Status Anxiety

This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety.

We care about our status for a simple reason: because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have (it is no coincidence that the first question we tend to be asked by new acquaintances is ‘ What do you do?'). With the help of philosophers, artists and writers, the book examines the origins of status anxiety (ranging from the consequences of the French Revolution to our secret dismay at the success of our friends), before revealing ingenious ways in which people have learnt to overcome their worries in their search for happiness. It aims not only to be entertaining, but wise and helpful as well.

Click here or photo for short discussion of the topic 4 minutes


Click here or the photo for a longer 2 hour documentary on the problem of status anxiety.

Identity and status anxiety

Until the post-World War II period in Western countries, few people had the lifestyle options and freedoms that are so readily taken for granted today. In those times, most people had little choice or variety in their choice of clothing and leisure entertainment. But even though they did not have the opportunities open to the rich, and even if they were painfully aware of social and economic inequities, they had a sense of a stable station in life that was not in question and that helped to make their lives purposeful and relatively enjoyable, even in difficult circumstances. Now, both rich and poor alike have the good life presented to them on television in most vivid and attractive formats.

In addition, there is the subtle suggestion that it is not only available to all, but that all have a right to it – as the pop lyrics in Freddy Mercury's said, ‘I want it all. And I want it now!' And both rich and poor have internalised the message. For example, research studies in North America have shown that both rich and poor children had ‘an equal and unslakeable thirst for designer clothes'. Seeing the plethora of commodity and lifestyle opportunities put before them every day, they feel they should be able to have them. But for many it will never happen. As a consequence for these same people, the disparity between desire and reality is always present. It generates a low level of anger and anxiety simmering in the background of their consciousness that occasionally erupts. More anger and envy is caused by what their peers have and they do not. No longer are people satisfied with the station in life they were born into, and their lifestyle aspirations can have a significant bearing on their behaviour, and on their happiness and wellbeing.

As far as beauty is concerned, the discrepancy between self-perception and the perfection constantly portrayed in the advertising models can be depressing – and not just for the young. If great store is placed on apparent attractiveness and social status according to television standards, then it is understandable that a low sense of self-worth will depress a significant number of teenagers.

The problem is called status anxiety . And it has much to do with the way that consumerism and advertising enter into the dynamics of identity development, particularly as regards the identity vulnerability of youth . In his book on status anxiety, de Botton highlighted the identity slavery that dependence on the judgments of others can entail.

The attentions of others might be said to matter to us principally because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value – as a result of which, what others think of us comes to play a determining role in how we are able to view ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgments of those we live among.

He pointed to a level of vacillation about self that is common. Addressing the problem would seem to be an important step towards identity maturity.

We would, in an ideal world, be more impermeable [to the judgments of others] … If we had carried out a fair appraisal of ourselves and decided upon our value, another person's suggestion of our irrelevance would not wound us. We would know our worth. Instead, we appear to hold within ourselves a range of divergent views as to our characters. We have evidence of both cleverness and stupidity, humour and dullness, importance and superfluity. And in such wavering conditions, it typically falls to the attitude of society to settle the question of our significance. Neglect highlights our latent negative self assessments, while a smile or complement as rapidly brings out the converse. We seem beholden to the affections of others to endure ourselves … There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are cheered by attention and damaged by disregard.

The issue is significant for identity health (Chapter 6) and for youth identity dynamics (Chapter 7).

3 A Quart 2003, Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers , p. 8.

4 A de Botton 2004, Status anxiety , p. 15.

5 ibid., p. 16.

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