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Why Middle-Class People Should Work On How Bad Things Were

I’ve realised for some years now that middle-class people need to admit we have had unhappy childhoods, and to discharge thoroughly on how badly we were treated. Material privilege, and the particular ways we were hurt (which left no visible bruises—unless you know how to look) result in denial. That means that if we feel bad, given that we had it easy, we feel we must be bad, ungrateful people as well as privileged—which is almost exactly what we were told when we were “naughty.”

We need temporarily, in our own groups, to take a victim position. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. People are hurt in different ways. Some are worse—they kill you. But it is best simply to take responsibility for discharging how we were hurt, without judgement or comparison.


We often feel as though refusing to discharge from a victim position is a realistic, responsible stance, one that acknowledges the far greater oppression of others and lines us up as their allies. Not a bit of it. In fact, it is an aspect of classism. We may feel as if we are being responsible in preferring to focus on the oppressor end of our dual situation as middle-class people (both oppressed and oppressors). In fact, to insist on seeing others as the only victims, and to represent ourselves as not being weak or helpless, is itself classist oppressor material. The truth is we would rather feel that we are bad than face how helpless we were, how betrayed and confused we felt. Our genuine nourishment, the love we needed to survive, was contaminated with poison; lies and denial colonised our minds, and we lost sight of ourselves. It feels unbearable to look at those processes.


Here are some elements typical of our childhood hurts.

Our parents carried fears of disapproval from people who were “better than” us, of disapproval or exclusion from people seen as similar, and of contamination or revenge from people seen as “worse than.” Their fears were based either in bad things they had actually experienced or witnessed or in messages from their own parents. Sometimes patterns that are further removed from the experiences that set them in are even more alarming for children, because even more grotesquely unrelated to present time.

Our parents felt as if the key to stopping bad things happening was in behaviour.

They passed on to us strange recordings that expressed their fears and their rigid responses. These confused us and were frightening, even when we rejected the messages and could see that the fears were irrational.

Because our parents felt behaviour was so crucial and because they feared for us out of love for us, when they looked at us, what they saw was often (or usually) not us ourselves, but rather the way we behaved. It was as though only when we were behaving right could they see through the behaviour and notice us.

Because our parents were themselves deeply confused, they couldn’t tell the difference between behaviour and being. They thought if we behaved badly, we were bad (temporarily or permanently, depending on how long we kept it up). They also thought that if we felt bad, we were, in effect, criticising them (they thought it reflected badly on them to have unhappy children).

To have recognised that there were many outrageous things going on would have caused us bad feelings. We were heavily discouraged from admitting any such thing. It was best not to think about really bad things, or to see them as only happening somewhere else, or to see them as avoidable by good behaviour. When awareness of bad things was unavoidable, we were encouraged to put a positive spin on whatever they were.

Behaving right was also equated with well-being and happiness. We were told we were happy when we were behaving right. Discharge was almost never acceptable behaviour; therefore when we were not discharging we were more likely to be seen as happy, and to be told that’s how we felt.


Some detailed ways of getting us to behave right tended to include the following:

·      Telling us more than we wanted to know if we asked a question, so we would know more and be safer.

·      Telling us how we felt (this really amounts to instructions on how to feel), because feeling certain ways is part of good behaviour.

·      Telling us we were good and loveable when we did something that was taken as meaning we were better than someone else.


Effects of having been told that we weren’t hurting when we actually were include the following list: Confusion and pretence. Difficulty in trusting our own judgement. Submission to authority figures, even about our own and others’ feelings. Fear of anything “wrong.” Avoidance and denial. A tendency to blame anyone who forces us to notice things we avoid and deny.


The following are some effects of having had our behaviour seen, but of having been unseen ourselves except when we were behaving well:

We do the same to others, and to ourselves: we expect and require good behaviour. We find it hard to value ourselves and others separate from the value of our or their behaviour. We may feel invisible. We may not be sure we exist.


How do these hurts affect our leadership? They take all joy out of it. Leadership becomes something we ought to do—to show we are good, to win approval from the dangerous working class, from the disapproving owning class, or from the rest of the middle class, on whom we depend in our everyday lives. We can’t keep joyless leadership up, or if we do, both we and it become less attractive.

Unless we are working on this chronic material, we should not lead. There is no point in leading unless leading contradicts this material. To get back our joy, to get back ourselves, we need to set up alliances and groups that think about us, and that, in particular, help us work on our awful childhoods.


Work on how bad things were, rather than how bad they are. Work early whenever you can. Even when things are difficult in the present, it will be the early material that makes it hard to think.

If you are working on how bad you feel in the present, there is often some element of self-criticism present (because you feel that by now surely you should be able to rise above all this, given that you are actually very privileged). Remember that things may not be that bad now, but they once were—worse than you can bear to admit.

If you are working on how bad it is for other people somewhere else in the world, carry on, but periodically add something like “and though I was never bombed myself, I actually felt at least as frightened as that.”

It’s likely that you are angry with adults. Some people speak of rage and contempt. Explore the possibility that you were disappointed, let down, and abandoned by the patterns of the adults you depended on, and you are now furious.

Caroline New
Bristol, England

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00