Price Tags and Pink Fluff

comforting_liesDo you ever feel annoyed by the barrage of advertising that confronts us every day where someone is trying to persuade you to buy their product because they have determined that it is something that you really need? Your life will be incomplete until you purchase their product. All advertising begins with creating discontent followed by the massaging of desire.

Well, the same thing is happening in the world of people. We have been overwhelmed with a thousand techniques to add value to our lives based on beguiling premises such as “you are worth it” until finally we convince ourselves that we really are okay and are entitled to a happy and peaceful life. Catchy phrases which promise us unlimited achievement and success and assurances that nothing is impossible.  Now, I am not saying that we are not worthwhile, I am simply challenging the sell — that incessant pitch that we can change our core value by external add-ons, much like computer application plug-ins. The idea that you only have to dream something to make it happen is pure fancy. The dream may motivate and inspire but there us much more to success than dreaming. Countless dreams never get past first base when woken by reality. Highly successful people always have had a dream, but many more dreamers have fallen by the wayside, defeated by circumstances often beyond their control.

In the previous post we noted that the popularised concept of self-esteem has been built on pseudoscience. It took off in the USA and spread to much of the Western world with its tremendous feel-good appeal and promise of adding value to people through a methodology of formula-driven techniques. However it turns out to be a bit of a slick advertising sell where you get sucked in to buying something which, with time, turns out to be something quite different. A lick of glossy paint and a few gimmicks has sold us a pup.

Pink Fluff

q2Here is an example. The quote on the left is a typical popular ‘warm fuzzy’ that buzzes around social media pages. The reality is that life can unexpectedly bring any number of awful experiences. None of us can claim immunity. Life does not confine itself to bringing only good experiences. The longer you live, the more likely you are to face bad ones too. And what does it mean to be “open to new and wonderful changes”? Are you also ‘open’ to loss, grief and pain. This is pink fluff thinking. Sweet fairy floss with no substance. Flimsy quotes like this do nothing to prepare us for those ‘below the belt’ punches that life too often delivers. Rarely do we have the luxury of choosing whether shit happens or not. Ideas like this are more likely to devalue and disappoint us. It is false advertising with a suspect price tag that does not prepare us for reality. Statements of privilege and entitlement like this imitation gem sow seeds of discontent and create an undesirable desire.

The human price tag

So, lets get back to the question of how much are we really worth, and how can we fairly assess that worth. In our materialistic world we are prone to place a value on just about everything, including each other. When you stop and think about it, we all wear a hypothetical price tag. In various ways we each project a message of how much we think we are worth. Some inflate their price while others depreciate themselves. Then there are those who, like Goldilocks, get it “just right”. We are also quick to give an estimate on the value our fellow.  We all have our opinions of others, whether we actually know them or not. The more prominent the person, the more sharply defined the opinion. There is no escaping it. We put price tags on each other, and the corollary is that others place their price tags on us.

This dynamic is the foundation of social interaction. We endeavour to connect with those we deem valuable and avoid those who are not. The laws of attraction or repulsion kick in immediately we meet someone for the first time. First impressions really are lasting impressions, even if they don’t end up being permanent impressions. If we like their appearance, the sound of their voice, their wit or their wisdom, or if they come highly recommended, or are famous, we will tick the mental checklist and come up with a plus or a minus score which will determine whether to accept or reject. Not unlike shopping, we take a close look at the product and then check out the price tag. If the balance between quality, value and price is acceptable we will probably go ahead and buy. Sussing each other out is central to the business of determining the value of our fellow.

Three things to bear in mind.

  •  Price tags have a profound influence on us and once they have been applied are difficult to change. This principle applies to  the price we place on ourselves as well as the estimate that others place on us. Once in place we subconsciously tend wear the price-tag. It can be hard to shake and lends itself to being a self-fulfilling prophecy as we yield to a sense of inevitability that this is our personal reality.
  • If we don’t set our own price tag, someone else will. It is up to us to determine our core value which, of course, is the tricky bit. Do we have the capacity to do that? Are we in danger of conning ourselves and others too by pretending to be someone we aren’t? Is it even our prerogative?
  • Our estimates of others (and ourselves) are often hit-and-miss conclusions which can sometimes be remarkably accurate  and glaringly wide of the mark at other times. Not knowing all the facts still doesn’t deter us from evaluating each other, an exercise which is made all the more fraught when we often evaluate people by the masks they wear and the illusions they create. To make things even more complicated we are easily led by the strong opinions of others. Whether verbal or non-verbal, subtle or explicit their input can seriously influence how we decide whether a person is okay or not. Just look at the phenomenon of populism if you want an example.

