by Nick Baez
We’ve all heard the overused – and equally annoying – phrase, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Usually, one of our supposedly supportive friends will utter this phrase in an attempt to comfort us in times of hardship or despair. If we can resist the urge to react to said phrase with physical violence, we can typically mutter a disingenuous “Thank you” in response.
But why is it that these phrases cause such negative reactions within us? More often than not, it is a mindset of rugged individualism that drives folks to simply encourage people to “get tough” in the face of adversity. Upon closer inspection, it is this mindset of rugged individualism that, ironically, goes a long way in actually perpetuating such adversity.
Among the many negative (and sometimes, unintended) consequences of rugged individualism, the following three are perhaps the most insidious:
Minimizing or otherwise devaluing a person’s experience/feelings: I see this many times when conducting psychotherapy sessions. Quite often, a client will lament the fact that his/her friends or family members seem impatient when they are sought out as a support system. These clients often report that they are met with commands to “just snap out of it.” However, such reactions to those who are experiencing real, painful emotional turmoil only serve to discount the person’s feelings as unworthy of closer attention and care.
A “blame the victim” mentality: We see this countless times amongst those who cling to the mythical one-to-one correlation between hard work and success. The idea is that if you work hard, you will be met with a great deal of success. However, the underlying implication in this mentality is that if you are not “successful,” then you obviously did not work hard enough. This mindset is not only devoid of empathy, but it is also used time and again to disparage the poor and homeless in this country, who are often blamed for their own perils in national discourse.
An overemphasis on individual characteristics: In many instances, those who abide by a meme of rugged individualism tend to focus exclusively on intrapersonal traits to explain societal phenomena and life circumstances. Within this framework, therefore, little to no room is left for an examination of complex etiology. In other words, the poor are poor because they choose to not work hard, and the homeless are homeless because they choose to not have a job. Such a mindset ignores, among other things, the high prevalence of severe mental illness in the homeless population, or the marked disdain for greater access to healthcare (which would serve to effectively treat severe mental illness on a larger scale).
As I mentioned earlier, even very well-meaning folks can fall victim to the doctrine of rugged individualism in their efforts to address social problems. However, if we are to collectively tackle complex social issues on a global scale, we must not ignore how equally complex interactions of ecological systems produce these very issues. Otherwise, we may unwittingly play a role in perpetuating the very injustices we wish to see eradicated.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.