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The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Status

Part six: How the need for status can lead to bullying and self-destruction

As human beings, we have an instinctive drive for status that can get out of hand

“The world more often rewards outward signs of merit than merit itself.”

– François de La Rochefoucauld

Riches. Strength. Height, slenderness, muscularity. Being the best at something. Being the worst. Being the funniest. The rudest. The most beautiful. The most intelligent. The most aggressive. The most notorious.

Being top dog, cat, gorilla, or official. Wearing the latest clothes or uniform. Owning the most land. Having the most attractive or dominant partner. A bigger house. The best vacations. Knowing the right people. Knowing the most people. Signaling the most virtue.

Status isn’t about being these things. Status is about being seen to be or to have these things relative to others. But, like any legitimate human need, wanting to be recognized can easily morph from a need to a demanding, all-consuming greed.

Status is a constant in human life. Though much of the time we don’t think about it because it’s everywhere and takes so many forms.

So why is the drive for status so strong?

The universal need for recognition and control

We all need some sense of control to avoid feeling helpless and hopeless. You see it in infants striving for independence. One of my own earliest memories (I think it’s a real one!) was of feeling outraged at being stuck in my cot and managing to climb out. The drive to walk, feed oneself, and talk are all about gaining more control.

The need for recognition, attention, and esteem merge into what we call ‘status’.

When we feel recognized, appreciated, and respected, we have more control. We have status. And feeling valued and admired for who or what we are can meet the need for attention and personal power in spades.

Status is a kind of frozen, focused, sustainable way of eliciting attention from people. And high status, wide recognition, helps us live longer and healthier lives.

Actors and directors who win Oscars live longer than those merely nominated.[1] The thought of seeking status for its own sake has distasteful connotations for many. But lack of status can cause real problems, including dying younger and having worse mental and physical health outcomes.[2][3]

Being at the bottom of the pile, low in the ‘pecking order’, or, perhaps worse, suffering a loss of status, seems toxic not just for humans but for other animals too.[4]

Conversely, feeling appreciated can help foster healthy self-esteem. We like to feel esteemed for what we are and can do. In this way social status, being and feeling recognized for our position, whether it be manager, worker, mother, or good friend, helps us feel our place in the world.

But many clients suffer because they feel unappreciated, or ‘invisible’.

So the higher the position in a hierarchy we occupy, the greater health, self-esteem, happiness, and longevity we enjoy. Status matters, but if status is abused or becomes all-consuming, it turns into a pernicious poison.

We feel envy when we dislike the fact that someone has or is something we would like to have or be. Envy is essentially resentment of another’s status. And advertisers know this.

Status updates

“Be the envy of your friends!” is a perennial advertising message. But why would you want your friends to suffer envy?

Much of human behaviour consists of instinctive or conscious attempts to gain higher status. We fight, some of us more than others, to rise in the dominance hierarchy, in whatever form it may take.

In this series I explore the dark side of what are, in balance, healthy and vital emotional needs. We all need to drink water, and we should do so when we need it. But drinking engine oil, or even too much water, can kill us.

There are, of course, different kinds of status. Conspicuously displaying wealth is the most obvious kind, but hierarchies come in many different flavours. Even the sentiment “status doesn’t matter to me!” (i.e. “I’m above status!”) may be a status signal.

But one thing’s for sure: The drive for status, while inherent and instinctive (no matter what we might tell ourselves!) can lead us to some dark places.

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“I don’t know who I’m supposed to be!”

One risk of focusing solely on status is that we can lose ourselves in the process.

Take my client Geoff. Geoff was driven. He always had been. “Second is first loser!” That’s what he told me his dad used to tell him when he was at school.

Geoff’s whole life had been a struggle to be the best. “Not the best I can be, but the best anybody can be!”

Geoff had come to see me because he’d hit another patch of depression. A signal from his deep self that his life wasn’t working the way he was living it. His workaholism was destroying him and his marriage.

He was successful, financially secure, and well respected and known in his field. But he felt the whipcrack of his emotional conditioning every moment of every day.

“I’m not being arrogant, but people see me as the best at what I do. But… I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be! I don’t do anything unless it somehow ties in with getting better, rising up to be the best!”

Since the depression had hit, however, he’d found himself unable to do much of anything. So what was the problem?

If we focus entirely on our status, on rising and maintaining our position in our chosen dominance hierarchy, then status becomes the main object of our lives. Extrinsic reward replaces intrinsic reward. And the more that happens, the less meaningful our lives can feel. Why? Because only intrinsic reward makes your life feel meaningful.

