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Psychology of Disadvantage

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Success and the Psychology of Liberation

University of Florida Library West

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Recently I completed my graduate studies. I am officially a doctor. First one in the family. Only one in the family. Only one in the family to have a college degree at all. Three degrees is over the top. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever done.

I am now on the job market, and I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my graduate career. Up until around my Master’s Degree, I kind of floated along. I knew that I did not want to work a nine-to-five. I did physical-type work for many years, and by twenty-nine years old, I had carpal tunnel in one wrist, two herniated disks in my back, and a knee that would not stop popping. But I come from a working tradition.

My grandmother was a share cropper in the cotton fields of Georgia for many years. And when she moved to Florida, she was a cleaning lady, a nanny, a cook, and whatever else she needed to be in order to take care of her family. For most of my life, she worked at least three jobs until she just couldn’t work anymore. Now she can barely stand without radiating throughout her body.

My mother is much the same; she worked for great companies, but as a janitor or some other position where she had to use her body, tear her body down, to take care of things. I am very proud of them both. But I also believe they worked that way so I could chose another path.

So I thought — I truly believed — that education would be my salvation, that education could change my life. And it has, but I am still trying to process how.

I spent quite a bit of time depressed in graduate school. I felt awkward, and overwhelmed. I did not understand what people were saying. There is a tendency for newly-minted graduate students to constantly demonstrate their intellect by throwing around big words and philosophies with wild abandon. I know now that it was an act, and they really had no clue what they were saying, but at the time, I thought that maybe I was not qualified to be in graduate school.

I even had a professor confirm my belief. He wrote on one of my returned seminar papers that graduate school is not for everyone, and perhaps I should reconsider getting a graduate degree because I “just don’t have what it takes.” I stared at those comments for well over a year before I could write the first word of my dissertation.

Eventually, I saw a therapist, and I made it through. Out of sheer stubborness and fear of failure, I pushed through, sometimes with my eyes shut tight. I don’t want this to be a whine-fest, but I am trying to work through the proccesses of being successful despite consistent feelings of inadequacy.

I am having the same feelings of self-doubt, lack of self-confidence, and overall fear of uncertainty now on the market. And I actually need to get my shit together because I need a job. And I look at my peers who are all very successful and confident, and they just move through whatever situation as if they are supposed to be there while I sit in the corner and wonder if I can be there.

It is no secret that class, gender, and race affects the experiences people have with the world. It is not wrong to acknowledge that the colonized world, and the pyscho-social ailments of colonization that remain, makes cultures and societies spaces of subtle but relentless struggle. The flaming racist screaming insults is about two-percent of the problem. The other ninety-eight percent is structural, ubiquitous, impersonal, and pernicious.

What interests me is the psychology of those people flailing their arms to get a portion of dried food and a plastic, uncomfortable seat at the table. Always an academic, I have taken to understanding myself as something to be read. And I view situations the same way. I am a Black woman, raised in a single-parent household in a community with drugs, gangs, and violence. I am a first generation college student who has moved into spaces not traditionally inviting and even accepting of someone who looks like me. I am a sociological statistic. But I am also me.

I want to try and work through the psychology of social disadvantage because while I understand that some of my hesitations are my own, some of them are socially-made. For example, while childhood experiences can predict outcomes, those outcomes are not set in stone. People who have all the advantages in the world can have very unsuccessful lives. And people who have all the disadvantages in the world can have very successful lives.

But the psychological struggle is as persistent as my desire to make a better life for myself, my mother, and my grandmother. A part of my psychosis, or perhaps neurosis, is because of my deep desire to always be humble. One of my greatest fears is becoming a raging narcissist, and I have long believed that in order to do that, I have to be modest at all times. Somewhere along the line, though, I never developed self-confidence. I was humble before I ever learned what to be arrogant about.

Sociology and gender studies tell us that part of this is gender-based differences in raising children. For example, my brother was allowed to go out into the world and build his confidence. I have always had to ask permission. This is an aspect of the psychology of disadvantage that I want to explore. Thinking you are supposed to ask for permission because it is the respectful thing to do is counter to how the world functions. It does not mean you steal or bully people, but waiting on permission can mean being stagnant in some cases. And further, for some questions, who are you supposed to ask?

Another aspect of my psychosis/neurosis is social. The nurturing of a young Black girl is non-existent. All women of color have the same racial concerns and systematic problems that men of color have and the same partriarchial concerns that white women have, but women of color are perpetually Invisible. How should we concern ourselves with the human necessity of being seen and heard in a cultural space that functions on our very invisibility? I am interested in the psychology it takes to persist.

What I want to do here is study the psychological ramifications of being disadvantaged, and how to overcome them. Racial incidences have a psychological impact. I think it is fair to say that we would never tell a child of abuse to “get over it.” Especially if that child is white, and comes from a family of generational abuse. We understand that healing is a long fight. But what if the abuse is continuously socially inflicted over long stretches of time.

Psychology tells us that prolonged abuse can affect the mind and produce physiological changes in the body and especially in brain function. I never quite understood why psychology and psychotherapy does not do enough to explore the impacts of social aggressions on the psychology and experience of an individual.

So, for the next series of articles, I am going to study the psychology of disadvantage by studying the psychology of liberation. In the coming days or weeks, I am going to post specifically about the psychology of liberation as a window into the mind of a disadvantaged person. When Bob Marley says we need to “free ourselves from mental slavery,” what does that entail?

Despite my successful completion of a PhD program, and despite the fact that I know, intellectually, that I am capable of doing just about anything I decide to do, I am still crippled by self-doubt (this does not mean that self-doubt does not happen to all people across class, gender, and racial lines!). And while I have learned to rely on Yoga, meditation, and cycling to keep going, understanding the “why” of certain fears and hesitations is important to me.

I welcome engagement from psychologists out there. If you have anything for me to read, let me know.

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