What Is Status Anxiety And How To Overcome It
July 02, 2023
Do you ever feel like you haven’t achieved enough? Do you sometimes feel inadequate when comparing the accomplishments of others to your own? This particular emotion could be termed ‘status anxiety’; an anxiety caused by the cultural measures and judgements of success and our overwhelmingly natural desire for respect and acceptance. In its most unfettered form, we may be left feeling humiliated and ashamed, holding a seriously reduced self-image.
For young people, the earlier stages of life are filled with experiences in which we measure our success. School, university and joining the world of work can, at times, provoke a debilitating self-judgement as we naturally compare ourselves to our fellow classmates, graduates or job candidates.
Or when considering the cost of losing one’s job or financial security, the problems that financial instability can bring are well known. But what is often understated is the emotional toll that can occur in this kind of experience. Moreover, we don’t need to be in a particular crisis such as this to still have an overwhelming amount of status anxiety.
Why do we get anxious about our status?
Two key factors are at play when it comes to the creation of status anxiety. One is the feeling that our status is ‘deserved’ in relation to our own character and achievements. And two, how we generally consider what ‘success’ looks like. Overcoming status anxiety can be greatly helped by exposing the reasons for these emotions. The first lies in our belief of how we judge others, and therefore ourselves, on the ‘merit’ of success.
A short history of Meritocracy
One of the most noble ideas of recent history has been the ascension of what is known as ‘meritocracy’. It began with the initial diversion from the problem of inherited power and respect, which in the truest sense, involved the passing of things like political positions down through families. When you look at Western Europe as an example, much of the 18th century saw change in power occurring through more meritocratic methods compared to the previous system of aristocracy.
Jumping forward through time, meritocracy has become the plinth on which we rest our most virtuously egalitarian ideals. In the removal of unfair structures that allow only the privileged to access the influential, wealth-producing and respected positions, we are making a fairer world.
However, beyond the great progress in improving freedoms, it has also peddled another meaning. In this now ‘free’ world, anyone can make it. A promise that those who are the most skilled and hard-working will make their way to the top. It’s in our media, books, music, films and of course in speeches from politicians right across the political spectrum. With such a force behind it, the U.S. even developed the ‘American Dream’ - a belief in the chance for anyone to achieve individual prosperity if they only apply themselves.
Our level of success should be aligned with our merit rather than birthright or any other privilege that comes from a good place, but we should understand precisely the full consequences. For if society tells us that those that succeed deserve it, we may naturally conclude that for those that don’t, they also deserve it. If anyone can make it - when we haven’t, we bear a heavy load on ourselves. Political philosopher, Michael Sandel, talks eloquently about meritocracy here.
It’s a surprisingly difficult conclusion to what is a seemingly fair approach. But as we will see, with a bit of reason, the real existence of meritocracy is something we can comfortably question.
The second element of status anxiety comes from our culture's resounding definition of success. Imagine you’re sitting at some kind of conference. The speaker announces that they’ve got someone very successful to come out next. What might you assume about this person? Today, we would almost certainly answer at least one of the following: they’re wealthy and/or have attained a high position in their career.
This is no coincidence, nor adherence to an objective truth around the word ‘successful’. It is precisely a product of historical and socio-economic conditions. Regardless of one person’s particular political leaning, a simple fact is that capitalism has played a key role in this process. Whatever camp you may find yourself in, we can still pay respect to how it has formed our conception of success.
Market economies offered opportunities for upward social mobility, allowing individuals to improve their socioeconomic status through economic pursuits. As a result, financial success became a symbol of upward social mobility and achievement. The perceived ‘meritocracy’, which was embodied by the notion of ‘The American Dream’, represented the belief that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve success through hard work and talent.
Consumerism and Advertising
The growth of consumerism and the rise of advertising further reinforced the connection between financial accumulation and success. Advertisements often promoted material possessions as symbols of achievement and happiness, shaping cultural values and aspirations. The expense of certain goods symbolises the achievement of being able to own them. The "Mad Men" era of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a boom in advertising and the rise of consumer culture, with brands linking their marketing to notions of success and prosperity.
It’s simply not the case that success has always been defined as such. If you were a Viking, it would be in prowess in battle, participation in raids and successful conquests of new lands. In the past, if you were in the Maasai tribe, killing lions was key to earning great respect in the community. And if you were in European Christendom during the mediaeval era, the most revered and virtuous individuals committed themselves to a life of prayer and asceticism. These differences show us success is constantly being redefined, how it is a product of a particular place and time.
