3 ways status gets us stuck

| May 5, 2014
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Stuck moment: New car — check. Personal trainer — check. Impressive job title — check. I am so on track for the good life. But where’s the joy? At the end of the day I just feel…unsatisfied.

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Status, like so many human inventions, has a stuck side.

In its purest sense, status is a coping mechanism, a way for us to make sense of our world by assigning value to all sorts of things. It’s not a moral compass exactly, but it does give loose guidelines about what’s considered important and not-so in our culture.

Status also greases our economic wheels. The flip-phones we were so jazzed about six years ago are now embarrassing artifacts that have us lining up to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest smartphone.

We crave status, whether it’s bought (penthouse apartment) or not (accomplished children) because, as Alain de Botton strongly posits in his book Status Anxiety, it is proof that the world loves us. He writes: “Money, fame, and influence may be valued more as tokens of — and means to — love rather than ends in themselves.”

That hurts a little. Are we so shallow that we expect people will love us because of our trinkets and bank accounts? Okay, we probably do — at least initially. These status symbols serve as a calling card, establishing our relationship to the world at large.

It’s when we go deeper, building a person-to-person connection, that obvious status can be replaced with earned status, such as generosity, imagination, empathy, humor, kindness.

But back to the obvious stuff. The point is not to instigate an uprising against the status system; plenty of artists, politicians, and others have and continue to, as documented in de Botton’s book. We’re worried about how we, as individuals, can get so caught up in status that we lose ourselves. It’s not an unfamiliar theme. All you have to do is go to the movies.

IMITATION OF LIFE
It took less than 15 minutes for us to come up with 10 films where status turns out to be the bad guy. Actually, three bad guys.

1. Status can override our goals. In the first Sex and the City movie, Carrie wants to get married. But she gets caught up in the hoopla (photo in Vogue, designer dress, ceremony in the NYC public library) instead of her fiancé. Result: She’s jilted at the altar and honeymoons with her friends. Another example is Alice, in which Mia Farrow plays a rich, unhappy housewife who forgot that helping people is what makes her happiest.

These two tales present status as the distractor, the siren who convinces us to turn away from our purpose in pursuit of glory, comfort, and ease.

2. Status can crush our empathy. Jasmine French has lost all her money, but that doesn’t stop her from looking down on her middle-class sister who takes her in from the cold in Blue Jasmine. Result: Her pretenses insult and alienate people throughout the film, leaving her alone on a park bench at the end. Similarly, the need to act or feel superior destroys relationships for the mother in American Beauty, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Miranda Priestly/Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada.

Status is the culprit who cuts the ties that bind. Film tends to exaggerate for effect, but the connection between increasing power and diminishing empathy (the foundation of good relationships) does exist, according to a recent scientific study.

3. Status can blur our boundaries. In a case of mistaken identity, lavatory attendant Tom Ripley, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, catapults into high society, loving it so much he kills to stay there. Result: He finds himself morphing into someone he no longer recognizes. Others who crossed the line to achieve or hold onto their status are Bud Fox in Wall Street, Michael Corleone in Godfather Part II, and just about everybody in The Great Gatsby.

Status is the drug and personal vanity is the dealer. All of these stories beg the question: What price, status? Is pride or position worth more than life itself? 

STATUS WARNING SIGNS
Real life, off the big screen, is far subtler. Without lingering stares and foreboding music to tip us off, it can be hard to notice if our healthy ambition is starting to derail. Maybe our gut instinct sends us a twinge or a good friend drops a hint. Or, maybe we’re starting to understand why Scarlett O’Hara stole her sister’s beau to pay the taxes on Tara in Gone with the Wind.

Here are six signs that status might be getting the better of you.

• Facebook is less about wishing friends happy birthday or more about posting photos of the five-star dinner you’re attending.

• You have a lot of secrets to keep track of.

• If people ask why your $500 [fill-in-the-blank] is important, you get defensive or dismiss them for just not getting it.

• Your social circle seems to have shrunk all of a sudden.  

• You find yourself telling little white lies about yourself to impress people. 

• You start avoiding old friends because they aren’t important or cool enough. 

If any of these warning signs ring true, it may be time to step back and take a serious status check. After all, if Bud Fox could walk away from the prestige, so can you. But you want to start before you wake up wondering where it all went wrong.

Next week: How I met the right one — 10 true stories 
Last week: 6 ways organizing can transform your life

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