Finding Your Way Through Status Anxiety

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Issues related to status and college pressures are familiar to many people, particularly given the college admission scandals in the news lately.  Recently, federal prosecutors filed charges against a group of parents who paid someone to “help” admit their children to particular colleges. Specifically, these parents paid to have someone else take standardized entrance exams for their children or bribed university officials to define their children as athletes (when they were not).  

As a parent of a child heading to college in the fall, my son and I talked about this controversy a lot.   I also talked to a number of other high school students about it in recent months. Many important themes surface, including cheating, lying, the power of money, and under-estimating our children’s strengths. Most of the teens that I talked with were angry, but very few were surprised that the incidents happened.  Many students report pressure by parents (and schools) to attend the most selective college they can get into, even if it is not a good fit. If they don’t, many teens feel that they are letting parents, peers, or teachers down.  Despite research to the contrary, they are also afraid of damaging their future.

Status Anxiety

Some researchers, like Elizabeth Svoboda, from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, would say that this pressure is due to “status anxiety,” or “our tendency to value other people’s opinion of us more highly than our opinion of ourselves.”  The fear is that loss in status will involve emotional, social, and financial loss.  There is a belief that if we can only have the “perfect” life in terms of job, friends, school, activities, we will be free from struggle, pain, or discomfort.  Unfortunately, if we disregard our values and personal needs, nothing will be farther from the truth.  

There are problems with letting “status anxiety” going unchecked

Status anxiety can rob us of the opportunity to trust ourselves, grow, and face adversity

When we face hard situations, we have the potential to grow stronger and learn about ourselves. If we regard status over all else, we can make harmful decisions.  The parents in the cheating scandal did not allow their children the opportunity to grow through challenge. Rather, their actions implied that their children were not capable, and that status was more important.  If we parent similarly, and prevent our children from having struggles, our children will not have the confidence to handle adversity the next time it arises.  Long-term, children without confidence and self-respect struggle more in life.   

Status anxiety can erase contentment and enjoyment of life

When we give in to pressure regarding status, we often are not following or deepest values, and we can lose our purpose. If we put others’ opinions over our own, we will never feel settled or at ease.  No matter how successful, accomplished, or talented we are, we will always feel like our worth is secondary to someone else’s achievements.  We will never be able to keep up.  Research finds that tirelessly pursuing high status is associated with aggression, addiction, and depression.

For example, if your life goals are to have good friendships, learn well, and live contentedly, you may not require unlimited wealth, a job with a “top ten company,” or an ivy-league degree.  However, if you are worried about your status, you may continue to strive for those things, rather than things you really care about, like friendships, a good education, and a pleasing life. 

How Do We Deal with Status Anxiety, Particularly as it Relates to Our Children?

Find Contentment and Gratitude and Share This With Your Children

Remind yourself (and your children) that our deepest joys do not come from status, achievement, money, or possessions.  Rather, they are often the experiences that we share with our loved ones, and small daily pleasures that we notice and savor.  Use mindfulness and gratitude, and model these for your children.  Rather than pursuing new possessions, vehicles, homes, or achievements, it may be helpful to give thanks for what you have and spend time with your family and friends (or other activities that are truly important to you).

Remember that mistakes and rejections are ok and our children will learn from them

In his latest newsletter, Dr. Robert Brooks described that “we would not want to throw our children into 10 feet of water if they can’t swim, but we should provide experiences in which they learn to swim.” Having some challenges may help our children handle harder demands and mistakes in the future.  It doesn’t mean that college won’t be helpful or that a good job isn’t important.  But, letting them take responsibility for their own choices, and supporting them through difficulties (without doing it for them) is invaluable.  

Remember your own values and talk about them as a family from time to time

Although your children’s values are likely different from yours, many adults and teens identify values like kindness, love, compassion, family, and hard work.  Never underestimate importance of parents in modeling these values for their children. When you are tempted to focus on status or achievements, try to reflect back to your own values, using them as anchors to make solid, personal decisions.

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