Why exactly do you do what you do?

Back in 1973, psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene found that rewarding children with praise and attention for doing an activity which they had been enjoying for its own sake had the effect of lessening the child’s interest and motivation in that activity.[5]

Being rewarded with attention and praise, or being told you are good, eats away at motivation – because the activity no longer provides intrinsic reward, but rather extrinsic reward.

Geoff had come to feel that something was only worth doing if it in somehow reflected or increased his status. The idea of inherently or intrinsically enjoying an activity for its own sake had all but vanished for him.

Another client would spend money she didn’t have just to enhance her perceived status. She would spend all her hard-earned cash – and then some – on lavish haute-couture clothes, a fancy car, and eye-wateringly expensive jewellery. All just “to impress people”. She was tens of thousands of pounds in debt by the time she came to me for help.

When we treat clients, we can try to ascertain how much of their life is predicated on how they imagine others see them and how they want to be seen. Sure, some proportion of our efforts can be linked to status, and that needn’t be a problem. But what proportion?

If we just want to be ‘the best’ (at the top of a chosen hierarchy), we may become less motivated than, say, if 85% of our motivation is for love of, or belief in, the activity itself.

A key question, then, is how much of what we do is linked to how we seem to others?

When we forget the difference between who we are and who we seem in comparison to others, we are walking the road to unhappiness. We are losing all sense of meaning in life. We are losing ourselves.

But what about the dangerous side of getting more status? Because, for some, increased status is the last thing they need.

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The Killing Tree

I was in Cambodia visiting one of the ‘killing fields’, and before us stood a single tree. Our guide bravely fought back tears as she told us her father had vanished during those nightmarish times. Her smiling face showed flashes of agony as she pointed out the strands of human hair still ingrained in the bark. This was the Killing Tree.

Not wanting to waste bullets, the communist regime Khmer Rouge would swing children against the tree to kill them. Teeth still washed up in the earth when it rained.

I asked the guide who had sanctioned this barbarity. She said:

“The one at the top. Him. Pol Pot.” Of course, he hadn’t actually done it himself. But he had given the orders to the men and women who had been appointed with the status to do it.

A kind of madness can descend on someone when they are granted a dramatic increase in status.

It’s easy to blithely assume that if we were in power the world would sing in harmony and be bathed in eternal sunshine. But infinite arrogance aside, it does seem that being given authority, the status of official or custodian of power, is toxic for many. We shouldn’t assume it wouldn’t be toxic for us, too.

In fact, to believe we could handle a great increase in power simply because we assume we are not prey to the dark forces of human nature is to take the first fateful step towards tyranny.

People have done terrible things because of newly conferred status. People who, despite their best intentions, find that power really does corrupt. And this corruption can happen at lightning speed.

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Sadistic students

Status can easily go to our heads and make us cruel and tyrannical. For some people, all it takes is a uniform for them to lose themselves to monstrous cruelty.

Back in 1971, Stanford’s Professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the infamous ‘prison experiment’.[6] He wanted to study and observe the effects of perceived power, focusing on the behavioural and emotional interplay between prisoners and prison officers.

Interestingly, the study was financed by the US Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the US Navy and US Marine Corps.

College students were randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard. The effects of this status assignation were immediate and shocking.

People were free to leave the experiment any time they wanted, but many prisoners very soon fell into a passive role, accepting any and all treatment they received.

Psychological torture of the prisoners by the guards was so quick to assert itself that it took only six days before Zimbardo’s future wife urged him to stop the experiment. Bear in mind that these were liberal-minded students who may well have denied they would ever be intoxicated by power.

It was concluded that it wasn’t the students’ inherent personality attributes that caused their behaviour, but the situation itself. The status they had been given. Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s a slightly disturbing trailer for a movie made about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

We all have a need for control, and the more status we feel, the more power we feel – and that equates to a sense of control.

But feeling more control over yourself could easily tip into a desire to extend that sense of control by controlling me (and vice versa). This is how tyrannies become established. And I don’t just mean the great big obvious Orwellian tyrannies. I mean those petty social-circle bullying ones too.

It’s easy to focus on the sadism of the students assigned high status in this study, but I’m also interested in the way most of the ‘prisoners’ sank into passivity.

It’s important to understand that ‘victim’ is also a status.

Victimhood status

When we label someone, we assign them a status.

