Managing Status Anxiety

See also: What is Anxiety?

What Will People Think?

Much has been written in the press and online about the effect of celebrity culture on young people in particular.

We are surrounded by images of perfect people living perfect lives, and this is bound to have some effect on our expectations of our own lives. This effect is known officially as ‘status anxiety’.

There is nothing intrinsically new about status anxiety. “What will the neighbours think?” is not a new question. But the internet, and the rise of celebrity magazines, has meant that comparisons with perfection are more pervasive and much harder to avoid.

Making Judgements

The root of status anxiety is judgements: the judgements of others about you. Or rather, how you believe that others will judge you for what you do, what you own, and how you behave, and then how that belief affects you.

There are a number of aspects to that:

1. Small Talk or ‘What you say at parties’

Small talk is what we say when we don’t really know someone. It’s a way of breaking the ice and getting to know someone a bit better. Unfortunately, some of the most common questions include:

  • “What do you do?”
  • “Where do you live?”
  • “What car do you drive?”

All these questions are basically designed to establish whether you and the questioner have anything in common socially. But they can also lead to status anxiety, because people may start to ask themselves ‘Am I doing work that is prestigious enough?’, ‘Do I drive the right car?’ and ‘Am I boring?

Such questions can also lead to a tendency to make snap judgements about someone based on extremely trivial information, which really has very little to do with the whole person. This tendency is known as ‘snobbery’.

With a little thought, you can avoid both making snap judgements and generating status anxiety in yourself and others. Of course you would not want to leap straight into a detailed discussion about politics on first meeting someone, but there are many other neutral topics of conversation. Many of them are also far more interesting than what someone does for a living. For example, you could talk about the weather, a recent item of news, or even about dream holiday destinations.

All these will establish common ground, but without raising any social spectres.

2. Self-Esteem

The flip side of other people making judgements is your fear that they are going to do so. This is probably more pernicious and damaging than the judgements themselves, because it goes on in your head.

You have no control over what others think or do; what you can control is your reaction to it and them.

In other words, other people’s judgements about you only matter if you care.

While nobody would advocate the anarchy of a total lack of concern about what others think or feel, judgements made on incorrect or incomplete information should not hurt. They say far more about the judger than the person being judged.

Take a look at our page on Self-Esteem to explore how you can feel better about yourself, and stop worrying about what others think.

A Side-Thought on Fairness

We are strongly driven to achieve fairness. However, research shows that fairness is not an absolute concept.

Instead, it’s much more about how much we have compared with others. Life feels good if you have more than those around you. But have less than those around you and you will feel bad, even if you have much more than the vast number of people in this world.

This explains why City bankers feel bad about how much they earn if they don’t get such a big bonus as the person next door, even though they earn much more than almost everyone in the country, let alone the world.

See our page: Justice and Fairness for more.

The Contribution of Meritocracy

Alain de Botton, the philosopher, argues that much of the reason for status anxiety lies in the rise of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is a great thing in that it allows people to rise well beyond their origins and achieve success, whether they were born into a rich or poor family. However, the random effect of chance means that it is impossible to ever achieve a genuinely fully meritocratic society. After all, you don’t control whether or not you are ill, get hit by a car, or any number of other totally random events that could affect your success in life.

The belief in meritocracy means that people celebrate their success, but also have to own their failure. It can no longer be blamed on fate, or on ‘the gods’: fail, and it’s your own fault.

This means that a lack of success can be very crushing, even though it may well be due to events outside your control, such as illness or global financial crisis, for example.

Learning from History

Perhaps not history exactly, but historical literature. De Botton argues that we could learn much from the Greek tradition of tragedy. If the tabloid press is all about ridiculing failure, branding those who fail ‘losers’, then tragedy is all about the idea that anyone can fail. And while tragic heroes and heroines in literature, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, certainly had a hand in their own downfall, you can’t help but have some sympathy with them. Watch a Shakespeare tragedy at the theatre, and you may even find yourself wanting to jump up and shout ‘No! Stop! Don’t do it!”, a sign of emotional involvement unlikely to be evoked by a tabloid story.

It is human to fail. It is human to make mistakes. So why don’t we celebrate it?

Success and Failure

Alain de Botton suggests that we need to think about what success means. His fundamental take on this is that nobody can be successful at everything. An obvious conclusion? Perhaps, but then why do we talk about ‘work/life balance’, and ‘having it all’?

He says that this is impossible: you cannot have it all. Instead, you have to accept that success in any sphere requires compromise and even failure in others.

This makes sense: Olympic athletes don’t talk about work/life balance. They discuss total commitment to their sport, and are lauded for it. Nobody mentions that to be able to give that total commitment they may need to give up on personal relationships, delay having children, live on grants and benefits, and so on.

The solution, according to De Botton, is simple:

Be very clear about what you consider to be success, and also make sure that it really is your idea, not one that you have picked up from a parent, from television, or from a celebrity magazine.

There is nothing worse, he concludes, than reaching what you considered to be success, only to find that you didn’t really want it. Now that really would be tragic.