Feeling Anxious About ‘You’? Why Modern Identity Can Be Crushing

Have you ever felt others were better than you? That they were more accomplished, better looking? Did this ever pressure you to be a better ‘you’?

By: Akos Balogh

Have you ever felt others were better than you? That they were more accomplished, better looking? Did this ever pressure you to be a better ‘you’?

If so, you’re not alone. Feeling pressure to upgrade ‘you’ is normal in our modern world.

In this world, your life – and your identity – is totally your responsibility. If you achieve that successful career, go on that dream holiday, or partner up with that gorgeous person, then you’ve made it.

You’ve free to brag. You’ve got that Instaworthy life that keeps the ‘Likes’ and the positive comments flooding in.

Back in the bad old days, however, you just had to live with whatever cards life dealt you. There was almost no chance of such an upgrade.

If you were born into humble circumstances, living the life of a servant or a shoemaker, that’s where you stayed. It was enough to remain a servant or a shoemaker. No one expected any different. There was no pressure to change or upgrade your identity.

But becoming a better ‘you’ is the expectation of our modern world. And while there are benefits (e.g. you don’t have to stay poor all your life), there are also unexpected consequences:

1) In the Modern World, Success and Failure Is Now The Individual’s Responsibility

This is a new pressure, unknown to our ancestors.
Commenting on this cultural change, author Tim Keller writes:

“In former times, when our self-regard was more rooted in social roles, there was much less value placed on competitive achievement. Rising from rags to riches was nice but rare and optional. It was quite enough to be a good father or mother, son or daughter, and to be conscientious and diligent in all your work and duties.”

He continues:

“Today, as Alain de Botton has written, we believe in the meritocracy, that anyone who is of humble means is so only because of a lack of ambition and savvy. It is an embarrassment now to be merely faithful and not successful. This is a new weight on the soul, put there by modernity. Success or failure is now seen as the individual’s responsibility alone.” [1]

All this produces a pressure and anxiety beyond what our ancestors knew.

And so, status anxiety is the new norm. In our modern Instaworthy world, your worth as a person depends on the number of ‘Likes’ you get.

2) Although We Think We’re Self-Made, We Need More Validation From Others Than Ever Before

Whereas as our ancestors drew their identity from their place in society, we moderns are liberated from that dependency. We can be our own people. We don’t care what others think.

Except we do.

If we’re to feel good about ourselves, we crave other people’s validation. We need it, if we’re to feel worthy.

This individualistic ‘you do you’ view of reality leaves us more dependant than ever on outside validation and more vulnerable to manipulation – including by marketers. Therefore we’re far more dependant on consumer goods such as fashion and electronics to feel good about ourselves. [2]

We’re not going to feel good about ourselves unless we (and our families) are seen by others to be ‘with it’.

And so, we need the latest fashion gear: Best and Less won’t cut it.

Apple instead of Oppo, thanks.

And heaven forbid your husband’s wardrobe is from Lowes.

But this way of thinking doesn’t lead to a stable identity:

3) Modern Identity Is More Fragile Than Ever Before

If our identity is based on our performance – and requires other (important) people to validate it – then what happens when we fail? When happens if we lose that dream job?

What happens when our athletic prowess is no longer what it once was?

Or our catalogue kids go off the rails?

What happens when age creeps in, and the wrinkles start appearing?

Our self-worth is fragile, in a way older identities were not.

While we claim to have a new freedom from social norms, we now look not to our family for our validation but to our chosen areas of achievement, where we need the acceptance and applause of others who are already within those circles.

You have got to be brilliant, beautiful, hip, accomplished. And those important people have to think so. It’s all up to you, in a way that, in traditional cultures, it just wasn’t the case. [3]

American novelist Benjamin Nugent writes about this fragility, which he felt as a full-time novelist:

“When good writing was my only goal in life, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane.” [4]

If our identity is based on our performance, then it’s only as secure as our ability to perform.

And so many people look not to their achievements, but to important relationships – especially romantic relationships – to secure their identity.

But this too is folly:

4) If Our Identity is in a Relationship, What Happens When the Relationship gets Strained?

It puts enormous pressure on the relationship.
Making a relationship the basis of your identity might sound plausible (after all, that’s what popular culture expects us to do), but it’s a recipe for relational failure.

As Keller writes:

“[I]f you do wrap your identity in a relationship, you won’t be able to give them criticism because their anger will devastate you. Nor will you be able to bear their personal sorrows or difficulties. If they have a problem and start to get self-absorbed and are not giving you the affirmation you want, you won’t be able to take it. It will become a destructive relationship.” [5]

Again, this is crushing for our identity.

We Need an Identity that Doesn’t Crush Us
The modern secular world doesn’t give us any firm place to rest our identity.

Whether possessions, achievement, or relationships, all these foundations are sinking sand. They might look good on the outside, but they’re fragile. They’re insecure. Yes, they might hold for a while (perhaps a long while). But in the long run, they’ll fail us.

What we need is a Secure Place or Person in which we can rest our Identity.

A Person Who will never fail us.

A Person in Whom we can rest, without fear, or anxiety.

 

[1] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God – An Invitation to the Skeptical (London, Hodder & Staughton, 2016), 128-129.

[2] Keller, 129.

[3] Keller, 129.

[4] Quoted in Keller, 130.

[5] Keller, 131.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

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