility and stress;
  • An emptier client list could be an opportunity for self-care, private study, or time spent with family and friends;
  • Not getting that job interview may mean that job wasn’t right for you, and so you haven’t wasted your time;
  • Getting a low mark and receiving constructive criticism on a piece of work is an opportunity for growth, to learn from your mistakes, and to get a much better result next time.

As mentioned previously, as humans we have an inherently negative bias, so it’s understandable that we are trying to spread positivity. But in doing this we have to be careful not to be spreading it blindly and giving those less privileged than us the illusion of control, and the message that a person has failed but not simply ‘choosing’ to change. Be aware of your privilege (even if it makes you uncomfortable); be kind you others; and be kind to yourself.

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