Category: Shifting Perspectives Written by Nimue Brown
Self esteem has far more to do with privilege than it does with either your innate worth, or your sense of self worth, or anything you might do to try and feel good about yourself. The more privilege a person has, the easier it is for them to feel good about themselves.
Not only are they practically lifted by their advantages, but they will be praised and socially rewarded for having those advantages in the first place. At the extreme end of this we have the example of the UK government – murderously incompetent and full of self praise. No matter how they fail, they demonstrate arrogance and supreme self confidence.
At the other end of the scale, those who are struggling are socially punished for struggling. To be poor, or ill, is to be blamed for being poor and ill. If you belong to a minority, mainstream culture will punish you for existing – as trans, queer, Black, neurodivergent, disabled… To have been unlucky, got into debt, struggled with addiction or become homeless, been a victim of abuse or other crimes is to meet with blame, shame and stigma. How can a person have good self esteem when their society punishes them for their lack of privilege?
If you have a lot of privilege, no one demands much of you. If you have little privilege, then society measures your worth in productivity and encourages you to feel bad about inactivity. If you don’t currently have a job, or are too ill to work, or too ill to work full time, or you need to rest, you won’t be encouraged to feel comfortable about that. Government ministers will call you lazy and workshy, and begrudge you enough support to afford food. If your work isn’t well paid, you will be treated as though you don’t deserve to be able to afford food and shelter.
All the self esteem advice is about not pinning your sense of worth to external things. I’ve never seen anyone talking about how much of a privilege issue this is. Without privilege, you aren’t allowed to do that thing. Feeling like you have intrinsic worth is difficult when your society treats you like that isn’t true. For anyone who faces disadvantages, self esteem isn’t something you can just magically grow and without external validation feeling good about anything can be really difficult.
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