Insecurity and Status-Seeking

Today’s post is a teaser for a major article I’m working on for tomorrow that draws together self-experimentation, ego, imaginative poverty, procrastination, lack of innovation, addiction, freakonomics, feedback and learned helplessness. Stay tuned.

We had brunch today (it’s a holiday here in Canada) with a group of neighbours, and got to talking about how Europeans (many of our neighbours are first-generation Canadians who often return to their country of birth, principally in Europe) of all ages and social classes have become obsessed with their personal attractiveness. This manifests itself, they said, in:

  • Preoccupation with physical appearance: youthfulness, lack of wrinkles or other ‘imperfections’, ‘healthy’ tans, zero fat, appropriate posture and ‘pose’, not a hair out of place etc.
  • Preoccupation with wearing the ‘right’ (in the perception of their ‘peers’) clothes: brand names, appropriate and fashionable colours and fabrics, no wrinkles (unless the fabric calls for them) etc.
  • Preoccupation with knowing and being seen with the ‘right’ people: the rich, famous, and popular
  • Preoccupation with observing and judging others: standing (or in restaurants, sitting) where they can see others and others can see them, taking note of others’ facial and body language when first attracting others’ attention (doesn’t matter whether they are strangers on the subway or people they know well), ‘all the right moves’, passing (often disdainful) judgement on others (through eye, facial and body language, whispers to one’s clique followed by knowing, put-down glances towards others, etc.)

This all struck me as very juvenile, so I was surprised at the unanimity of views of our brunch group that this now extends even to those in their senior years. At first I thought this might be a defensive reaction to the fact that most of us North Americans, frankly, are pretty sloppy dressers compared to most Europeans. But they said this held even to immediate relatives ‘back in the old country’.

So I asked what they thought was behind this strange and neurotic behaviour, which I have observed here (and have been told is common) among teenagers at school/the mall and among twenty-somethings in bars and other singles gathering places, but not among older or ‘married’ people (our children said it was a great relief when they married, or began living common law, that they didn’t need to ‘bother with that stuff’ anymore).

My neighbours had never thought about the cause for this ‘crazy’ behaviour, so I tossed out some candidates: vanity, a warped sense of values, low self-esteem — aha!, they said, that’s it — it’s insecurity. What are they insecure about?, I asked. One neighbour told me “It’s like they never grew up. Marital fidelity isn’t as strong a bond or commitment there as it is in North America, so they’re still trying to impress the opposite sex. And when you’re always looking at others, sizing them up, it becomes a habit, you notice them sizing you up as well, and there’s a whole tacit language that builds up around that, a language of judgements that label you without a word being spoken. That’s very intimidating, and it takes a pretty big ego to ignore or brush off an endless crowd of people looking at you disdainfully, telling you that you don’t measure up, that you could and should be doing better. It’s tyrannical, but that’s the way it is, just like with teenagers here.”

I was still perplexed. “I can see the point in continuing to look after your own health and fitness, and quietly complimenting or even harmlessly flirting with others, even into old age. It’s harmless, it’s an extra nudge to take good care of yourself, it’s fun and it’s good for the ego. But why do they need to put down others, what is the cause of the deep-seated insecurity that would drive people to belittle others just to build up their own egos. That still strikes me as pretty insecure.”

“But it escalates, you see”, she said. “If you flirt with your eyes with those you are attracted to, then when someone averts their gaze or ignores you or (worse) doesn’t even notice you, that’s a kind of put-down in itself. So to create a scale of approval/disapproval that neutralizes that, you need to add an overt level of disapproval, so that you don’t hurt people’s feelings just by not noticing them. So then, if you’re insecure (as especially the young are) you start over-using the hurtful disapproval signals to bolster your own (and your equally insecure friends’) self-esteem. If you’re on the receiving end of that often enough, it starts to get to you and you get caught up in the game as well, and you start obsessing about avoiding the disapproval signals and augmenting the number of approval signals, even if it causes you to do ridiculous things, like spending an hour a day in a tanning bed or spending 2000Ä on an outfit.”

Well, I keep saying that what we want more than anything else is appreciation and attention, so this does make sense to me in a warped kind of way. I’m also aware, since reading Impro, that dominant-submissive behaviour, status-seeking, finding your place in the social ‘pecking order’, is instinctive to all creatures including humans, for what were once very valid reasons.