What is our core value and how is it determined?

worth2Stand in front of the mirror, strip off  the masks, stop pretending and try to get a good look at the person in front of you. Don’t play that silly game that some people encourage you do which involves saying, “I like myself, I like myself!” over and over again until you start to like yourself. That is stupid pop-psychology and another serving of fairy floss or pink fluff. Instead try asking some tough questions like

  • Would I buy a car from this person?
  • Am I looking at a person who cheats when they can get away with it?
  • Does this person manipulate others to get what they want?
  • Is this person able to forgive and let go?
  • Is the someone who spends too much time feeling angry and guilty?
  • Is this person in the mirror a kind and considerate person?
  • Can I live with this person?
  • Is this someone who is able to see the good in others?

The exercise is not an attempt to create feelings of self-loathing or self-congratulation. It is simply shifting the focus to what makes us truly valuable. If I can genuinely add value to myself I will be a much happier person. I just want to be able to trust and respect that person in the mirror.  This is the person I live with twenty-four hours a day.

Much of what follows is a simple and practical look at how to establish and maintain a good price tag. Value adding is achievable, it is simple but it is also challenging. The social spin-off is that as you add genuine value to yourself, others will recognise it and come to respect you – a pretty good bonus. Furthermore, the loop of social feedback will confirm that you are on the right track. The price tag that you set for yourself eventually becomes the one that others will see and accept.

None of this is about perfection. Your humanity has predetermined the impossibility of that. Neither is it a competition or an exercise in comparison. It is about crafting and creating something, someone of value. It is about building and growing of character. A lifetime of choices and actions that imperceptibly will change you and make you more valuable from the inside out. It is a gradual transition to being the person you want to be, the one you are content to live with and someone you can trust and love – You. Sort that out and things will begin to sort out.

 

UbuntuA reverse sunset on Pittwater, Sydney

 Next: Solving the Power Puzzle

Self-esteem – not all that it claims to be.

At the risk of rocking the boat, I want to examine the very popular self-esteem movement. In principle the idea of healthy self-esteem is fine, but something disturbing has happened over recent years and it deserves our candid attention. Here are three typical examples, each making claims which need to be seriously re-worked. What needs to change?

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Let’s begin by winding the clock back. Until the end of the Nineteenth Century the term ‘self-esteem’ didn’t even exist. There was the occasional philosopher or thinker who saw the correlation between a sense of our personal merit and confidence and assurance as we occupied ourselves in various projects and enterprises. It was William James who introduced it to the vocabulary of modern psychology in 1890. His timing was premature and the idea languished for over sixty years while the major nations of the world sorted themselves out over two world wars. It was a period of history when the face of humanity was at it’s ugliest. Furthermore, people simply did not have time nor inclination for introspective reflection on their self-worth and conflicting feelings while survival and recovery were paramount. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when the USA began to find its feet once more and an enormous economic boom and period of extended prosperity changed the way we think. One of the key players in this paradigm shift was a man who had a much better sense of timing than James with a message that held great appeal to both the public and the professional – Carl Rogers.

Two important things were also occuring at the same time. Firstly, the science of psychology was coming of age. Between Freud, Jung and the Behaviourists, the disciplines of psychology and psycho-therapy had been a hit and miss mix of conflicting theories, none of which could be placed on an emperical platform. There was no consensus as to how human behaviour and thought processes could be measured. The absence of experimental prediction and replication meant the psychology was seen at best a pseudo science, much in the way astrology and alternative medicine are regarded today. It required measurable facts and figures to earn its stripes as a true science. The second thing missing was subject matter to measure. In other words, people. People who would be willing to commit themselves to the scientific process and allow their thoughts and actions to be calibrated in some form of manageable data. More to the point, people who felt the need to benefit from the practice of the new science.  Ideally, a whole nation of people who would eventually subscribe to idea of therapy. After all, science was rapidly ascending the the status of a modern deity and people began to trust it and looked to it for answers.

