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‘Out of poverty, I felt like an alien’

Karina Webb reflects on the complexity of flourishing.

08 June 2021

I don’t live in poverty, but it was not always so. I grew up with my five siblings in a two-bedroom council house on a low-income estate. By the time I was seven, my mother was a single parent, and it had become apparent that raising six young children alone meant that balancing work and childcare was not feasible. We inevitably found ourselves relying on the welfare system to get by. For the rest of my childhood, my family lived a life of necessity.

Keeping everyone fed and a roof over our heads was the priority, which was by no means a small challenge. Everything else was secondary. It was not an easy time, but we survived, not least because of my mother’s ingenuity in feeding a small army on a shoe-string budget and keeping six small people occupied – despite not being able to provide the holidays, toys or pocket money that other kids were accustomed to. As the second eldest child, I often helped around the house and with the younger children.

Now, I feel fortunate to say that I enjoy a comfortable life and would be regarded as flourishing. But living like this led to certain attitudes becoming ingrained within me: heightened awareness of the value of money and that life situations are precarious, for example. By the time I reached secondary school I had resolved that this was not going to be my life. At that stage, I didn’t know how much the transition from poverty to flourishing would impact my identity and sense of belonging for years to come.

Shifting identities
More than 20 years on from my adolescent resolution, poverty remains an ongoing social issue in the UK. Calls for action to resolve many of the issues associated with poverty include an interconnected web of secure employment, affordable housing, sustained education, financial security and improved physical and mental health services.

As I tried to move on from poverty, I subscribed to what I perceived to be the guidelines for someone in my situation: get an education, get a job, work hard and the rest will follow. Over time I was lucky to tick the boxes one by one. Life gradually became more comfortable – at least from the perspective of my socioeconomic status.

It was not until later that I learned that the reality of moving from poverty to flourishing transcended the socioeconomic markers that are the focus of mainstream discussions. There were other social and psychological complexities that nobody seemed to have mentioned, that I wasn’t prepared for. The socioeconomic changes were just one part of the story. After my circumstances started to transform it became apparent that this transition was not as straightforward as simply achieving tangible, socioeconomic goals.

I found myself living in what felt like a new and unfamiliar world. Now that I was out of poverty, I felt like an alien. Being frugal and living within my means no longer seemed to be a commendable quality, but instead attracted negative connotations of being ‘tight’. I was no longer surrounded by people grateful for whatever they had, but by many who complained of salaries that to me were unfathomable. Rather than receiving any recognition for having improved my circumstances, my efforts were reduced to luck.

In the beginning a kind of identity hyphenation took place. I very much openly remained the girl from the humble beginnings, but I was also starting to blend into my new world. On the surface at least, my identity began to shift to reflect a hybrid of my two worlds.

This hyphenation was not to last. I gradually found myself being less open about where I had come from. It started with a watering down of my story to make it more palatable. Then, for the social comfort of those in my new world, I would simply allude to a once different life. Eventually, I resorted to barely speaking of a time before I was flourishing.

Feelings of shame
Ultimately, I recognised that the rules of engagement are different in the world of the flourishing. My modest upbringing was mostly incompatible here. Others assumed that because I was flourishing I shared the same background. I remember standing around a JustGiving Tree with colleagues one Christmas, beholding the gifts donated for disadvantaged children. One colleague commented just how lucky the three of us were that we would never know such hardship. By this point I was no longer in a place of identity hyphenation but of identity compartmentalisation – I did not, I could not bring myself to correct them and expose that part of my identity that had been switched off.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why some of us who have made the transition from poverty to flourishing feel compelled to silences such as these. Some have attributed it to an emerging sense of shame that their backgrounds were lesser, a sense of shame triggered upon frequently meeting more privileged people.

When I reflect on the stories I’ve encountered of others moving from poverty to flourishing, I see some commonalities with migrants experiencing acculturation on moving to new cultural environments. The attitudes of the receiving society influence the extent to which migrants feel accepted. In sharing his own experience of migration, Austrian philosopher Alfred Schutz described how having an outsider’s perspective could lead migrants to feel like strangers. Your everyday knowledge, which ordinarily makes navigating the environment effortless, becomes less pertinent in the new environment. The context is undoubtedly different in transitioning from poverty to flourishing, but there is a similar change in environment that can demand substantial adjustment from the individual.

Shame can be two-directional after poverty. The ubiquity of inequality in our society means that those with newfound privileges can become laden with guilt. Those who have been fortunate in their education are aware that others have not been afforded the same platform to break free from poverty. With increasing prosperity there is more guilt. New successes may be suppressed or played down with one social group, while personal histories of struggle are suppressed with the other.

Interrelating cultures
John Berry proposed, in his theory of acculturation, that when people migrate there are several possibilities for how their heritage and new cultures will interrelate. The process is much more complex than discarding a heritage culture and replacing it with a new one. I believe this is also true when transitioning from impoverished environments to flourishing ones.

Berry’s acculturation model offers four acculturation strategies:

  • Full assimilation into the new culture, abandoning the heritage culture
  • Remaining fully attached to the heritage culture and separating oneself from the new culture
  • Equal integration of both the heritage and the new culture
  • Being suspended between the two cultures

Strategy adoption relies in part on the attitude of the individual, but the attitudes of the receiving society have real governance over which options are available. It is easy to see how similar scenarios could apply to people moving from poverty to flourishing. Some might turn away from their roots and immerse themselves in the flourishing world without looking back. Others might struggle to let go of who they feel they really are and shun the values of their new world. Others may be fortunate enough to enjoy the best of both worlds, and some will live their lives with a sense that they do not truly belong in either group.

The cost of transition
Make no mistake, there are many wonderful things about flourishing, and I have no regrets about moving on from poverty. It is imperative that efforts to end poverty continue. But we must be mindful that there can be a cost to making the transition. It would be a disservice to those making the journey to not inspect some of these potentially negative psychological side effects more closely. The pathway out of poverty is laid out, not that it is necessarily easy or possible for everyone at the moment. Let us now complement this by understanding the journey, and better preparing people to navigate unfamiliar territory. If individuals are to truly flourish, the psychological challenges of this transition should be recognised alongside the psychological challenges of remaining in poverty.

- Karina Webb is a forensic psychology undergraduate. [email protected]