When you have a sense of status (whether high or low), you feel that certain behaviours are expected of you. If we assign someone the role of ‘victim’, that is, a low position in the hierarchy, they may come – as the ‘prisoners’ did in the Stanford experiment – to feel, and ultimately be passive.

We can see a client’s sense of status by just talking and listening to them. How much influence do they feel in their life over themselves and others?

A victim is, by definition, not a victor over events or circumstances. To describe someone as a victim is to ascribe them low status if the label becomes permanently stuck.

Support groups can be valuable in that people feel they are not alone with a condition or in their feelings, but ultimately ‘victim’ isn’t a status that serves anyone well for long.

Paradoxically, sometimes the low status of ‘victim’, if victimhood itself is respected or encouraged, can place a person quite high in the status hierarchy. This is a problem when it becomes aspirational to be seen as a victim, consciously or otherwise.

But status can also be gleaned by or entangled with who you know, and this has its own dangers.

Jailhouse love

Notoriety is, of course, a form of high status. Alpha can take many forms.

I want to talk about a phenomenon which, while relatively rare, is still common enough to tell us something important about the attraction of status and how we can bask in other people’s.

A killer behind bars is notorious. Therefore he has high status and some women will find that intriguing or downright attractive (though men don’t seem to so commonly fall for female incarcerated killers).[7]

We can gain status by ‘being with’ high-status people. Of course, if someone is behind bars, the relationship isn’t a full one – but the woman can still elicit some kind of reflected status by being romantically involved with a notorious, high-status male.

She may spout all the clichés about feeling she is the only one who really knows him, or can see the good in him, or can tame him, and so on and so forth, but ultimately she has chosen a high-status male (as weird as that sounds).

More prosaically, if you ever wonder, “What on earth he or she could possibly see in them!?” it might just be their status: their level of social or other dominance. Hanging out with the ‘cool’ naughty kid at school can, in the same way, confer status.

It’s a mistake, I think, to assume status doesn’t matter, that we are above it, or that it shouldn’t matter. Quite clearly it does – in all kinds of ways.

Once we learn to recognize the role of status in all kinds of human behaviours, motivation becomes easier to read. And understanding status can, of course, help us understand abuses of power.

Ideas to prop up status

Fighting toxic ideologies is all very well, but it misses a vital point.

Warped status can lead to tyranny, yes, but tyranny isn’t about ideology. Ideas are simply the floating bubbles in the seething molten seas of emotion. They are the rationale and sometimes the excuse for power plays. They simply prop up the status of controlling, tyrannical people.

And when status becomes more important than substance, we are in trouble. Seeming to be ‘the expert’ may replace actual expertize or competence.

Status can be derived in all kinds of ways, from victimhood, to having more stuff (which equates to power), to looking better, being smarter, knowing more gossip, or being the most popular.

The point here is none of these characteristics have to be connected to status unless that’s the way these attributes are seen by others or (instinctively) felt by the person.

Some people use their official status to bully and intimidate. They can’t even psychologically handle the uniform of a petty official without becoming tyrannical. Others base their whole sense of self on being some kind of official, a ‘successful’ businessperson, or some other status, and ram it down everyone’s throats at any opportunity.

But there is a universal corrective to overly rigid dominance hierarchies.

Laugh and the whole world gets annoyed

Some people may choose jobs that automatically confer status and authority. And we have to hope they can manage that power. But I think it’s important to be able to relax with a sense of status. To always have to keep our dignity, to always have to seem serious or capable, paradoxically lowers our real power.

There is a kind of transcendence at being able to laugh at ourselves or those of high status. Tyrannies don’t like humour. They may even try to control the content of jokes because it threatens their status as total purveyors of reality. Only certain jokes are okay.

Having humour about status, not having to take ourselves or others too seriously, is a great counterbalance to the loss of perspective status can inflict.

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The need for status (including online popularity, approval, and attention) can stop us living our life from our own perspective. When we go down the rabbit hole of “How does this make me seem?” rather than “What do I think about this?” we have already begun to lose who we really are.

Ultimately, status doesn’t necessarily equate to wisdom, intelligence, judiciousness, or decency. And yet we might have been conditioned to defer to it unquestionably.

Being automatically anti-authoritarian might be a way of trying to raise our own status, but we shouldn’t be automatically pro-authority either. Not blindly so.

In the words of Paulo Coelho, “What other people think of you is none of your business!”

And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:

And if you’ve yet to join us inside Uncommon Practitioners TV, our online visual learning platform, you can click here to be notified when it is open to join.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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