Problematic expressions I hear too often

Photo credit: pixabay/unsplash cc0 public domain.

Here are three sayings that are thrown around that make me cringe — almost invariably people who can say these things are in a economically or socially privileged position and subconsciously use these weaponized words that inadvertently hurt people who are less privileged.

“You’ve got to work on yourself.”

When I was in elementary school, I was taught to be tough on myself but be gentle to others. If my memory is correct, this came from Confucius — be as hard as a diamond inside, yet be soft outside. It is entirely up to you to “work on yourself.” If you do, more power to you! The problem with this “self-improvement culture” (and related niche called “human potential movement”) is that in one’s quest for “working on oneself” people also tend to pass judgment on others using the same (often impossible and unrealistic) standards, not realizing that they know little about other people’s situations and they never had walked a mile in other people’s shoes. Followers of human potential and self-improvement subcultures therefore insinuate that anyone who does not follow their path is some kind of defective human being. Again, if you work on yourself, go for it; don’t tell others to do it — in fact, if you had really worked on yourself there would be no need for telling others what to do.

“We’ve got to set boundaries.”

“Boundaries” (or “healthy boundaries”) is a psychobabble born from therapy culture, unique to urban/suburban North America where society tends to be highly compartmentalized. In professional arena, they serve to insulate the professionals from getting overly involved in the lives of their coworkers, clients, or customers.

But stop for a moment and take a look at this closely: those who get to “set boundaries” are almost always those who possess more power and privilege over the other party. The poor, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, do not have the same ability or luxury to set boundaries. Whereas a social worker may “set boundaries” by limiting client contact to place and time of her own choosing, her clients most likely have little or no choice over these. It is, thus in practice, purely a power play.

Often people feel need for “boundary-setting” out of fear that those who are poorer or more vulnerable might take them “out to the cleaners.” In other words, it is primarily motivated by the privileged individuals’ fear of who possess less, much like the xenophobes’ cries for building walls on the Mexican borders (the U.S.) or keeping African refugees away (Europe).

Poor people are not stupid and they see through this power play, and feel that they are treated like suspect subhumans.

“You’ve got to overcome victim mentality.”

Yes, you’ve heard this. Motivational speakers and personal coaches are fond of saying this. Nobody wants to be around people who go on endlessly whining about how so-and-so does this and that to them. I know words are powerful, and how your mind is the only thing that you have a total control over (generally speaking, for most high-functioning people; I acknowledge there are certain neurological and mental conditions that limit this ability). Personally, my life has significantly improved after I discovered Unity and began incorporating its religious teachings in my life. I know first hand the importance of well-disciplined words and thoughts.

But here’s the fact: Victims do exist in this imperfect world. Because we humans tend to be ignorant of our full realities as individualized expressions of the divine nature (as we say in Unity) we err and make wrong behavioral choices, often harming others along the way. Some people abuse, rape, murder, steal from, manipulate, deceive, and destroy others (and themselves while at it!) and that means there are many hurt people. The last thing you should be saying to them is to insinuate that somehow it is their fault that they are victims. They need our love and compassion, as well as time and mental space to process their anger, pain, and grief on their own terms before they can explore that there are better options. Again, positive-sounding talk is being weaponized against people who lost so much and have very little.

These problematic expressions are examples of how seemingly innocuous phrases function often as weaponized tools of oppression to maintain privilege. It’s how you say it, and how you say these words without thinking.

Originally published on June 8, 2016 on

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