Overcoming Status Anxiety

This post is by Leigh Stevens of whereapy.

Image by Jamie Windon for whereapy, used with permission

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.

—W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915

Status anxiety is the fear of being thought of as less than, based on where you come from. It’s the fear that being or having been financially poor makes you less of a person in other people’s eyes, or even in your own.

It’s sort of strange that many of us live in countries where the majority of people are not abundantly wealthy and prestigious, yet there’s still some feeling of shame associated with having less. As though it’s about something more than money—like we’ve confused “it’s better to have money” with “people who have money are better.”

As much as it pains me to admit it, I still have a significant amount of status anxiety. I was born into poverty, and while I don’t live there any more, it’s hard to reconcile the feelings I have about my background with the world I live in now. The degree of social and economic risk involved in trying to feel like and be seen as an acceptable human being is simply astounding.

The American Dream is a beautiful idea, but if you’ve been poor, you know that there’s not much romantic about it, and that while it’s difficult to make changes to your economic situation, stepping into another social class can feel far more complicated and difficult. The fear of being judged or “found out” can really get in the way of living a life of abundance, in the truest sense. In the spirit of overcoming status anxiety, here are a few simple tips that I think can help you get out from under that fear.

Reframe the game with greater purpose in mind

If everyone you knew was jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? Sadly, like the rest of us, you probably would. We’re all social conformists, and the pressure to do and see things the way we’re told to is massive.

To move beyond poverty and start feeling good about yourself, you need to stop playing by the rules, and stop conforming by measuring yourself by someone else’s standards. Stop thinking that if you had more money, you would be happier, or a better person.

Remember, life is not a chess game, a pyramid, a race, a ladder or any other oversimplified mental model used to describe it. You can be a rebel and define it by what’s important to you, instead. What really makes you happy? What is your purpose? Start to map out a picture of life based on your goals and core values.

Delight in being humble

If you’ve been poor and have attained a measure of success, becoming humble may be the greatest challenge of your life. I’m talking truly humble. Not the “look at me now—I was once poor and now I’m a rock-star, but I love my roots” kind of humble, but the “I could scrub toilets at McDonald’s and let people who don’t know me think less of me without it bothering me” kind of humble.

Religions of all stripes embrace the idea of humility. If you have a spiritual bent, you could call it an exercise in detachment; humility is the foundation for all mindfulness techniques. Or, even simpler: just call it kindness, to yourself and others. How you view folks who have been or are still struggling tends to be a pretty good measure of how you view your own history: how much of what’s around have you internalized? How harshly do you judge your own experience?

Practicing humility is a daily reminder to you of how wrong it is to treat others with contempt. It’s a practice. I haven’t fully achieved this yet but I’m working on it; I’m pretty sure it will lead me someplace good.

Cultivate mindfulness

Create good feelings wherever you go by seeing the inherent value in every person and offering respect based on that—not their social status. I mean every person, especially the ones who seem to be exceptions to the rule.

An effort to do this will likely require an examination of your core values. What do you believe in? What does “ethical” mean to you? What is right for you? I’m a fan of the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhism, but that’s just one way of looking at it. Create a code of ethics to live by.

Create more, compare less

Typical advice for reducing status anxiety goes something like this:

“Are you frustrated the Jones’ have more than you? Then move to a lower class neighborhood where you can be at the top of the heap. Don’t bother getting out of the box or thinking outside of the box, just move to the other side of the box, where you’ll look better.”

Seriously—that’s the advice—move to a poorer neighborhood. Practical? I guess. The rent would be cheaper, and if what you want is to lord your superiority over your neighbors and continue to amass piles of consumer products without ever questioning why you still feel vaguely empty and unsatisfied, it could probably work.

Or you could drop out of the scene entirely, like Epicurus, who left the city for a rural country life. Just remember to bring your friends, because it’s unlikely that you’ll feel good all by yourself.

The research says that when we compare ourselves to people who have more than we do, we feel smaller. When we compare ourselves to those less fortunate, we feel better. Boo. What a horrible way to live. Imagine if being happy had nothing to do with how we felt we compared with other people. What would life look like then? Life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; you can reframe it as an experience to share with others. Use your mind and find ways to be meaningfully social.

More experiences, less stuff

The bad news is that more stuff does not make you happy. It may even make you depressed. If you’ve been fed the idea since birth that the more you have (re: the more you spend), the better you’ll feel, when it doesn’t work it’s easy to feel like there must be something wrong with you. The massive debt-load that so many of us are carrying probably won’t make you feel good either.