The picture today
We have then, a mode of judgement in the form of meritocracy, which asserts that our positions in society are deserved. The values on which we enact this judgement, are based on the definition of success that primarily connects value to financial accumulation. We might term our judgement as the following:
If you have not acquired a position in which you accumulate wealth at an above-average rate, or are not considered particularly high on your career ladder, your level of success will be considered below average. This position in which you have found yourself was based on your merit and therefore you deserve it.
In this desperately harsh and specific judgement of success, it is no wonder so many of us feel inadequate. If seeing the true nature of its origin doesn’t strip it of its weight enough, we may turn to philosophy to further ridicule it.
The absurdity of meritocracy
Perhaps the most prominent figure in political philosophy in recent history is a man named John Rawls. Having been exposed to numerous injustices and sufferings growing up, Rawls was highly aware of the problematic nature of the belief in meritocracy when considered against the harsh reality.
In our belief that we have levelled the playing field, we often ascribe to the idea that ‘winners make their own luck’. A key point Rawls goes about establishing is the often unperceived ‘lottery of life’ that we are entered into. In Rawls’ seminal work ‘A Theory of Justice’, he discusses how the natural endowments and social circumstances we are dealt with in life are simply ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’.
In other words, we can’t ascribe any kind of idea of ‘deservedness’ to factors that are well beyond our control. In one of the most simple, but influential thought experiments in philosophy, Rawls shows us how we can better consider the luck at hand.
Imagine you are not yet born. Floating high above the earth, you are behind what he calls the ‘veil of ignorance’, where your soul waits to enter the world somewhere. You have no idea the societal position you will take, nor the particular talents or traits that you might be born with. In this position, how fair might we consider our chances given the current state of things? Though Rawls is of course drawing our attention to how we might better construct a fairer world, he’s also simply reminding us that luck clearly plays a role in our lives.
Moreover, we could easily say this ‘lottery’ doesn’t end after childhood. In job interviews, we are often up against numerous other skilled candidates. In an economic downturn, companies may often have to downsize and let people go for no greater reason than they simply can’t afford them anymore. You might be in an unhelpful geographical location, be lacking in the right kind of network that so often leads people to opportunities, or there might be a breakthrough technology that snuffs out the need for your specialisation. The list of factors truly goes on as to how things might not work out for us.
We should take solace in a greater appreciation for the lottery we enter into, solemnly accepting bad luck rather than always placing the blame on ourselves.
A better definition of success
We should choose a definition of success that is better suited to carry the name. For one philosopher, how we might consider success in life required turning inwards.
Aristotle believed that achieving success required the cultivation of virtues and the pursuit of a balanced and fulfilling life. In identifying traits such as courage, wisdom and justice, by ensuring these are present through our actions may we find happiness. The ‘successful’ life involves self-awareness, the development of character, and the pursuit of activities that align with one's natural talents and passions.
On the face of it, we might feel that while this is nice sounding, it is lacking a certain clear direction. But it’s precisely in this vagueness that we can appreciate the unique journey we all must take. By focusing on developing ourselves internally, we can find success in the every day as we act on the world. Our grace and goodness do not come from the single parameter of career domination or wealth accumulation - it occurs as we strive to be good versions of ourselves.
If you sell ice cream, it may be becoming a good ice cream seller and thus encapsulating what that means. Perhaps delivering an enjoyable range of flavours at a reasonable price with commendable service. Or maybe you’re a parent, in which case success could be showing love and support to your children while still allowing them to build their own independence.
Essentially, success can be found in everything if we endeavour to do it well. It could be building a chair, cooking mushroom stroganoff, collecting postcards, taking the dog for a walk, consoling a friend, fixing a broken lamp or even just getting yourself up after a difficult day. We shouldn’t expect that we can necessarily ‘achieve everything’, but we can rest in knowing to succeed and be happy simply does not require this.
In times of envy and self-depreciation that status anxiety brings, we might remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to drive us back to the life of fulfilment and away from the ideals and judgements brought upon us.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
In all life’s rich tapestry, we can be successful, not that which is merely the product of one value system promoted by a single economic paradigm, in one tiny sliver of history. If you find yourself struggling with feelings associated with status anxiety, you can reach out for help with a free initial consultation through Mindsum.