In our modern self-help world we’re subjected to endless accounts of personal stories of individual’s success, rags to riches tales and come backs. I’ve worked for a long time in support roles, in therapy and in community development, so I must say from the outset that I truly believe that people should be free to pursue their goals, where they hurt no-one else, with support if they need it.

What I’m really concerned about is the language of empowerment being hijacked by quite the opposite cause. How talk of ‘you can become anything you want’ ignores the reality of inequality and limited opportunities. At best we unknowingly feed in to a rhetoric of unlimited individual responsibility. At worst there are people who use this language precisely to obscure the inequalities inherent in our society.

Inspirational Memes

I was flicking through Facebook when I came across one of those inspirational Memes (pictures with words over it) which carried done message about how you can achieve anything, set in front of the backdrop of some picturesque scene. I could see that the person who had shared it had received a number of “likes” for it and even some comments “totally agree”, “this is so true” etc. I’ve shared these things in the past, I will do again in the future I’m sure; there are always versions that we all feel an affinity with. It is the kind of generic, uplifting language with which it is almost impossible to disagree.

After training (upon reflection, for a very brief time) as a hypnotherapist a couple of years ago I started to develop myself and build a client base. The hypnotherapy that I trained in and practised was ‘solution focused’. Now this is a very helpful and positive approach that encourages the individual to look forward towards goals, rather than back towards the past.

The danger of meritocratic myths

But like with the inspirational memes and self-help guides there is a danger in promoting ‘solution focused’ and ‘strength based’ approaches. Namely that practitioners and policy makers assume, or create a belief in others that, anyone can achieve anything. And if we assume that; what does it leave us to think of those people who don’t “achieve” or who find themselves in very difficult circumstances?

It can feed into the idea, or the myth, of meritocracy. Meritocracy; meaning the idea that your achievements in life are a result of your abilities, talents and the effort that you put in. This idea is so pervasive in our society that we often hardly even question that it is true. We are happy to believe that if you work hard, you will reap the rewards.

There was a great article in the Independent in 2014 by James Bloodworth entitled Meritocracy is a Myth, which opens with the following;

“We insist on asking children what they want to do with their lives when most of the time it’s set in stone when they pull on their first school uniform. If they are born poor they will almost certainly stay poor; if their parents have money then it’s likely that they will too. The more unequal a society is the truer this statement becomes.”

Whilst this has always been the case, it is increasingly true and stark with rising inequality. Since 2010 the number of food banks in the UK has increased by 700% with more than a million people utilising them. It is hard to imagine a country where the sky is the limit if this huge proportion of people can’t manage to get food on the table.

Now it would be nice if we have had a society in which success wasn’t measured by money, but this is invariably what happens. And clearly if you don’t have enough money to put food in your belly you are going to struggle to achieve in other areas. Meanwhile, did you know that every single member of Theresa May ‘s cabinet is a millionaire? Put simply and sweepingly then; if you don’t have money you will starve, but if you have plenty more money than you need you can run the country.

In the last 30 years the new grand theory of neoliberalism has ruled and it has been so subtle that most people haven’t noticed it, accepting our way of life as the only way it can be. That is individualistic, consumerist and free-market obsessed. Even though the market has never been free from intervention; it is just that it has been ‘free’ to make the make the richest even richer at the expense of everyone else. Being born in to this world myself, I sometimes struggle to envisage a situation that isn’t this way.

And yet it hasn’t always been this way. People can recall easily within living memory a time when we had a greater sense of social responsibility; the creation of the NHS and welfare state. Even capitalism itself has only been around for a blink of an eye in respect of human history.

What now then?

I’ve not written this to suggest that you shouldn’t allow people, whoever they are or wherever they are from, the best opportunity to meet their potential. In fact I’ve made it my career so far to strive to create spaces where people can pursue fresh, self-led opportunities. Working in a strengths based way is enormously beneficial to people. But we have to recognise that there is a serious limit to individual potential in a largely unequal society.

You may work with people in a supporting capacity and that is excellent. But I would also say it is your responsibility to challenge the inequalities that made your job necessary.

With all of this in mind, we also need to be very careful about how ‘self help’ and ‘you can achieve anything’ language is used. There are plenty of folk, sitting on riches accumulated through this unequal system, who are only too happy to use our language of empowerment and people strength to blame poverty and lack of opportunity on the individual. After all they will say, if I can do it, why can’t they?