The good news is that being present in your life, really experiencing the things that you have, can make you feel wealthy in a way that a Range Rover never will. To enjoy experiences, do them with friends and family as frequently, consistently as you can. It actually doesn’t cost much to have a good time: play cards together, knit together, walk together, dance together, paint the house together, garden together, scrub the floor together, and you’ll feel better.

Your turn! How has status anxiety affected your life? What tips do you have for overcoming status anxiety?

Leigh Stevens is a certified massage therapist, artist, humorist and co-founder of whereapy.

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  1. I’d like to comment – but what would people think?

  2. Denise Stein says:

    Very well-written article that brings up many points that aren’t often discussed in our class-conscious society. Not discussed, but definitely matter. One question – for the author – or anyone else who would like to share: What is “Poverty”? I would imagine that most of us have our own definition of exactly what poverty is – or is not. I, too, grew up the child of working-class parents, we rented (did not own) our home until I was almost 12, and a few years later – my parents lost that home, and back to renting – and living paycheck to paycheck, we went. Was I aware of our financial situation? You bet. Even at a very young age. But for me, it wasn’t until we moved to another neighborhood, where I had no friends close by, and the “standards” (not only of material wealth, but also of conduct) were way different, that I FELT poor. When there was no real community. Until then, it was just a matter of there were things I could have, and there were things I couldn’t. There were plenty of others who had more, a few who had less, and a fair amount that were in the same boat with me. And that, I think, is the difference between poverty and being “poor” as defined by monetary means. I may one day again – perhaps even soon, be poor. But I hope never again to be in “poverty” – because I have built a network of friends and acquaintances that will accept me on any level – and therefore, in one way, I will always be rich. Now, would I like to win the lottery and be able to buy security for myself and my family? Absolutely! Money DOES buy a certain degree of happiness – up to the point of providing the basics. Imagine how happy we would all be if our “basics” were assured, and we could just pursue our passions and our desires to help our fellows!

    • Yeah – I struggled with the wording there.

      In suburban US it’s really “relatively poor” rather than flat out poverty — Maybe I should have called it “Pretty in Pink poor” like the movie: Working class, often out of work or under paid, union laboring parents, not enough money for groceries, sometimes not enough money for heat, and no friends allowed to visit the house, surrounded by the children of Doctors and Lawyers kind of poor.

  3. There’s another way of looking at the “living in a poor neighborhood” idea. That’s living in solidarity with the poor, something I try to do as a Franciscan. Being with people in the nitty gritty limitations of their lives, rather than staying clean and safe in a more upscale neighborhood. Let me tell you, if you try to “lord it over” those who have less than you do (financially speaking), they’ll bring you back to reality pretty fast.

    • Trudy that is wonderful that you can be there and practice your faith like that – I’m sure it must be challenge at times.

  4. One thing I’ve intentionally refrained from buying to control my conformity is a 3G phone of any sort. I stick to my plain old Nokia that can only phone and send text message. It hasn’t even got a camera or color screen. I see how these 3G device become idols and status symbols. I have refused to be part of it. 🙂

    • Max you have me beat there – both my husband and I have iphones (old refurbished ones though – not the smexy 4Gs!) – I’d like to think of it not so much a status symbol for us but it makes it so much easier to text. (I have an auditory processing disorder and so I will rarely if ever pick up the phone to talk and do most everything via text.)

      And we work in technology so… But yeah – you’re right, just to maintain those phone plans is a chunk of change out of the monthly budget.

  5. A very well composed piece that hit on a topic I haven’t really self examined myself with. Being ashamed of one’s origins is something done to death in films, print and television. It’s the whole rags to riches complex, very nouveau riche angst. However, what about the middling sort of people? You know, people born in the middle who stay in the middle. There’s a lot of anxiety about being impoverished but I wonder what research exists, or perceptions, about any sort of social stigma middle ground people feel?

    • Interesting point James! – I wonder. The idea and reality of the middle class hasn’t been around for too long;)

      Maybe, and I’m only guessing, you can see the middle class struggle in books like Catcher in the Rye, Gravities Rainbow, Cat’s Cradle, The Stranger, and all those wonderful crazy entropic absurdist — “I’m trying to save the world – but can’t” books. I think where I see the middle class struggle is in these works that are like: “fine !- I don’t care if this makes money — I don’t care if you like it — I have something to say.” Perhaps the middle class story is less about ‘man vs. man’ than ‘man vs. the forces of system/bureaucracy/what is” and the feelings of futility that come out of that? I’m not sure about the research but I’ll look into it.

