I have always been a sucker for a solid motivational talk. And known to give them, too. I was raised with the idea that hard work equates to success — although there was little evidence in my life of hard work elevating most of the people I knew out of the social strata they were born in. Still, there lingered this idea that pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps was a virtue that would be rewarded.
The flipside of this philosophy, of course, was that those who failed to succeed by societal standards lacked virtue. Inherently lazy. Unmotivated. Entitled. There was a world of judgment springing from the idea that hard work and only hard work could save us.
Now, when I hear motivational talks, all I can think is how often they fail to account for privilege. Privilege of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, ability — there are so many kinds of privilege. At one point in time, I would have missed it completely because I wasn’t yet acquainted with words like cis-gendered or heteronormative. I wouldn’t have thought much about how race, gender, or ability influenced success. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that other people might have to work so much harder to have even a fraction of the success of others.
But lately, it occurred to me that this also includes mental health. Motivational talks often fail to account for the real conditions of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and any number of challenges. Telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps without factoring in the real challenges or providing real tools is simply pouring salt on the wound — and invalidating the struggle.
From the outside looking in, it seems like getting better is a matter of putting your mind to it, as if determination were enough to make it happen. That’s not pop psychology and it’s not motivation — it’s emotional bypassing with a side of magical thinking. It doesn’t account for the disparity created by privilege; instead, it ignores it entirely.
This toxicity is particularly prevalent in certain spiritual circles. These are the ones that favor a colonist narrative — comfortable with appropriation of other traditions in the name of peace, love, and light and equally uncomfortable with challenges to the mindset that suggest what they’re doing is anything but loving. The idea is to put a Band-Aid over past and present oppression so that we can all just get along.
I think about how my own advice sometimes fails to factor in privilege or count the cost. When I suffered my own bout of depression, I saw just how impossible it was to do half the things that advice columns and motivational talks suggest. I was high-functioning in my depression and still found it difficult to complete basic tasks.
Beyond that, the problem wasn’t my thoughts — the way people often assume. I wasn’t sitting around dwelling on everything that had gone wrong in my life. I was emptied out of thoughts and left in a vast wasteland of sadness. I couldn’t practice thought-stopping because negative thoughts weren’t the problem, and positive affirmations disappeared quickly into that abyss. I realized then that I had enjoyed the privilege of good mental health for so long that I didn’t even realize it was, in fact, a privilege.
I’m learning and growing, and I see now that sometimes I’ve simplified ideas that weren’t simple at all. In doing so, I might have meant to help while actually doing harm. I’ve learned that impact matters more than our intentions, and now when I even think about giving advice or offering motivation, I ask myself if the playing field is even. And the answer is universally no.
Equality is a beautiful idea that isn’t an actual reality. Motivational talks and advice geared toward helping others should take this into account. Instead of endlessly telling people how to improve their lives, we may want to look at the systemic structures that make it easier for some to do this than others. Those barriers society has structured to prop up wealth and patriarchal systems. When we start looking at the bigger picture, perhaps the motivation will evolve to be more inclusive.
There’s this idea that being more inclusive and politically correct somehow makes us all softer — as if “soft” is something undesirable. I hope it’s making us kinder. I hope it’s making people feel more accepted and less left out. I would like to think it’s making us more considerate and more mindful that our own life experience doesn’t encapsulate the whole of the human condition.
Now, when I hear a motivational talk, I’m listening for cues that the speaker is clued into the fact that the playing field is not even, that sometimes the deck is stacked. We can be empowered to do better and make healthy choices without invalidating the different levels of struggle along the way. In fact, by acknowledging them, we’re more likely to make life choices that balance that very same playing field. We understand that there is work to be done, and that work doesn’t involve bootstraps at all.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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