Escaping Bad Anxiety

Last week, I have finished reading a book called “Status Anxiety”, by Alain de Botton — a brilliant look at how society has evolved to educate us to value material goods, why we have become so easily influenceable by public opinion and many other cognitive biases regarding human behaviour under the pressure of social environment.

In his book, Alain de Botton begins by analysing some of the causes that stay at the root of our anxiety regarding or produced by the opinions of people around us. From the first page, the author examines the idea that money, status and influence could be considered not as goals by themselves, but as ways to attract the attention and love of others. People simply feel better when they think they are seen positively by their community and they have a good reason to do so, because history proves that groups without a considerably high status are often treated impolitely or even ignored. In that sense, we don’t seek money, but the respect and care that it seems to bring.

“In case your social status represents one of your concerns, that is because your self image is dependant on what others think about you.”

About 250 years ago, Adam Smith has observed our tendency to be in a constant search for the attention of others. He remarked that not feeling noticed or cared about surpasses even the most ardent desires of human nature.

Nobody can live forever in a society where he is constantly disregarded on purpose. If we don’t feel valued for something, we fall in a deep state of a uncertainty regarding our own perceptions about ourselves. Unfortunately, one’s judgement of himself is based on the image that his group of reference creates. If somebody says for example, that I am a good driver, I become more confident in my driving abilities. In an ideal world, we would be able to objectively evaluate ourselves and decide how competent we are in a specific area, but in this sense, the world is not perfect — we gravitate between opposing points of view regarding our personality. Getting the impression that you are friendly can be immediately followed by somebody else saying you unsympathetic. If you have always regarded yourself as smart, it only takes one person with a bit of authority to tell you the opposite and the way you feel about yourself can instantly change. Does that make you stupid? Certainly not, but society can easily make you believe you are. These are just two examples, but the same principle can be applied to anything from our financial life, to relationships and the goals that we set for ourselves.

We cannot allow our capacity to feel comfortable be dependant only on the affection of others. That would mean letting ego master ourselves and not the other way around, as it should be.

Western culture has evolved to make us confront a sense of anxiety tied to our social status, and this book creates an excellent overview of how this happened.

However, there was another chapter that particularly caught my attention. When it comes to the solutions that “Status Anxiety” presents to the the issue it debates, I thought that Philosophy was the most thorough answer. And I don’t refer to philosophy in the metaphysical sense, but in the everyday applicability of it.

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
― Epictetus

When Alexander the Great arrives in Corinth, he also goes to visit Diogenes, a greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic Philosophy. Although the legend says they only changed a few words, the conversation is powerful and stood the test of time. When Alexander, one of the most powerful men on Earth at that time, asks Diogenes if there was any favour he might do to him, the philosopher replied “Yes, please stand out of my sunlight.”. Surprisingly, hearing this did not fill Alexander with anger. He simply said, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”.

This story shows how philosophy adds another dimension in our relationships with public opinion. No matter if the thoughts of others are positive or negative, they should’t be directly attributed to the self, but first filtered by reason. A conclusion can be valid only if it derives from a sequence of logical considerations and we shall take public opinion only as a guideline which is supposed to be verified rationally, rather than believed blindly.

Not all anxiety is bad. Almost all world changing decisions have been surrounded by a lot of uncertainty. But most types of anxiety are not necessarily based on real facts, but on our thoughts and they create powerful feelings which, if not managed well, can possibly reveal our deepest mental weaknesses and unleash uncontrollable fury or envy. Fixing this potential issue lies in our ability and will to see judgements objectively. When one starts to carefully analyse the assessment of most people that throw bits of criticism at us, it becomes relatively easy to understand that the majority of those critiques are full of errors and confusion.

“Public opinion is the worst of all opinions.”
― Nicolas Chamfort

I am not only saying that we should all despise what others think about us, because constructive criticism may be the most straightforward way for anybody to improve behavioural defects, but I prefer to be sceptical and detach myself from assumptions that progressively dismantle my self confidence, if the assumption fails to prove itself accurate. Too many times we are thoughtlessly looking for others’ praise or approbation without asking ourselves if their beliefs about us are worth taking note of.

Once we start being mindful and rational about criticism, we will gradually recognise that the views of many are narrow, short sighted, and their analysis of many things may simply be superficial. Is there really any utility in taking such opinions to heart?

Have an amazing day!

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