I have been digesting the two big news stories of the past week: the college admissions scandal and the mosque shootings in New Zealand. They are both horrifying in different ways and to differing degrees. At the heart of these situations are equity, access, and value. The world will only improve when everyone has a seat at the table, so we must learn how to increase diverse voices and representation.
We are living in a time where those who represent the historical “norm” are grappling with what it means to make space for other ways of being. “Grappling” is part of the process of change, which requires us to get uncomfortable in order to adapt. But when there is resistance—beyond all reason and sanity—to welcome broader representation, and when hatred and fear push out loving kindness and efforts toward justice, everyone pays the price.
We are all social beings who depend on each other for connection, cooperation, and competition. Status anxiety, predicated on the position we feel we occupy on the ladder of success, functions because our self-identity depends on the approval of others. It can feel like we need a mark of approval from the world to tolerate ourselves.
Because status is hard to achieve and to maintain, we are anxious because our position on the ladder may fall—at times through no fault of our own—and we fear the ensuing humiliation. As Alain de Botton puts it, status anxiety is “a corroding awareness that we have been unable to convince the world of our value and are henceforth condemned to consider the successful with bitterness and ourselves with shame.”
Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability and courage, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we have experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Unlike guilt, which focuses on one’s actions and can motivate us to change our behaviors in the name of growth, shame focuses on one’s self and can feel fixed and unmoving.
Feeling unworthy of love is a primal and dangerous condition, and worrying that we are not good enough can lead to damaging behavior. Love and belonging are at the heart of status anxiety, and as many of us can attest, love can inspire behavior outside the boundaries of logic and reason. As de Botton reminds us, “There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are lifted by the attentions of others and sunk by their disregard.” Others’ love for us can dictate our confidence, but it is a fragile covenant because it requires we no longer “trust or abide by our own characters.”
The college scandal is an extension of the dramatic lengths some people can and will go through to ensure impressive college placements (i.e., “success”) for their children. Because these measures are so blatant and extreme, it is easy for society to see them as prime examples of what happens when power, prestige, and fear rule parenting. However, this type of flawed decision-making does not always manifest in such an extreme manner; indeed, it is easy and it is human for all of us as parents to instinctively want our kids to have it as good or better than we did.
But, we should be very wary of what price our children might pay for our “investment” in flawed definitions of success. When children are driven to achieve primarily—or only—to confirm their worth, they are much more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression because they are not seen or appreciated for who they truly are. The short-term satisfaction of the bumper sticker should be weighed against the long-term ramifications of a child’s inability to fulfill her authentic potential.
Parenting’s primary goal is to guide our children to become self-sufficient adults, not—as some would have it—to ensure the “best” for them. De Botton argues, “To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern: our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are ministered to. And under such care, we flourish.”
In times when we must wrestle with the tough questions and feelings that follow events such as those of the past week, I look at our school and feel so grateful for the thoughtful guidance, purposeful direction, and positive encouragement our students receive. If status anxiety is about feeling alone, unloved, and unworthy, the education Turning Point provides and the community we build provides antidotes to these deep worries.
At Turning Point, we have intentionally designed a school that helps alleviate anxiety, makes students and families feel significant and motivates our students to take action toward goals, desires, and needs. We know that real success follows when we are happy and positive. And we know the real value of education lies not for the status it affords us, but for the skills, dispositions, habits of mind, and values we acquire.
At the same time, we also recognize that anxiety in its various manifestations can, and will, tug at us as caregivers during multiple times in our children’s lives. We support each other through these ups and downs and provide a place where we, as parents and educators, can work together to channel our very natural feelings into positive action, rather than fear-based reaction.
All of us at Turning Point are here – as parents, as educators, and as students – because we value education. Being “educated” means seeing connections that allow us to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. It means, ideally, having the skills to carry out an assessment of our strengths and to decide on our worth and value, and the equanimity to accept our countless contradictions and mysteries. Rather than allowing others to validate our significance, we need to endure our discomfort and not settle for simple and incomplete truths about ourselves and about who has value in the world. A great education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community, which is to say that it celebrates love.
In the end, de Botton tells us, the desire for status can be useful if we can channel it so that it is “spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence… and cementing members around a common value system.” Doing this work is not easy; it asks every one of us to be brutally honest with ourselves, explore our vulnerabilities and shame, and dive deeply into the discomfort of the fears we harbor both for ourselves and our children.
But the work is worth it. By cracking open doors and shining a light into the deep corners, we illuminate the myriad feelings we may experience around status and success, along with the various fears that fuel our status anxiety. Only then do we begin to discover and define what we truly value. When we understand and accept what holds us back from genuine happiness, this awareness can open the door wider, allowing us to better love our flawed, messy, beautiful selves and our complicated, deeply cherished children.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School