This required a philosophical shift in the way the nation thought. The old belief systems did not gel with the new personal wealth, security, prosperity and independence, and the overwhelming sense of freedom and self-determination that pervaded America in the 50’s. Rogers came up with the perfect solution which paved the way for exalting the ‘science’ of psychology and altered the way that people regarded themselves. For thousands of years Judeo-Christian thought regarded the human estate as dark. We were “shapen in iniquity” and in “sin did my mother conceive me”. Such depravity may have spawned two horrific global wars, but this was the nation that turned the tide and was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity. “We are going to be good from now on”. It needed ideas to match, so when Rogers suggested that people are innately decent and all are filled with enormous potential and worth, the idea went down a treat. It was just the message America was waiting to hear and the impetus that professional psychology needed. Children, especially should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”, freed from the inhibitions and restraints that could prevent them from attaining their full potential. Rogers was a product of his era, but also was instrumental in shaping the future of America and much of the Western world. And not without good reason as so much of what he says has tremendous appeal and seems to make good sense.

Interestingly, I spent about six months of my childhood schooling in America just as this influence was gaining momentum. Enough time to get the feel of things. I grew up in Malaya and was definitely a product of the ‘old school’ where children were children, seen but not heard. We were obedient, never talked back or expressed our opinions and learned to respect adults. SmorningsideIt seemed that I had walked into an Alice in Wonderland world where everyone had to be nice to each other. They could say and do what they liked, yet were unruly and running mildly amok. Strangely, it seem that somehow at a deeper level, they were angry with each other. I can put my finger on it now, but back then all I knew was that I was desperately unhappy and confused. It was undoubtedly the most miserable time in my life. Within the space of a week we left LA and I found myself sitting on a hard bench in this dour stone building in Edinburgh, Scotland (right). It was yet another remarkable cultural transition. The classrooms could be bitterly cold, I had to learn to write using scratchy pen nibs dipped in inkwells, get used to the cane and develop my fisty cuff skills. Yet these were the happiest years of my childhood. So, what made the difference? In one word – boundaries. Children need to know where they stand and lack the emotional maturity, life-experience and wisdom to know how to establish their own boundaries. Letting them off the leash before they are ready can be a serious problem.

The introduction of Roger’s optimistic view of human nature in the 60’s saw a rapid evolution towards the integration of the Self-esteem movement which was even officially embedded into the school system of America as the Human Potential Movement. It became the accepted model for just about all therapy and rehabilitation, whether professional or via self-help. It 16canberrazoosynchronised perfectly with the lightning fast changes in technology, communications and travel giving people a new-found freedom to be themselves and express themselves. The rebellion and revolution of the 60’s was no passing phenomenon but the cementing of a neo-narcissism where a person’s freedom, personal rights and need for self-expression spawned the ridiculously materialistic and self-absorbed Me Generation. The “feel good” mantra of the human potential movement became a tiger out of its cage.

In spite of the wonderful promises and appeal of the concept, all is not well in the land. The movement anticipated dramatic improvement in relationships, reduction of crime, an era of personal achievement and prosperity, elimination of bullying and abuse – in short an era of humanity on the ascent. Never have we seen a generation of people with more confidence and assertiveness who suffer more with depression  Instead we have witnessed a blow-out of crime (especially gun-related mass killings), increase in poverty, schools becoming guarded fortresses where lack of discipline is rife, out of control drug abuse, youth suicide and depression – and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a society which is become more self-absorbed and disillusioned in its pursuit of instant-gratification.

 

GenMeIn her recent book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge examines the question as to why “today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before.” An with any research there are gaps in her conclusions, but much of what she says will be very recognisable to those who have been around to observe the emergence of Generation Me. I have often wondered what would happen to our society if our mobile phones were to be rendered permanently useless overnight, revealing the extent to which we have become dependent on smart devices. Check out this short video clip I took recently in a train in Hong Kong.