      BTW a great book on wealth and anxiety: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth.

  6. Loved this Leigh!
    Your points about happiness reminded me of Dan Gilbert’s talk about synthesizing happiness. So often, it is not the things we *think* will make us happy that actually do. Philosophers have been speculating for ages about what makes people happy, but he’s gathering data and doing real research. I’m a sucker for data!

    Also, those of us with working class roots learned early about the value of a hard day’s work. When I talk to some of the people I grew up with, they often tease me about sitting at a desk all day. I wonder how much social/status anxiety is related to the idea, “it isn’t really working if you don’t break a sweat.” Curiously, I do feel much better all-around when I have a solid workout schedule and sweat often. Maybe exercise would have gone well on your list of strategies too.

    Thanks for the great article!

    • Excellent points Andrea – Have you seen Alain de Botton’s “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness?” Highly entertaining. He also wrote “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and has a series status anxiety as well. I’m more arty-farty than data driven — though data is quite handy when proving a point.

      And yes indeed, – working out is great for the mind and body 🙂

  7. Great article, Thanks for sharing this. It’s something you don’t think of, but it exists.

    I don’t feel much shame about my past status now because of my accomplishments. My guess is that I repressed that shame by gloating over them. I grew up with others who assumed I would be stuck in the same economic situation as them. And I’ve some how become an advocate of ‘living above your means’ as if that makes us feel like our status has changed. But that whole notion is wrong I think. There’s nothing wrong with deserving MORE. I started noticing that a part of the reason I work so much all of the time (other than passion) is fear that I would become poor again or not be able to afford things. I isolated myself growing up because of ‘poverty’ and tried to hide my ‘status’, and had a lot of anxiety from caring about what others thought of me.

    Later in life, moving to a more expensive neighborhood was a choice we made to feel more ‘safe’ and therefore happier. Moving to a poor neighborhood to feel rich is indeed not the way to go. The thing about being poor is you get into a mindset that the only way to be happy one day is to obtain the right amount of money so you can buy things that are supposed to make you happy. But it’s not until the work burns ‘you’ out (after you can pay for the basics) that ‘you’ realize ‘you’ are not really working to make a living, you are living to work. After all of the basic needs are satisfied, money cannot always produce happiness or a completely better well-being.

    • I see your point David – The only conundrum for me is that I think everyone deserves “more” or at least a quality, healthy life – and they can’t have it if others are hogging the resources. So what does that make me if I’m trying to grab more than my fair share? And what the heck is my fair share? I’m American so, yes, were are the global leaders in resource hogging and also the ones who began peddling the myth that anyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

      The crushing downside to that idea is that if a body can’t manage to become successful then it becomes internalized as their own dang fault as a haunting voice over– “other people have done it, why can’t I? What’s wrong with me?” As an ideological tool for social control that myth is quite brilliant – however it’s really nasty at the core, you know? Not everyone can do it – it takes some serous mental and social gymnastics to get around that obstacle.

      Which makes all your accomplishments really incredible David — because you’re flying headlong in the face of that kind of psychological warfare. Kudos to you!

      As an aside… I have a somewhat related post on atypical learning coming up on ProBlogger in the middle of April 10th in the US side of the world, April 11th in Australia — I’d love to hear your thoughts if you happen to follow problogger too 🙂

  8. Nicholas Kohl says:

    Your turn! How has status anxiety affected your life? What tips do you have for overcoming status anxiety?

    How has status anxiety affected my life? Boy, do you really want to know? Overcoming status anxiety is like taking a shower in the rain, you don’t really want to do it, but you know if you do, the experience you have might create a catharsis effect through the affective cause. Who would want to be riddled by anger and fear the fate of our ancestors who coincided with the same social economic principles which conquered them? Ideologies rain down on us like the tears of the clouds that block our view from seeing further beyond. Its not always cold to think that the whole world seeks to rape and pillage us from behind while we reach our goals beyond the clouds because it would be disillusionment. The only form of warmth we really have is within ourselves to believe that we are more than the commodities and judgements around us, even though those affect us each day. Focus less on the guilt that sheds with your false image and more on the life that’s emancipated the world around you from within.

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