This post is by Leigh Stevens of whereapy.
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
—W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915
Status anxiety is the fear of being thought of as less than, based on where you come from. It’s the fear that being or having been financially poor makes you less of a person in other people’s eyes, or even in your own.
It’s sort of strange that many of us live in countries where the majority of people are not abundantly wealthy and prestigious, yet there’s still some feeling of shame associated with having less. As though it’s about something more than money—like we’ve confused “it’s better to have money” with “people who have money are better.”
As much as it pains me to admit it, I still have a significant amount of status anxiety. I was born into poverty, and while I don’t live there any more, it’s hard to reconcile the feelings I have about my background with the world I live in now. The degree of social and economic risk involved in trying to feel like and be seen as an acceptable human being is simply astounding.
The American Dream is a beautiful idea, but if you’ve been poor, you know that there’s not much romantic about it, and that while it’s difficult to make changes to your economic situation, stepping into another social class can feel far more complicated and difficult. The fear of being judged or “found out” can really get in the way of living a life of abundance, in the truest sense. In the spirit of overcoming status anxiety, here are a few simple tips that I think can help you get out from under that fear.
Reframe the game with greater purpose in mind
If everyone you knew was jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? Sadly, like the rest of us, you probably would. We’re all social conformists, and the pressure to do and see things the way we’re told to is massive.
To move beyond poverty and start feeling good about yourself, you need to stop playing by the rules, and stop conforming by measuring yourself by someone else’s standards. Stop thinking that if you had more money, you would be happier, or a better person.
Remember, life is not a chess game, a pyramid, a race, a ladder or any other oversimplified mental model used to describe it. You can be a rebel and define it by what’s important to you, instead. What really makes you happy? What is your purpose? Start to map out a picture of life based on your goals and core values.
Delight in being humble
If you’ve been poor and have attained a measure of success, becoming humble may be the greatest challenge of your life. I’m talking truly humble. Not the “look at me now—I was once poor and now I’m a rock-star, but I love my roots” kind of humble, but the “I could scrub toilets at McDonald’s and let people who don’t know me think less of me without it bothering me” kind of humble.
Religions of all stripes embrace the idea of humility. If you have a spiritual bent, you could call it an exercise in detachment; humility is the foundation for all mindfulness techniques. Or, even simpler: just call it kindness, to yourself and others. How you view folks who have been or are still struggling tends to be a pretty good measure of how you view your own history: how much of what’s around have you internalized? How harshly do you judge your own experience?
Practicing humility is a daily reminder to you of how wrong it is to treat others with contempt. It’s a practice. I haven’t fully achieved this yet but I’m working on it; I’m pretty sure it will lead me someplace good.
Create good feelings wherever you go by seeing the inherent value in every person and offering respect based on that—not their social status. I mean every person, especially the ones who seem to be exceptions to the rule.
An effort to do this will likely require an examination of your core values. What do you believe in? What does “ethical” mean to you? What is right for you? I’m a fan of the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhism, but that’s just one way of looking at it. Create a code of ethics to live by.
Create more, compare less
Typical advice for reducing status anxiety goes something like this:
“Are you frustrated the Jones’ have more than you? Then move to a lower class neighborhood where you can be at the top of the heap. Don’t bother getting out of the box or thinking outside of the box, just move to the other side of the box, where you’ll look better.”
Seriously—that’s the advice—move to a poorer neighborhood. Practical? I guess. The rent would be cheaper, and if what you want is to lord your superiority over your neighbors and continue to amass piles of consumer products without ever questioning why you still feel vaguely empty and unsatisfied, it could probably work.
Or you could drop out of the scene entirely, like Epicurus, who left the city for a rural country life. Just remember to bring your friends, because it’s unlikely that you’ll feel good all by yourself.
The research says that when we compare ourselves to people who have more than we do, we feel smaller. When we compare ourselves to those less fortunate, we feel better. Boo. What a horrible way to live. Imagine if being happy had nothing to do with how we felt we compared with other people. What would life look like then? Life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; you can reframe it as an experience to share with others. Use your mind and find ways to be meaningfully social.
More experiences, less stuff
The bad news is that more stuff does not make you happy. It may even make you depressed. If you’ve been fed the idea since birth that the more you have (re: the more you spend), the better you’ll feel, when it doesn’t work it’s easy to feel like there must be something wrong with you. The massive debt-load that so many of us are carrying probably won’t make you feel good either.
The good news is that being present in your life, really experiencing the things that you have, can make you feel wealthy in a way that a Range Rover never will. To enjoy experiences, do them with friends and family as frequently, consistently as you can. It actually doesn’t cost much to have a good time: play cards together, knit together, walk together, dance together, paint the house together, garden together, scrub the floor together, and you’ll feel better.
Your turn! How has status anxiety affected your life? What tips do you have for overcoming status anxiety?
Leigh Stevens is a certified massage therapist, artist, humorist and co-founder of whereapy.