One of the more interesting and potentially painful facets of the self is how the Self values itself. Does the Self perceive itself to be worthy, noble, and good? Or does the Self see itself as worthless, ignoble, and bad?
Collectively, we group these evaluations under the concept of self-esteem. As we all know, self-esteem can be a source of enormous intrapsychic suffering. A Self can hate, loathe, or despise itself. Or it can be ashamed, guilty, or insecure. All these evaluations harm the integrity of the mind. The soul has turned against itself. This is the duplex self at its darkest.
In modern eras the sense of self-esteem has begun to be linked with notions of relative success and failure. William James, America's greatest psychologist, expressed this notion succinctly in a formula, a simple mathematical ratio. Specifically:
Self-esteem = Success / Pretension
That is, our sense of self-esteem is related to the degree to which we achieve all those things we set as our goals (our pretensions). The fascinating thing about this formula is that self-esteem can be managed in one of two reciprocally related ways. First, we can aim at success and accomplishment. As each goal is accomplished self-esteem rises. Conversely, we can lower our expectations, demanding less from ourselves and our lives. We settle for a modest and comfortable life. We step out of the rat race.
But James's formula needs tweaking. We evaluate both our successes and our aspirations relative to our peers. Self-esteem in embedded in a social context. We are consistently evaluating how we stand compared to other people. We compare houses, spouses, jobs, income, physical appearance, IQ, achievements, and specific talents. More, we compare not just our "successes" but our goals. Am I ambitious enough? Have I settled? Should I want more from life?
In short, self-esteem assesses, in my own eyes, how I stand socially. Do I have something to contribute? Am I interesting? Are people attracted to me? Do people see me as a success?
In America we have grown more and more affluent. We have access to a life prior generations could hardly imagine. And yet we are no more happy than our forebears. Why is that?
One reason has to do with how the psychology of self-esteem in interacting with the changes in modern societies. This is the thesis of Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety. De Botton begins by noting that in pre-industrial cultures the wealth of individuals was regulated by agriculture. Basically, there were two classes of people, the landowners and those who worked the land. The landowners were rich and the workers were poor. Further, given that land was handed down through families, it was almost impossible for a poor laborer to change his situation. The land--the main route to wealth--was all owned up.
Thus, in agrarian, pre-industrial societies the classes were stratified. But more than stratified, they were petrified. Little movement occurred. If you were born a peasant you died a peasant. And one couldn't be judged or blamed for this outcome. It was just your lot in life.
But with the advent of the technological revolution all this changed. Wealth was no longer solely tied to land. Technological innovation and entrepreneurship emerged. Now a lower class person, for the first time in history, if she was smart or had enough pluck and drive, could become a millionaire. The old class system began to be permeable. New money began mixing with Old.
But the advent of the American Dream--Anyone can "make it"!--came with a price. We became responsible for our success in life. The peasant of bygone eras just lived with his lot in life. He could do no more. But in America today to "settle" is to be a "slacker." To be poor is blameworthy.
In short, America is driven by ideas of meritocracy. The cream rises to the top. And if you fail to rise to the top? Well, you're damaged goods. Too dumb, lazy, or weak. You deserve your place in life.
Given these dynamics, de Botton contends that our age is saturated with "status anxiety." To quote de Botton:
Status anxiety is "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one." p. viii
"...[S]tatus is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain over a lifetime. Except in societies where it is fixed at birth and our veins flow with noble blood, our position hangs on what we can achieve; and we may fail due to stupidity or an absence of self-knowledge, macro-economics or malevolence." p. viii
"And from failure will flow humiliation: A corroding awareness that we have been unable to convince the world of our value and are henceforth condemned to consider the successful with bitterness and ourselves with shame." p. viii
In sum, with opportunity comes failures. Our value is not instrinsic. Our value is extrinic, contngent on performance. What have you done for me lately?!
Yet life is saturated with failure. Reeking of it. The hierarchy of the marketplace demands that it be so. There are only so many promotions to go around. Only one team wins the Super Bowl. All other teams, the vast majority, end their season as failures.
And so we suffer.
Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books
Peanuts, through the character of Charlie Brown, is preoccupied with the suffering springing from the nexus of self-esteem, social groups, success and failure. The dramatic locus of these themes cluster around Charlie Brown and his baseball performance. The motif is one of failure. Which is the motif of our age. Peasants don't fail. They may suffer and die, but they don't fail. We moderns fail. And on a massive scale. Failure is our life.
Charlie Brown is never the hero. He's the goat. The failure. And his failure is public and shaming. And in this portrayal Peanuts, in miniature, captures much of the status anxiety that now haunts our souls:
Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books