When I was a kid, I was much more deeply affected by what other people thought of me than I am, now. At the time, I knew that a lot of people who at least claimed that they were pretty independent in this regard, but my own ‘forest for the trees’ worldview made me genuinely question whether anybody ever accomplished such a thing. It took many, many years of attempting to think my way out of this corner, and while I would not at all claim to be completely unaffected by what people tell me, now, it isn’t the end-all, be-all it once was.
Thing of it is, how we feel about ourselves is something we actually have a great deal of influence over — it’s just a question of how much influence you’re willing to allow anybody else to have. Some people are very adamant in insisting that how other people think about one is more important or even more valid than what one thinks themselves; this is true if there are a large number of people who think you’re a terrible person and there isn’t some quirky misunderstanding to explain away the perception, and bullshit if it’s just founded on the belief that Hobbes was right and without the possibility of being pilloried in the court of public opinion, one’s “self-interest” would run amok, trampling social contract and cotton candy uni-kittens in its wake.
This is true when we let anybody’s judgment stand as a proxy to our own, however — to even accept someone else’ judgement as preferable to what one might have arrived at on their own is itself a judgment call.
Nor is it sufficient to disregard negative criticism without simultaneously rejecting positive criticism. Of all the conclusions I’ve drawn about the nature of self-worth, the most rock-solid (and trite) is that one can only ever truly compete with one’s self — comparing yourself to someone else can certainly be done objectively in a lot of different cases, but ultimately if you find yourself wanting in some respect and lack the capacity to change it for similarly objective reasons, then it becomes something you must adapt to, not something you can improve on merely because you’re “superior” to someone else in the same regard.
Of course, the typical child growing up in America is going to come out so screwed up, philosophically, that this issue along with a huge list of others effectively constitute a collection of things that need to be fixed if they’re going to maximize any productivity out of their own reasoning process. And this is one a lot of people either deliberately skip over or never bother to ask any questions about, so for a large part of the world, it’s all about “better than you” even though it’s poison to confess to the literal belief. In some instances, the qualification for this distinction is as transparent as a slogan on a t-shirt; the color of one’s skin, their financial means, their religious affiliation, their popularity.
They also seem to be pretty desperate about maintaining and expanding on it.
This is because approval in a lot of these instances is a favor that is extended politically, in exchange for quid-pro-quo consideration, i.e. its actually pretty damned arbitrary and doesn’t have to do with whether one is objectively, say, a better golfer than someone else who plays golf.
But the emotional payoff between personal satisfaction and the admiration of one’s peers is very different. There are studies to show that the emotional validation we experience when the group therapy counselor gives us a banana sticker is a cognitive throwback to our socialization as tribal animals and increased our odds of reproducing by rewarding us for placating the tribal majority so they didn’t throw us to the dinosaurs as a snack. There are no such studies to suggest that anybody’s inner critic ever gave them a banana stickers, but if they weren’t such a whiny little jackwagons in the first place, they wouldn’t need a fucking banana sticker, would they?
Praise from others is a short-term high with a crash, like a heavy sugar buzz. Personal esteem is slow to develop, but essential to self-confidence and a whole slew of indispensable qualities, but the most pronounced characteristic between the two is not that the former is frequently in conflict with the latter (whereas the reverse is not quite so true), but often times, deliberately so. Those who hold that self-interest leads to the dessicated corpse of Hobbes trampling kittens tend to hold one personally liable for every excess that can be attributed to not accepting an identical view of human nature, whether one has actually ever seen a kitten in the court of public opinion or not.
As an example, some nights back, I had the misfortune of hearing Sarah Palin utter the phrase “all you really exceptional Americans” before I could change the channel. What makes this sort of thing fascinating is that you can’t tell if it’s a deliberate fabrication intended to distort public perception about a concept or of it’s just unexamined ignorance, an uninformed swipe at grasping the concepts meaning by means of the phrase alone. Regardless, “American Exceptionalism” is not a quality bestowed on all Americans because they happened to be born here, it is not a quality designated as owned by a current majority (or even a current minority) — it’s the character of our political system, not it’s constituents.
And here’s Sarah, insisting that not only is it a uniquely American quality, but that it’s the domain of the Average (or below average, depending on your criterion) American. That’s like saying something’s great because there’s absolutely nothing great about it — average is, to paraphrase an old chum, the middle of the fucking bell curve. It’s like believing that the difference between whether or not something is true depends solely on how many people believe it at the time, like such a thing wouldn’t have killed us all long ago were it true.
But people find all kinds of ways to rationalize magical thinking, especially if, once identifying what they agree with, no further effort is required to examine or expand on them further.
The fact that this country has been home to so many people who DID NOT get stuck in this trap is the true meaning of American Exceptionalism, however, and I say as much not to claim it as a distinction for myself, but to align myself with the principles of those greater individuals whose coat tails I so happily ride upon.