How to Reconcile Feelings of Privilege

A large part of being a therapist has to do with helping people to stop torturing themselves. In light of the recent political climate, I found it necessary to address one of the most common ways I hear clients torture themselves - Self torture due to privilege. To be clear, most of my clients are individuals that (even they) would consider "privileged".  I understand that privilege is a loaded word these days and I want to take this space to explain. When envisioning a world of equality, the answers don't always lie in a perspective of "fighting against".  Often they can come from a compassionate understanding of why people are motivated to do things.  Sometimes those motivations are fear and guilt.   I think most of us can agree that we do our best work when we are motivated by things like compassion and love....they are a bit less painful. 

BUT FIRST...

If the concept of torturing yourself resonates with you at all today, I will quote self help guru Louise Hay:

"Stop torturing yourself."

NOW BACK TO PRIVILEGE

The Google dictionary defines Privilege as: 

  1. a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.    

Some experiences of privilege are collectively agreed upon such as being white and being from a wealthy home.  Privilege can be something that someone has earned or something we were born into.  In the case of working toward a better life we chose to devote our time to bettering ourselves for the sake of our experience and our family.  In the case of being born into certain privileges, we really didn't have much choice.  In either situation, it is our reaction to privilege that determines the type of person we are and the way that we interact with others. Two types of reactions I see which are particularly damaging to clients and those they interact with: Guilt about having privilege and hatred toward themselves and others with certain privileges. 

Guilt is a tricky thing.  At it's best, it is an internal gauge of our moral compass.  If we genuinely do something against our value system, like hurt someone, guilt is there to remind us we need to do better.  In this regard it is super helpful. The problem comes when we practice feeling guilty over things we either had no control over or have no business feeling guilty about in the first place (such as being a certain skin color or feeling guilt because your parents sent you to private school). This type of guilt is toxic.  It leads to lowered self esteem and turns into a projection of resentment toward others we view as "unworthy" of experiencing certain things. We begin to cultivate a world view from the lens of "life's not fair" and "why me".  From there we fall into a trap of putting ourselves last, self neglect and abuse. 

Putting yourself last or neglecting yourself in some way does not help the fight for equality. Neither does feeling guilty about privileges.  At the moment you notice the privileges you have in your life, there are some simple, gentle ways to react to that besides self abuse. The answer to privilege is appreciation and respect.

"But how can I appreciate being white without being racist?" you might ask.  It's simple. 

1. Appreciate your life and your experience. 

2. Don't be a jerk.

3. AND use your position to correct the ill logic of those around you who misconstrue privilege for superiority.

We can absolutely appreciate and respect our unique life experience (no matter our resources or the color of our skin) AND AT THE SAME TIME have a deep compassion for and support the rights of others. Appreciating our unique experience allows us to be an example to those that are struggling with this.  What kind of an example are we to tear ourselves down while we want and wish for the success of others? We can't.  We have to start by appreciating, loving and respecting ourselves. From that, all other relationships will follow.