What has happened? Any idea, theory or belief that is built on a faulty assumption or suspect methodology is doomed to failure. This one is no exception. The dream has dissolved and has lost most of credibility in the world of professional psychology. Yet it will not die because it is so appealing and seductive. Here are two core assumptions which will be considered in the next post

1. The methodology of self estimation. Self esteem is a measure not a feeling – a self estimate. It is impossible to objectively measure our emotional self. Any form of estimation is subjective and is a poor scientific tool which is nevertheless widely employed in questionnaires, surveys, IQ tests and the like.

The primary aim of the movement has been to bring people to the point where they feel good about themselves. There is a real catch 22 here. Think about those endless self-tests that pop up in Facebook which will tell you how intelligent you are, how socially adept you are, how emotionally strong you are . . you know the ones I mean. How many times have the results revealed that you are stupid, angry, mean, selfish, dumb and horrible? Not once, I guarantee. That is not how you want to be estimated and certainly not the way you estimate yourself. No, according these little exercises in pop psychology we are all smart, witty, balanced, wonderful, sexy individuals. That’s what we want to hear, which pretty well sums up the methodology of the self-esteem movement. It overflows with warm fuzzy messages.

2. The building of self-esteem as a technique. The underlying assumption is that successfully building self-esteem during a child’s developing years will result in improved academic performance and improved relationships. It was regarded as some form of social vaccine which would counter violence, crime, drug abuse, school underachievement, bullying, teenage pregnancy and related social dysfunctions. Much of what followed was an artificial building of self-esteem.

After extensive scrutiny and systematic research it was observed that violent, anti-social people actually liked and valued themselves too much and measured very high in self-esteem. Furthermore, results indicated that the self-esteem building activities being used by parents and teachers were fuelling the epidemic of depression and narcissism. Subsequent research has turned the self-esteem movement on its head and questions the whole process of artificially boosting self esteem through technique. Repeatedly telling a child they are wonderful, special, and brilliant doesn’t actually transform them into little wonder people. And there are enough examples of well adjusted, successful people who cope with life perfectly well who don’t really rate well on the self-esteem scales. Have we been paying homage to a synthetic construct which has diverted our attention from the processes which add true value to the individual?

To be continued.

worth2

Next: The only way to value-add

 

How much are you worth?

BeggarI don’t know her name. In fact I don’t know anything about her except she was an incredibly poor beggar child. I never realised when I took this photo that years later her face would still be etched in my memory.  I remember the crossing of our paths as if it was yesterday. Maybe it had  something to do with where we met – the Amber Palace near Jaipur in India – and the contrast between the indulgent opulence of the surrounds and the undisguised poverty of the child. Or maybe it was the sense of guilt that I carried no money or food and had nothing to give her. But for a few moments something happened that left an indelible impression – we found common ground as two human beings who understood and accepted each other. She seemed to understand that I was unable to respond to her desperate need and behind that shy smile and sad eyes I saw a sweet sensitive child who refused to yield to her adverse circumstances. In that brief encounter we dropped all pretenses and I saw her true value, a fellow creature whose worth was equal to mine. Whenever I look at this image I find that I regain a perspective about all that is worthwhile in life and am reminded of how much of human pursuit is waste and vanity.

Have you every calculated your worth?  Not the sum total of your assets which you can’t take with you but the actual flesh, blood and bone that is sitting in front of this screen.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils we are

Amber-Palace65% Oxygen
18% Carbon
10% Hydrogen
3% Nitrogen
1.5% Calcium
1% Phosphorous
0.35% Potassium
0.25% Sulphur
0.15% Sodium
0.15% Chlorine
0.05% Magnesium
0.0004% Iron
0.00004% Iodine

plus trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminium, and arsenic.

Total value, approximately USD $1. Add a bit more if you have gold in your teeth and a titanium prosthesis – but who is going to waste time extracting the metal add-ons once you have departed? Ironically a sheep is worth more since the meat can at least be sold for food and the wool used for clothing.

Of course, you are more valuable to the spare parts industry, somewhere in the vicinity of USD $650,000 for your transplantable bits and pieces – warm, and in good working condition. And if you want to maintain perspective have a look inside an urn of human ashes and you will again be reminded of your finiteness. It is all a bit morbid and bordering on being repulsive, apart from being a useless exercise. All up, it is somewhat confronting to think that you are worth more dead than alive.