I’m a sloppy dresser with a big ego who has lived his whole life in an upper-middle class milieu in a society that at least pretends to be blind to class and status, though I’m aware that I am perhaps too blind to it myself, preventing me from understanding other people’s behaviours and even their impressions of me.

So educate me: How important is all of this to who we are and what we do? Is my neighbour right in her perception of how insecurity and/or status-seeking drives our behaviour, often in dysfunctional ways? And is it insecurity (low self-esteem) that lurks behind most of this behaviour, or is it an instinctive drive to set and seek status, relative position in the social (shudder) hierarchy? Your answers have a bearing on some of what I’m writingabout in tomorrow’s article, so I’d really value your thoughts.

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15 Responses to Insecurity and Status-Seeking

  1. Matt Moore says:

    “I’m a sloppy dresser with a big ego who has lived his whole life in an upper-middle class milieu in a society that at least pretends to be blind to class and status”Hmmm. Does your socio-economic status actually allow you to dress down? If you are one of the lower orders, dressing “up” is important. It is both aspirational & a source of self-respect. The smartest nations I have been to are India & South East Asia. People don’t have good clothes but they are impeccably turned out. And in the UK of the 60s it was the working class mods who looked sharp, not the middle class hippies…

  2. Matt Moore says:

    “Marital fidelity isn’t as strong a bond or commitment there as it is in North America, so they’re still trying to impress the opposite sex.”I think your friend is talking rubbish here (but then we all know that those Europeans are easy, wink, wink). Whatever the case with those nice outfits & tanning salons child obesity levels in Europe are reaching / surpassing US levels.Europe has traditionally been a much more hierarchical set of societies than North American. Many of the institutions underlying that old hierarchy (e.g. aristocracy, monarchy, religion) are breaking down. Therefore maybe Europeans are starting to feel more insecure. Plus the population is aging. The old used to be rare – now they are common. Youth is now rare – & prized. Hence those who are older want to look like the young…

  3. MatthewJ says:

    Dave, I had a long post written, and then sat to reflect for a bit, and realized that a great deal of my motivation to help “save the world” (even at local, individual, and internal levels) is motivated by wanting status. I don’t mean that in the crude way it sounds. I’m not really seeking fame, wealth, power, or recognition. I think I’m seeing more of a need to be satisfied with what I have done in myself. An internal recognition of status. As someone who has always been pretty introverted and “black-sheep-like” (ie. never been out on a date), I think this is comparable to outer status seeking in others.I would like to suggest that status seeking and positioning does not lead to hierarchy. Even egalitatrian cultures recognize achievement, skill, etc.I am reminded of Ruth Benedict, who described that what differentiates a “good culture” (one that is non-hierarical, generally peaceful, and has equitable relations with women and children), from “bad cultures” has nothing to do with wealth, geographical location, size, etc. It comes down to “synergy” (she coined this term) or a syphon economy vs. a funnel one. In her own words cultures which blend status with “[acts] of mutual advantage” and blend negative status with “acts and goals that are at the expense of others in the group” are predictably the happy ones.Check out This page (search Ruth Benedict) for a “scholarly” look.Or for a less “scholarly” feel check out Ran Prieur‘s rehashing of a Derrick Jensen Tale

  4. zach says:

    I would guess that most deep self esteem, and sense of worth, comes from ones parents. When thinking of this I tend to imagine the individual who had very loving and well adjusted parents, is good looking, strong social skills, high EQ, no tramatic childhood experiences etc. Perhaps they exude confidence and self respect. So how could anybody look at them with disapproval? A if they did, I doubt a person with a deep sense of self worth would really be phased by “disapproving signals.” On the other hand “most” psychology theories basically say insecurity is caused by pain and anger from receiving poor parenting.

  5. zach says:

    … and I supose getting over poor parenting involves seeing oneself as an equal of the parent and then forgiving them somehow.

