People Management
12 min read

Managing and dealing with status anxiety

an anxious person
Written by
Paul Arnesen
Published on
April 14, 2023
People Management
Organisational Psychology

What is status anxiety?

How does our perception of status impact how we live, socialise, and work together?

And how do you manage in a world overloaded with an overload of impulses about what people should be and not be?

When managing or working with people understanding their actions and behaviours is crucial to maintain a great working relationship.

An essential part of an employee or manager is that you will, by the definition of your role, have a position among your colleagues.

They will see and judge you based on your role, and you will have a status you did not choose among them.

Reviewing some of my old notes from studying human resources and organisational psychology between 2009 and 2012, I realised I had written a short paper based on a TED talk by British author Alain de Botton from 2009

Today, we live in a world of influencers selling and portraying some dream or status, inflating themselves to be someone unique.

Many seemingly are very successful for reasons that need to be clarified.

It creates envy and impacts people's outlook on their standing in the world.

And this chase for a position in society or among friends is causing more and more anxiety among us all.

I wrote this in 2010 when I was still in my twenties.

For context, Instagram came out that year, and I made my first Instagram post two years later.

How different was it back then, when we did not have the same social media apps today?

The learning experience you can take from watching the video and reading my thoughts is that when working with people, especially managing them, you must be aware of the signals you and others in your organisation are sending and be cautious about how you perceive others.

Also, understand that in our ordinary day, we have all these social pressures influencing us, which has a spillover effect on work.

More than ever, you will work with people with severe status anxiety.

If left unattended, it will impact your retention and bottom line.

Below the video follows my paper from 2010.

by Paul Arnesen, May 2010.

How do we define status?

What determines my own or someone else's position, among others?

For example, being in a relationship or working in the army says something about me.

Still, it only says something about my profession or whether I am available on the dating market.

Am I in a position to claim a special societal status?

Explaining status this way differs from how we think about status in this context.

Wealth often brings status.

If you have great wealth in your family, you will belong to a specific group.

Historically, priests and hunters, fighters and knights and people from different social spheres, such as many old family names, still hold status.

To have status is something we want to have because it seems appealing.

The list is long; what defines us depends on money, cars, big houses, gardeners, having a maid, having children, not having children, you get the point.

A person with status is perceived to have many things others do not have.

They seem more fortunate than others and are often a source of envy for many.

Status anxiety is our quest for belonging; it is everything we do to try to conform to the norms of society.

Every day we get influences around us telling us how to behave, dress, speak, etc.

All the newspapers, tabloids and commercials shape how we view society and try to adapt to it.

Status anxiety is personal because we feel we cannot obtain the status society tells us we should have.

We must reach this status to maintain our respect and self-worth.

Or so we tell ourselves.

Our life situation leads us to this anxiety.

We fear being made redundant or the world economy crashing, so fewer jobs are available, and friends are achieving more in life than we do.

It is our envy over others' fortune and the fear of our misfortune.

It is our way of saying nice things to people, praising them because of their achievements but not meaning it.

Nevertheless, something is happening inside of us.

We care how others see us so much that it controls our way of living.

We strive to become something that society gives us the impression we should become.

People regard us in different ways.

They might consider us highly, see us as someone good or have low regard for us, and completely ignore us.

According to de Botton, this shows up in society through love, or how much time they are willing to spend on us.

How much love people show us is based on envy, and the relationship is more potent when there are similarities between you and the other person.

If you are very similar and the other person has had great success, you are easier envious and can experience low self-esteem.

You will have higher self-esteem if you have the most success.

As de Botton mentions in his speech, there is a real connection between low self-esteem and what society tells us.

He gives an example of how there are two types of self-help books.

The books that tell you you can do it are the books we consider to talk about high self-esteem, and the books that talk about low self-esteem, how to get better, why you are down and so on.

These books reinforce the message given to us by newspapers and media in general and will make you feel bad about yourself.

That is the type of anxiety we get. We are worried about our careers, life in general, and social status.

There is a force in society to top value high achievers, and some people are fortunate throughout their lives and careers to reach a higher status.

Meritocracy means that if you have what it takes, you should be able to get to the top.

But, unfortunately, the quest for the top of the pile causes anxiety to skyrocket and become a big problem.

Meritocracy creates a divided society.

On one side, you have the people with success; on the other, the people with less success, or as de Botton says it, the losers.

This is the danger of meritocracy.

As long as you accept a society where people who have what it takes can succeed, you also acknowledge that some will not succeed.

This isn't good for self-esteem.

This chase for recognition is especially visible in the developed world, with one indication being their high suicide rates compared to what is the case in developing countries.

Society tells us how to be, what we should be, and how to live.

If we do not manage to achieve this, we are losers.

In developed societies, many people have achieved great success, so sadly, this pressure from their community creates so much anxiety that people can't stand being around anymore.

People don't want to acknowledge their failures and be a loser, leading them not to want to live this life anymore.

We are so afraid of how others judge us that we lose track of what is essential.

We are all judgemental, and although an utterly meritocratic society is impossible, some people will always be unfortunate in some sense.

We strive to feel love from others.

Some think this love comes from owning a lot of stuff, but as de Botton tells us, a person with a fancy car may not be very happy; that person might be searching for love or appreciation.

The person wants us to envy them, so they inflate themselves with a nice car, but most likely, they are just as envious of your life.

