Inadequacy, Esteem and Status Anxiety

Dev* acts as if he couldn’t care less. He’s just crashed out of his undergraduate degree after missing almost all of his tutorials.  

Sara* has trouble letting go of what her friends have said about her. She is on social media almost all the time.

The modern world is a funny place, a funny time. The wealthier, safer and richer we get, the less secure we feel, seemingly.

We have peace and prosperity at a level undreamed of in days of yore. And if you think this is just me and you and our First World lives, think again. Even in the poorest corners of the world people are living longer and eating better then they were in the richest corners 200 years ago.

The United Nations estimated in 2017 that 817 million people didn’t have enough to eat – that’s 11% of the world’s population at the time – a lot. The UN also estimated that 10% of the world’s population lived in poverty in 2015. But, if these percentages are largely made up of the same people, its safe to say that about 88% of people (i.e. the rest) live reasonably secure and adequately fed lives.

Seminal Psychologist Abraham Maslow (whom I’ve written about here) considered that once our most basic needs are met (the need for food and water), then we seek higher order needs. Firstly safety, then love and friendship and then finally (for most people) esteem.

Esteem is the need to feel good enough. It is the need to feel appreciated and respected.

And it is the need for esteem that makes the modern world so interesting, and modernity so tragic. Because as we work our way up Maslow’s hierarchy, solving each need in turn, we get stuck upon esteem. We are so good at working collectively to meet the other human needs. Why not esteem?

Modern scientific, political and cultural innovations led to the widespread satisfaction of basic needs. Lots of people hungry? Science creates larger yielding crops. Not enough quality housing? Political groups legislate housing for all policies. Society tells you that you can’t love whom you want to? Cultural change creates recognition and acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Our basic needs are non-zero sum: My needs plus your needs can be met without me taking from you or vice versa (i.e. our combined needs do not add up to zero net gain). Water, food, shelter, love: Science and politics and culture create changes to help us all meet these needs almost all of the time.

What about esteem? Surely, we can work together using our massive brains to work out how to all feel equally good about ourselves all the time?

But of course we can’t. Our esteem is highly related to our status. Status is our rank in the ladder of life. And status is zero sum. Any increase to my status comes at the expense of other group members. Status is important to almost everyone. Folk philosopher, Alain De Botton, author of Status Anxiety says “we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves”. As might be expected by a social animal, our group’s opinion really matters.

And we can’t all have equal status. If everyone had equal status the concept of status would be useless – it couldn’t tell us anything about the perceived value of the people involved.

Take for example, a group assignment at school with 4 other students. I am judged to be lazy and stupid. My status is 5th highest in the group. Then, I produce some excellent ideas and help the others, now my status is 1st in the group. The old 1st group member has now dropped to 2nd. We aren’t both 1st. My increase in status has taken something from the old 1st group member.

Status is generally afforded to those who have done things, created things, achieved things. People with education or life experience or skills sets which are difficult to acquire. These things are acquired with age. It is true that the young possess lower self-esteem.

Status is often apportioned unfairly. People with certain clothes or accents or skin colours are often afforded status regardless of their achievements. People who appear confident are likewise unfairly assigned status.

So, where does this leave us now?

Now, the anxious ape, having satiated its desire for food and warmth and even friendship and love, spends much of its time concerned about how it stacks up relatively against everyone else. You will definitely wake tomorrow and get your next meal – you will definitely sleep warm tonight. You won’t definitely wake tomorrow better regarded by your peers.

This insecurity especially occurs to the young.

Dev was desperate to not be seen as “a loser”. He lived by the rule “it is better to never try and be told you have potential, than to try risking being proven not good enough after all”. His friends called him a slacker. He has a Failure Schema.   

Sara had FOMO bad. She always felt she was on the cusp on being pushed to the outer in her friendship circle. She had adopted a gregarious but catty persona amongst friends to hide the fact she didn’t feel good enough. She has a Defectiveness Schema.

Many youths seek unhelpful ways to escape the status trap. They pretend they don’t care. Or they drown in the anxiety and depression associated with feeling inadequate. Or they appear over-confident in order to mask their status deficit; self-aggrandising in front of others, but always carrying a secret shame.

Science or politics or culture won’t come to your rescue to solve your esteem problem, your status issue. (Unless, of course, you are a scientist, a politician or a cultural icon). This particular issue needs to be addressed by you yourself.

De Botton, proposes some solutions to the problem of status. Using Art, philosophy or religion to reframe the status problem and gain perspective. Using politics to shake up the existing status order (perhaps implementing a new status ladder that is more favourable to you). Or stepping outside the conventional status ladder by becoming a bohemian (and thus entering the bohemian status ladder).

I believe that as humans we will never be free of the question of status. Therefore, to benefit our well-being we need to manage our need for esteem. We need to not be in denial of this need, like Dev. Or slavishly obsessed, like Sara. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own self-esteem. In affect this means three things:

First, work out if any negative esteem beliefs (schemas) are affecting you. Perhaps you have a Failure Schema or Defectiveness Schema like Sara or Dev. Its common for people who haven’t been well-esteemed as children to both expect not to be highly regarded, but also strongly crave to be positively regarded.  Working on these schemas in therapy can help.

Second, learn a skill, get a qualification, build a piece of furniture, start a family, create a business or charity. Do something that builds you as a person – almost anything will do. This is the conventional method of increasing esteem and status. It is the method that most humans throughout history have utilised to build self-esteem and status.

Third, practice humility. There are more than seven billion of us. We are not all Beyoncé or Elon Musk or Roger Federer. Limiting your egoistic expectations can build self-esteem. By undermining the idea of perfect, good enough can finally emerge.

These methods of building self-esteem aren’t instantaneous, they take time and dedication. But, with esteem, with status, there are no easy solutions.

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