  6. Stentor says:

    Status isn’t just “I’m better than you,” it’s also “I belong.” People are always trying to figure out where they stand in the social structure and angling to shape their position to one they prefer. Even your admission to being a sloppy dresser can be part of this system — it identifies you as part of a certain class of people who define themselves through a negative dress code, thereby helping us to place you in our understanding and shape our relations with you. Yes, the root of this is insecurity — but not in a bad way. To navigate our lives we need to figure out where we stand in relation to others around us and understand the social system (Erving Goffman had some great things to say about this). That understanding is achieved through a variety of cues like appearance.This is not to say that there can’t be dysfunctional forms of status-seeking, just that it needs a nuanced analysis.

  7. Tim says:

    Interesting article. Especially because I’m from Europe and I’m in exactly that situation you talked about. Probably emphasized because I’m single again (31). On the one hand, I don’t give too much about what other people think about me, but on the other hand I cannot simply deny their reaction to me. A lot of women appreciate me, but don’t see me as a potential mate. Why not? Perhaps I’m not attractive enough, rich enough, intelligent enough etc. And this makes me insecure after all. Yes, it’s juvenile and it ought to be different. But that’s the way it is. And indeed it could be because we’ve got too many options, or at least think that we have them, in choosing a mate. Like: Yeah, she’s nice and we get along fine, but it’s not really that great neither so there’s probably somebody even better out there … Which may be true or not. But it brings you back on a highschool level so to speak. The men looking for beautiful women, and the women looking for powerful, rich and handsome men. It’s ludicrous, but it’s like that. And most people, male and female, will fail on thee high standards… Of course, the whole thing is way more complex than what I scribbled here, but I hope you get the point.

  8. Mariella says:

    My take is that we work out our life according to our

  9. Gary J Moss says:

    Moderation, please, Dave. In my opinion, it is healthy to take good care of yourself and enjoy the reflection in your physical appearance that may come from doing so. I agree, obsession with designer labels is ridiculous, but as a graphic designer who enjoys the visual, I see no problem with selecting clothes that you find attractive and enjoy wearing. The debate between asceticism and comfort is nothing new and, as with religion, politics, and philosophy, I can understand many of th positions and find them reasonable. As for myself, I am most comfortable somewhere in the middle.

  10. Gary J Moss says:

    p.s. For the record, although I’m very visual, I hate labels on my clothes and am no fashion slave. I’m not defensive either! NO, not in the least little bit!!

  11. “And is it insecurity (low self-esteem) that lurks behind most of this behaviour, or is it an instinctive drive to set and seek status, relative position in the social (shudder) hierarchy?”Aren’t these two hopelessly intertwined? There almost has to be some sense of deficiency in one’s intrinsic worth to buy into the social hierarchy? Or are you really talking about a Machiavellian-like calculativeness that some social striver might possess?BTW, some very clever/funny (if dated) writing on this in CLASS, by Paul Fussel. Largely to do with the U.S. obsession with class, but anyone remotely familiar with the asses we are will enjoy it.

  12. Mariella says:

    Bernard Lietaer states that human kind is not what it has become because that is its nature, but because its money system demands it so… you can browse through our money and other ways to think about it.

  13. I can see wanting to be healthy, and to look one’s reasonable best in certain social and business situations. I love beauty and nice things, too, but I’ve learned that beauty is more than what’s on the surface, and I’ve rarely been in a position to afford the latest fashion or hairstyle, or a new car every two years. I don’t even want to think about body language, unless the police are interrogating me or something. I never had the patience to ensure every hair is in place at all times, and to me comfort holds its own beauty. I also remember high school as a nightmare, having come from a working class family (the third girl–can you spell hand-me-down?) and attended in a slightly upscale neighborhood. The degree of this behavior that your neighbors describe reminds me too much of that experience and I’d have to agree it seems juvenile.But I can see where it might be more about “belonging” than insecurity. It seems very nuanced, the way you describe it, almost like a game. Perhaps it grows partly out of boredom.

  14. Bob Watson says:

    Advertisers work hard as hell to exacerbate this built-in alertness to signs of our social status, and with some success, eh? The difference between us and other animals is that we stress about our social status, while they seem just to accept it. Instead of quoting Sartre on “le regard”, just a bit of Dylan:Advertising signs they con/ You into thinking you’re the one/ That can do what’s never been done/ That can win what’s never been won/ Meanwhile life outside goes on/ All around you.

  15. Jon Husband says:

    The point of (almost) all marketing is to make us dissatisfied with our present life and our sense of status in it. And of course it is only a “sense”.

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