I remember overhearing a conversation between several young men when I was at university. They’d been assigned a group project and were debating how to divide the work. It suddenly escalated into a contest about who deserved the biggest workload on account of who had “the least problems”.
The boy from a private school was dumped with half the work, while the others divided the remaining half between them. He grumbled a few words about the injustice of this, but obliged when one of the other boys pointed out that he had to accept that more was expected of him because of where he came from.
The incident stirred up unsettling feelings I had towards my own privilege as a private-school child. I too had put myself under similar pressure as absolution for being “lucky enough” to have access to things other people struggled for. It’s called privilege guilt and it’s a very real thing. This guilt isn’t exclusive to private schooling, it can be anything that is perceived as an advantage. Some people allow the guilt to consume their lives and even go so far as to hide their skills from certain people so as not to draw attention to themselves.
I quickly discovered that I was going to be criticised either way. If I wasted my opportunities for fear of judgment, I’d be labelled as lazy and ungrateful. If I capitalised on what I have, it would be dismissed as something I didn’t have to work for.
It is important to learn not to deliberately short-change yourself by replacing your guilt with a sense of gratitude for the opportunities you’ve been given and a determination to harness them to the best of your ability.
Wealth psychologist Ilze Alberts explains that such changes in mindset are key in emancipating oneself from guilt she deems to be unnecessary. “Yes, of course there are many benefits to being a person of privilege, but people rarely realise the downsides of the immense pressure it presents. Once you can see the equal and opposite drawbacks to different upbringings, you will find it easier to accept that it’s just your life and it is about what you make of it,” she says.
Alberts believes that every person has a higher purpose, regardless of where they come from, and what is important is making the most of what is presented to you. She cautions against the pitfalls of privilege where people are lazy and expect everything to be done for them, “If you make less of an effort in life, expect less in life. Learn how to develop a strong enough value in your life to want to do things for yourself. In this day and age, things are very rarely just handed to you,” she says.
She cautions parents who have been able to give their children privileged lifestyles to ensure that they raise them with the philosophy to use it wisely and not only for their own gain. “Have a vision for your family legacy that goes beyond your generation, it is important to instill a spirit of hard work and appreciation. Help your children learn that access to the best education and opportunities have been entrusted to them to improve society, and not just for themselves.”
While people can’t help where they come from, they have an active role in where they are going. You must use your skills, talents and opportunities to effectively alter how you are perceived, you’re in control of what you perpetuate to those around you.