We tend to use the words ‘worth’ and ‘value’ interchangeably even though by definition they are subtly different. Worth has the feel of ‘inherent’ and value is usually an assigned measure of worth. It all gets a bit circular. Whichever way you choose to define the terms, what is significant is that we all live under the shadow of the great impediment of the capitalist mindset that assigns a measurable quantity to all things, animate or otherwise. Its mantra is, “all are not equal”. Some are worth more than others. Once the idea takes hold we invent socio-economic parameters to affirm it. A refugee fleeing persecution can arrive on the shores of a secure nation only to be imprisoned behind razor wire and banished indefinitely on a remote island simply because they do not meet the essential criteria of worthiness. Legislators are able to implement laws that allow for execution of the lowest. Wealth and power begin to equate with greatness and influence, importance and privilege. Some ensure that they are above the law.  Others change the law to suit themselves. The chasms of separation which measure the relative value of all individuals are the ubiquitous enforcers of our ideas of worth.

valueIt is little wonder that so many of us struggle with self-esteem issues. Relative human worth is the warp and woof of our society – not equality and liberty as we might be led to believe. And the more a population increases the more apparent the impact of relative worth becomes as we fight to control our finite resources. There is a definite correlation between how much we  accumulate and our adopted value system which defines us by these measurable socio-economic criteria . The rich becoming richer at the expense of the poor become poorer is not a new phenomenon. Increasing power of the few is always gained at the expense of diminishing power of the many. Karl Marx was heading down this path this with his observations of the perpetual struggle between the haves and the have nots and formulated concepts that changed the course of history. The struggle to establish value and preserve self esteem has deep sociological roots.

Once we reach the stage where we measure worth by wealth, the inequality and disparity becomes self-evident, and with it comes the insidious idea that some people are actually more valuable than others. It is complex phenomenon, but like or not, we end up with labels and price tags that define who we are and the degree of power and privilege we have over our fellow (ask anyone who relies on social security whether this is true or not). With the awareness of these labels and assigned price tags comes inner discontent and anxiety to balance our personal ledger in favour of the ‘worth’ column.  This is the reality of human nature and nothing much is going to change for a long time. So rather than fight against the reality it makes more sense to learn how to live with it. It is how we go about this that is where can make it or break it.

I want to make are four observations and conclude with another personal experience.

  1. The pervasive idea of developing a healthy self-esteem is not the solution to value adding. For all its acceptance as a concept it may actually be more counterproductive than essential for our mental and emotional well-being.
  2. External affirmation and internal affirmation do not necessarily equate. We can be surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who all like and affirm us and still be plagued by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. ‘Likes’ are not a value adding tool.
  3. We may need to change our reference point for determining value. Rather than assessing human worth in terms of success, prosperity and achievement (externals) we might want to measure self worth by something more permanent.
  4. Your self-worth is ultimately decided by you, and you alone.

worth

The people’s market in Delhi, India is not on the ‘must see’ list of most tourist itineraries but I managed to persuade a taxi driver to take me there and spent the morning getting lost in a sea of humanity. The experience is a total assault on the senses with unexpected surprises around every corner, like these three girls fighting over a red elastic hair tie that someone had lost. They were beggar children who survived by scavenging for food and anything else they could find of any value in the market place. They had obviously formed an alliance for protection, but were nevertheless the fiercest of competitors. The tall girl on the left had the agility and strength to secure the meagre trophy. The small child on the right contented herself with the crumbs that fell from the table. The one in the middle really caught my attention. She had fire and determination – look at the anger in her eyes – and was a born survivor. But she had an undeniable presence and was clearly the leader of the little pack. I couldn’t help but wonder what untapped qualities she would have been displayed in different circumstance. No, there is no slum dog millionaire ending to this story. The trio quickly melted in the crowd once more, intent in making it through another day as one of countless millions of this world’s poor. The pathetically shabby misfitting dress was her only possession, but as a person she had a grace and dignity that gave her undeniable worth.

Next: Self-esteem – not all that it seems.