I’m pretty well certain my brain is me. When it dies, I die. It’s the only one I’ve got. My brain changed from birth through my Western hemispheric upbringing, my overall health, and my use of drugs and alcohol. My brain is my “self” and every day different cells die and my synapses shift and every day I wake up as a slightly different person by a few dead cells.
Having experienced issues with my mental health throughout my life the idea that my brain is me is both comforting and discouraging. In some ways I’m grateful for my past wiring because my thought patterns make me who I am. In other ways I’m terrified that medication and addictive substances like sugar and alcohol are altering my dopamine and serotonin receptors irrevocably. I’m also constantly worrying about my worry and how my often irrational and psychically exhausting anxieties are warping my brain and transferring the stress throughout my body, leading to a shorter life.
Recently I read an article by Chloe King, “Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”, which took a very different spin on the idea of changing your thinking to change your life. King rails against the for-profit “positivity” movement and brings up how our societal standing is a bigger factor in one’s success than “keeping positive.” It’s irrefutable that no matter how much you may try to work on your brain and more specifically your attitude, certain privileges still exist. The Atlantic, researched wealth among millennials and unsurprisingly found that parental wealth determined if a 20 something would be in debt and renting an apartment or would own a house and begin accumulating savings early on.
Poverty also has a big impact on the brain. A child raised in a chaotic environment sustains lifelong damage to their social and emotional well-being. This fact was proven in a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences.
“Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult.” Dr. K. Luan Phan, professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and senior author of the study.
Amygdala and prefrontal cortex dysfunction in the brain is associated with mood disorders including depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression and substance abuse, according to the authors. Does this mean a life of poverty is totally hardwired?
We’ve all heard the remarkable stories from people who have achieved greatness from a poor background. From Sonya Sotomayor, to Bill Clinton, to the Jackson family. It’s not impossible to “make it” in a capitalist society but it sure isn’t easy. Segregation is real, educational gaps within poorer school districts are real, poverty is really real.
These select “poverty to power” examples involve a lot of luck and perseverance. It’s not about being blindly happy or overly optimistic. It’s doubtful that a positivity seminar could totally undo the damage to brain as a result of poverty however, when there are no examples of success within poor communities this “destiny of failure” is encouraged even further.
When you hear stories of those who made if out of poverty and abuse early in life there is a common thread throughout. All of these people had a least one person they looked up to, one person that gave them enough hope to push through. If modeling the behavior of a child’s own parents isn’t a good option and if their teachers are underpaid, undereducated, and lack enthusiasm, it’s all too easy for a young person to stay in the cycle of abuse and poverty.
This is where I believe “self-love” can have some value. It’s not about telling someone to “cheer up” when nothing in their lives would warrant a cheery attitude but rather exploring other options even when they may feel trapped. Especially to children struggling with school, other pursuits like sports, dance, art, music or even so-called “vocational” studies like cosmetology or auto-repair can build confidence to push up and out of the cycle their parents were unable to break.
It would seem fitting that these “life coaches”, as mentioned in King’s article, would use their so-called expertise in helping those who desperately need the encouragement and support. But just as other gurus, psychics, and churches that preach the notion of being “giving” it all tends to mean you giving them all your money. When you remove the for-profit element out of this movement the ideas of self-love and positivity can still be beneficial for even the most oppressed people. Self-love doesn’t have to mean being full of yourself or wasting time making inspiration boards instead of being proactive and doing the things that inspire you. Self-love can’t undo systemic racism and classicism but some glimmer of hope is the difference between the person that sees the possibility to change the world for the better and the person that will turn to drugs or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
My own internal battles have not been as dire as some that are searching for their next meal or wondering where they will sleep. My own unique brain-wiring still made me a cynic by nature but I’m lucky enough to have the means to explore and dissect my negative thoughts through therapy. As an writer (I use the term loosely) it’s easy for me to glorify suffering when it comes to creative pursuits. The same might be said for activists that rely on anger to propel them to fight injustice.
When I believed my negative thoughts and believed that my anxiety was pushing me to accomplish more I neglected to see the pattern I was building. My new job was an accomplishment at one point and now it’s a source of shame and anxiety. For an anxious person, nothing is ever enough. Once I thought I “solved” an irrational fear another one popped up in its place. I don’t think anything will ever make me the easy going, optimistic type that for-profit positivity pushers are hailing as the ideal mode of existence. Self-love didn’t cure my anxiety but it helped me recognize that a “cure” isn’t what I should be after in the first place. I’m learning to catch my own catastrophic worries and I’m learning that caring for my own needs isn’t a luxury. Sometimes I need a break from job-hunting and article-pitching, that doesn’t mean I’m lazy and worthless.
People who are working constantly to keep themselves out of poverty don’t get those breaks often and that is a problem. In order to be at our most creative, productive, and energetic we all need this time. Self-love isn’t the enemy to changing the existing social structures that keep some of us on the bottom and some at the top. If anything, being self-aware enough to love yourself is the only way to illicit social change. If you don’t believe you’re worth taking care of, who cares about the rest of the world anyway? Like the great RuPaul always says,
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Amen to that.