Why Are You Preoccupied With How Others Perceive You?

The real question of course is why do we care about how people, in many cases whom we don’t even know well, think about us? Odd how often we willfully hand over how we feel about ourselves to the vagaries of total strangers.

Kraznic has an excellent chapter on money in Wonderbox. He writes eloquently on how status anxiety begets mindless consumerism. We all suffer from status anxiety in different ways and to different degrees. I’m convinced we all suffer from it more than we realize or are willing to admit. Who me? Status anxiety?

When Sixteen spends half an hour on her hair before school, her status anxiety is easy to detect. And developmental psychology helps us understand the normalcy of that, but I will probably never fully understand women and their hair. I realized this anew after receiving an email from my sissy about my mother whom she’s helping move into a new apartment building for seasoned citizens. Today Mother Dear was getting her hair “done” for the first time by the new apartment building’s stylist. And my sissy provided the long distance play-by-play:

Mom is sure the girl will be horrible. We had R take photos from every direction of her newly done hair last week, put it on the iPad and I just showed the photos to the hair girl. She has been doing hair for 42 years so we’ll see.

Picturing the picture taking and thinking about my mom’s anxious pessimism made me chuckle, but then just as quickly they made me think about how we never entirely stop caring about our status.

What are others going to think about me when they see my hair? What about the lawn? How does it compare to the neighbors? The car? The wardrobe? The size of the ring? My waistline, muscles, curves, complexion? The kitchen countertops? The gas grill? The cupboards? The whole damn house? How about the social calendar? The number of friends? The friends’ status? The job title? The salary? The vacation destination? The long-distance triathlon finishing time? The blog readership? The children’s athletic success, academic success, college choices? Their job titles? Their salaries? And the beat (down) goes on.

Madison Avenue is genius at playing on our status anxiety, but it’s too simplistic to blame advertising execs for the sum total of it. There’s something deeper at work, something rooted in human nature. In prehistory, I imagine there was fire envy. “Damn, just look at that family’s raging fire. Yeah and their spears are insanely sharp and hella lethal.”

The goal isn’t to not care at all, it’s to care much less especially about what anonymous others think. When Nineteen was seven her second grade teacher asked me to do a guest lesson on China which I had recently visited. Knowing Seven’s social life was hanging in the balance, I planned a meticulous lesson based on three open-ended questions and some slides from which her classmates and she could deduce answers. Afterwards I bent down and asked, “How’d it go?” And I’ll never forget her words because they were the highest praise I’ve ever received as a long-time, successful educator. “You were perfect Dad.” I want my students to like my courses. And I want my Saturday morning running friends to laugh at my ribald jokes. But I care most about what my wife and daughters think about me.

Tonight, when fifteen other cyclists and I hit the base of Bordeaux in Capitol Forest, and the climb is on in earnest, all we’ll hear is one another’s heavy breathing. The prize for being the first one to the top? Status as the “King of the Mountain”. The same game I lived to play in construction sites forty plus years ago. Everyone will know who the biggest badass is on the return into town.

If I start providing other examples of how I routinely succumb to status anxiety, this post would be my all-time longest, and no one wants that. So let me end with a twist on status anxiety just to illustrate how irrational its grasp can be at times.

I wrote once before that, in 2008, I bought a seal gray Porsche Cayman. It was beautiful and drove entirely different than any other car I’ve ever owned. Mother-Dear says, “You can’t love something that can’t you love back,” so suffice to say, I liked it a whole, whole lot. Originally, that is. Over time, I grew self conscious, increasingly uncomfortable about what other people thought of me when they saw me in it. Did they think that I thought I was better than them because my car was way faster, more expensive, and stylish? A lot of people probably buy Porsches exactly for that reason, but I couldn’t shake the self consciousness. And so I sold it. To a German Microsoftie.

Why did I care so much about what people at church or work thought about what I drove when they don’t really know me? [Dear Microsoftie, I’d like a do-over, a Porsche-based exercise in overcoming status anxiety. Make like Carly Rae and Call Me Maybe.] Ultimately, why do I care about what anyone outside of my family thinks about my (amazing) hair, my (splendid) kitchen counters, my (now completely forgettable) car, or my (still-to-be-determined) triathlon time?

Recovering from training with la ultima status symbol—Australian labradoodle extraordinaire.

4 thoughts on “Why Are You Preoccupied With How Others Perceive You?

  1. I suspect there are “survival” benefits to status anxiety. Motivations of some sort are better than none at all. Of course as with anything it can be carried to extremes and when all of our ideas about others and ourselves are based primarily if not solely on superficialities then character suffers enormously. And character itself is something we do want others to rate us on. Sustaining civilization relies in large part on the good character of people.

    The example you gave about Seven is something that represents an affirmation of doing good with things we want to be good at. We can have those self-fulfilling pats on the back but it is all so much sweeter when others agree.

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