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When we turn up as adults with adult expectations put on us, we exist in a world where everything seems to be better than we are, or made to seem better than we are. Photographs of models are supposedly more beautiful than real women; the images of men portray guys with less to do, more money, fancier cars, and sculpted muscles. This is an invitation to feel like shit; then you have to do something about it. That’s how most advertising works, mainly by preying on our sense of inferiority.
My favorite example of this is that ad for the “Army of One”—a military recruitment ad (which I am now discovering from a Google search has been viciously satirized a number of times). This masterpiece features one soldier flying in a transport plane, fighting a war, and so on. On the surface, it tells kids “You are somebody special.” But what it’s really reminding young men about is how worthless they feel. I could not believe that the military brass approved it, because in combat, you work with your fellow soldiers. But in our demented world, one special guy just makes it out of high school and goes to war (that would be you), and if you’re not a hero, clearly you’re a loser. Now multiply this out over an entire society.
Though the phrase hasn’t been used a lot lately, I think our self-esteem crisis is a big ego trip. You might think: ego trip? That’s about thinking you’re the greatest thing ever. Which is precisely what we’re taught to believe. Then we are faced with the deeper feeling that we’re not—the sinking feeling of shame and worthlessness. And because of how painful it is, we bury the whole conflict.
Let’s give this a name: exiled narcissism (which was coined by my friend Maya’s therapist, Steve Carroll). Exiled meaning pushed into the shadows of the psyche, and narcissism meaning the belief that we are better than someone for no good reason, or self-fixation at the expense of others. This can also involve obsessively fighting to prove we’re better than others—a kind of competitiveness that our society loves so much but won’t call by its real name. (For example, jealousy is considered precious, but it’s rarely described as an attribute of narcissism.)
We are going through a phase of mental history wherein the only thing that’s interesting is competing. You can no longer just be a good cook, and use food as a source of nourishment and pleasure. You have to be the top chef, and if you’re not the top chef, then what are you? And at the same time, narcissism is allegedly a bad thing. So we shamefully have to shove it out of awareness. Then it comes back with a vengeance, because we “know we’re special” and “deserve the best” and so on. Or we “lost the game” and are devastated. The sick part is that usually, this has less to do with Top Chef and more to do with being (or not being) Top Wife.
We often flip back and forth between grandiosity and shame; between being the most beautiful and not beautiful enough. Grandiosity can feel like being righteously indignant and powerful and like you have the right to reject anyone or anything; shame is when you feel so worthless, the obvious conclusion is, you deserve nothing and no one. If we can observe this process for a while, we can see that neither of these polar extremes are true values. Neither would serve us in relationship to ourselves or to others; and in a true estimation, neither one actually exists.
Somewhere in here, we might decide it’s time to love ourselves. But in doing this, we might seem to tread dangerously close to narcissism, or fear being labeled narcissistic. It’s easy to get caught in the feeling of a double bind. And that double bind is the very thing that hitches us into the crisis. There are many insightful psychological viewpoints on how this works. Two of the best can be found in A General Theory of Love (by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon) and The Drama of the Gifted Child (by Alice Miller).
But I think that it goes a lot deeper than psychology. The crisis has its roots in something underneath esteem. That something is the awareness of existence.