Use Your Feelings As A Benchmark
“No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne, and he was right. Unless you want to go off-grid completely and disappear into the woods, never to be seen again like Christopher Knight, you are connected to other people, and there's nothing you can do about it. Indeed, if the six degrees of separation theory is correct, one way or another you’re connected to every living person on earth.
These complex networks aren’t just about relationships, though. They’re about a thousand different things, and one of those things is status. It’s about posting pictures of our new car on Facebook. Tweeting updates from our holiday in the Maldives. Pouting selfies on our night out in our new clothes in that fancy bar or club. It’s about saying, “this is me, and this is how I roll”.
Our status, and the way we secure it in the fabric of our network, can easily form a part of our identity. It can say, I’m better than you, I have more than you, my job is more important than yours. It can say I'm like them. I'm amazing. I have a life that implies I'm significant.
But it can also say something else. What about those status updates that describe a life of bad luck, misfortune and failure? What about those mysterious tweets that describe a life of drama and unhappiness. What about those times when you’re worried about someone because they haven’t posted at all? What about that friend who never comes out because they don't have any money? What about that person who locks themselves away because they can't face other people?
When we use status in this way – as part of our identity – we are putting a stake in the ground and saying, “this is my place.” But not just that, we’re saying this is my place in relation to the people around me. I am a success. I am a failure. I am unhappy. I am kind. I am wealthy. I am politically literate. I am adored. I am lonely. I am cleverer than you.
The problem with affirming our identity as its position in a hierarchy in this way, is that we are happy as long as the hierarchy doesn’t change. We are happy as long as we remain above some people, equal to others, or constantly aspiring to be like others. But what happens to others when we wish to change our position in the hierarchy? And what happens us when others wish to change theirs?
Ever been unhappy about some aspect of your life and decided to do something about it, only to find that you’re met with negative feedback from the people you would normally expect to support you? Maybe you decided you were going to change your lifestyle and lose a tonne of weight, only to find your friends rolling their eyes and saying, “yeah right”.
They’ll tell you that they’re being that way because they know how hard it is to lose weight, and they don’t want you to have to face the disappointment of going to all that hard work only to fail. They’ll say that you may lose all the weight, but most people put it straight back on again afterwards. They say that they're doing it to protect you. Because they're your friend.
And you know what? They’re right. You’ll never lose the weight. You’ll never feel good about yourself, so why bother?
What about that time you said you were going to run a marathon, and everyone rolled their eyes, told you not to set yourself up for disappointment like that, so you didn’t bother. What about that time you said you were going back to college to get that qualification, and everyone rolled their eyes, and told you how embarrassed you’d feel if you failed.
But what they're really saying is that they like you where you are. Your position in the network affirms their position in the network. If you get better, improve, or succeed, what does that say about them? Better, then, that you stay where you are.
But how many people rolled their eyes when Neil Armstrong announced he was going to be an astronaut? I should think quite a few. How many people rolled their eyes when Al Pacino announced he was going to be an actor? How many people rolled their eyes when Barack Obama said he was going to be the first black President of the United States?
How many times have you rolled your eyes when someone has announced their grand plans, rather than encouraging or supporting them?
The problem is, when identities are attached to our status, and we decide to change our position in the hierarchy it can affect the sense of identity of other people. It’s not uncommon for people who lose a lot of weight and regain their self-esteem to also lose friends in the process. It’s not uncommon for people who plan something bigger than they’ve ever done before – like running a marathon, or planning to become an astronaut – to be undermined by those around them before they’ve even begun. Not because they can’t achieve those things, but because if they were to succeed it would impact the status of those who measure themselves by where they are in the hierarchy. They’re comfortable when you continue to wallow in misery, but when you start changing, improving, bettering yourself, suddenly they feel exposed and their status is under threat. And we are just the same. We are happy when our friends stay put, in their rightful places, because it means we don't have to do anything. We can stay right where we are, no need to change, improve, or challenge our own status quo.
Gore Vidal famously stated that “every time a friend of mine succeeds, something inside me dies”, and when we measure our place in life by using others as a benchmark we are destined to experience a thousand such deaths.
But when we let go of status – or at least try to – when we stop measuring ourselves against others, against the clothes we wear, our material possessions, our money in the bank, the size of our house, the instagrammability of our holiday, then something inside us springs to life instead. How about we use the way we feel as a benchmark for our identity? How about we use the beauty of the world around us, the joy in the small things, and the mission of constant improvement as ways to gauge how well we’re doing? Or who we are? Or where we’re at?
Do this and we suddenly find ourselves able to support our friends in their missions, too, rather than rolling our eyes at them. Do this and we can genuinely celebrate and share their victory when they succeed. Do this and we can pick them up when they fail, and encourage them to try again. We can learn from them, engage in their life missions, and together we can grow better and learn from each other, and both our lives becomes enriched
If I do this, and you do this, and one-by-one everybody in our complex network starts to do this, then we begin to build a network that values dreams and achievements, values ambition and effort, and doesn’t judge people on what they have, but celebrates them for their potential.
And one-by-one we all start to find joy in the world around us because we’re no longer blinded by the things that make us look good, but instead focus on the things that make us feel good. Love, contentment, kindness, joy, and our connection to the beauty of the universe and our place in it.