I’ve been re-reading the book How to Make Friends and Influence People (arguably the first self-development book ever written) and getting a lot out of it.
Dale Carnegie’s assertion that all humans are looking for a sense of importance really strikes me.
This is the basic principle of the book, upon which all of his other observations are built, and I absolutely agree– although I tend to get more specific, and say all humans are looking for love, attention, acceptance, approval, respect, and belonging.
We’re saying the same thing though. 😉
Let’s take a look at the relationship the need to feel a sense of importance has on a person’s self-worth.
Our self-worth and self-esteem are often created by things which give us that sense of importance. While self-love comes from inside, it is extremely difficult to cultivate without some feedback from the people around you that you are valuable and valued, especially during formative childhood years.
A feeling of importance is somewhat relational by nature, as you can’t exactly feel it in a vacuum. You might experience a feeling of importance in relationship with another person, group, community, animal, plant, or even things such as a teddy bear or the weather.
The problem I see, especially when it comes to body image, is that the need for a feeling of importance becomes badly distorted.
A person will get a natural feeling of importance from whatever they are noticed, praised, and celebrated for as children and as they grow into adults, and our gender plays a role in how this is expressed.
Boys are taught that the only way to be important is to be tough, strong, stoic, and in a word: masculine. Through positive reinforcement when he is brave and strong, and negative reinforcement when he is insufficiently masculine, a boy will grow up into a man whose feeling of importance is distorted.
We see this effect now in toxic masculinity, through violence, a man’s feeling of entitlement to women’s bodies or sexual attention, and a need to control or oppress others in order to prove his importance.
Girls on the other hand are sent the message that they can only get a feeling of importance by being “pretty” and “good.” (“Good” in this context means they don’t require attention or effort from anyone.)
As girls grow up, we learn that being desirable, specifically to men, and being selfless, are the only acceptable places from which to draw a feeling of importance.
This message is learned over and over through positive reinforcement, like attention, praise, and celebration for how pretty, beautiful, cute, sexy, and “good” (aka quiet, passive, polite, and free of needs) we are.
It’s also learned through negative reinforcement when we are bullied or shamed for our physical flaws, or punished for being “needy,” “crazy,” or “difficult” when we have feelings or needs.
The toxic effect is that the vast majority of women suffer from negative body image, body anxiety, and obsession over food, weight, shape, and perceived flaws, and try desperately to hide anything that might make someone displeased or inconvenienced, including our true personalities, needs, opinions, and full selves.
If we all seek a feeling of importance, this need gets badly distorted more often than not.
Often we end up feeling a sense of competition, a need to prove that we are better than other people. For men this tends to mean violence, oppression, and making people do what they want. For women this tends to mean jealousy, insecurity, and controlling their food intake and body/appearance.
For everyone, it means being disconnected from each other, as the feeling of importance becomes a zero sum game, a competition for a finite amount of “importance”; a feeling that there is never enough to go around, and that someone else getting any means less for you.
We begin to view each other as enemies, thinking that other people are trying to steal what is rightfully ours, be that attention, a social niche, a partner, financial success, or anything else that gives a person a distorted feeling of importance.
So what’s the solution? Is it ok to need a feeling of importance, and if so where should it come from?
I say yes, it’s normal and natural and completely ok– but it doesn’t need to be a competition.
Let’s paint a hypothetical picture.
* Imagine as a child, you grew up in a home where the adults really listened to you, were interested in you, gave you clear and consistent boundaries, opened loving discussions for feedback when your behavior was out of bounds, you were treated with respect and bodily autonomy, and you were taught that the only person whose experience you are responsible for is your own.
* Imagine you were praised for how hard you worked to learn, instead of “being smart.” For how courageous you were to keep trying at something, instead of “being talented.” For how your presence impacted people in specific and positive ways, instead of just “being pretty” or “being good.”
* Now imagine as an adult that you live in a community of people who truly see and respect you, where kindness and belonging is the default.
* Imagine people look you in the eyes, and all strangers assume they will like you when you first meet.
* Imagine people take the time to ask you questions and really listen to your answers, and are willing to open up and be vulnerable in response, that people are transparent and clear when they’re upset with you and need something, and are equally transparent and clear when they are grateful for, inspired by, admiring, or adoring you.
* Imagine you express your authentic self freely, and regularly share your gifts with your community, which are received gratefully whether those gifts are creativity, hard work, humor, vision, empathy, particular skills, or physical strength. Imagine you are called upon when your gifts are needed and people express genuine appreciation, and you know that asking others for support is a gift to them because it makes them feel good to be able to help.
In this hypothetical, each person’s sense of importance wouldn’t need to come from being better than anyone else. It wouldn’t come from competition, or status, or proving or earning your worth.
How much differently do you think you might feel about your body or appearance, if this was the world you lived in? How much less urgency might you feel to be prettier, sexier, thinner, or more perfect?
I don’t have a solution, of course, but I think it’s worth considering that a lot of body image issues really come down to a distorted desire to get a feeling of importance, in a world that tells women that they are not important unless they are desirable to someone else.
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