We judge people before we even know them.

We try to figure out their status with the information we observe, and this is due to our status anxiety; this makes us very judgemental.

However, by doing so, we will never know the actual value of that person, their inner strengths or what they can do for us.

This is the danger society creates for us, the search for a certain status.

Alain de Botton makes a point of calling this a form of snobbery and how this snobbery is morally our justification to inflate our ego.

When people ask you the typical first question in a social gathering about what you do, they instantly rate you according to their social scale.

Are you valuable to them?

How much time and effort should they use on you?

According to de Botton, whose social upbringing is from the UK, this is not a British phenomenon, or snobbery, but something we see in all social settings, even within your family.

The exception in many families comes from the mother.

Your mother is someone who does not care how much you earn, your position at the job or even where you work or live.

Instead, she usually wants you to be happy with what you got.

A mother's love does not need to be proven.

People are always too quick to judge.

And sadly, your position matters.

Who you are can give you something others cannot get.

It can get you somewhere because other people want to have what you got.

A person regarded as well off or successful has something you like.

It might just be a little thing, but they have it to such an extent that it bothers you and gives you status anxiety.

This snobbery is Media's fault.

The media has created a fake world where natural values do not exist.

Advertising and marketing tell us how we should be and behave.

TV series and talk shows tell us what is wrong with us and how an ideal life is or is not.

We are not in control of our own opinions because the power of the media is so strong.

Unfortunately, it is always around us, so it is almost impossible not to be dragged into it.

I value people; I like to make people feel good around me.

My choice regarding what I want to work with, HR and people is evident; at least, that is my choice.

But society often makes it hard to make everyone feel good.

People have strong opinions on what makes them happy. I wouldn't say I like talking about people, such as what someone has done, not done or should have done.

Many people I know closely spend much time thinking about and comparing themselves to others.

This is very common, and I am sure you have a similar experience.

My friends are unaware of that, but it is easy to observe.

People like to talk about people because they must show they would never do as them.

They need to feel like they are above others in some sense.

And forget about the positive feedback; primarily, negative gossip is the theme during such discussions.

Of course, People are free to do whatever they like.

I don't need to engage.

So, spending time talking about people is irrelevant.

Instead, I want to discuss the bigger picture, which brings me more value.

Understanding that I still have been affected by media in some sense, it is hard to see how it has affected my values.

If anything, it made me view media as a rotten industry I want to avoid.

I'm not particularly eager to watch TV; I like to read books.

My friends watch Dr Phil, Opera and reality shows; I watch Life (an animal documentary from BBC) or anything else relevant if I ever watch TV.

I never read the entertainment pages in the newspaper. I stick to the actual news.

So as de Botton says, the media affects how we live.

I do not want to be another reality star; I want to be relevant.

It may have been the media that has forced my thoughts on this, but regardless, it is a more positive outlook on what I would like to become.

All this says something about how I judge others.

Just discussing this, it is evident that I am also judgemental.

I have a small group of really close friends.

I also hang out with other people, people I don't consider to be friends, but I don't particularly appreciate it when they come to me with their problems if I do not know them.

Their problem is something that I consider highly irrelevant to me.

It takes me a long time to get to know someone.

But when I know them, I like to help them with their problems.

I usually will judge people for the context of what they are saying or have done and not on how they are or what they own.

When I was younger, I valued material goods more.

I had a new car and a lovely apartment and often bought new clothes.

I was afraid not to fit in.

I wanted to be like the others or even better.

I was very judgemental about what people had on and what kind of jobs they had.

Although I had a job and earned a decent salary, it never felt unique enough.

I wanted others to view my job as something special.

I often talked in big words about my job and how cool it was to work there.

The truth was that I was not too fond of the job itself; I liked the brand I worked for.

I worked for one of the world's biggest companies with massive marketing budgets.

Working for them was almost like being in a religious sect.

Their annual gatherings were big, spectacular and noisy, and they told us repeatedly that this was the world's best brand and we were fortunate to work for them.

Nothing else was as good as them.

I almost needed to go out and tell the world how fantastic the product was.

All this indoctrination inflated my self-esteem.

I loved the brand and talked about it all the time.

I had what it took to make this company grow, and they told me so.

The truth was very different.

I was not happy in my job.

My friends also told me that my job was not as great as I wanted it to believe.

They got an education and got better jobs than me.

I began to compare my life to those around me.

At that time, I had a large circle of close friends.

I was more outgoing, and my friends often "ruled" the town.

This was our lifestyle. People liked us, and we had a high status.

This artificial self-image was not me.

I was not comfortable.

I tried very hard to fit in.

Finally, I had to make a choice.

I was sick of having this status anxiety.

That is when I decided to study.

Not because I wanted to obtain a better status than my friends and others but because I wanted to help people.

I have always been very curious about the people I work with and how human resources functioned in all the companies I worked for.

One thing I observed was a meritocracy.

I always felt the people on the top looked down on us casual workers.

It was snobbery.

In one job, I was in a team of six.

The six of us did the same job and had a good relationship.

The team manager had a bad relationship with us, us on the "floor", but seemingly an excellent relationship with other managers in the organisation.

The managers all drove a fancier cars, wore different clothes and had more flexibility in their work.

The workplace gave room for this snobbery and positioning.

Their status was bloated.

HR could have done something to improve the situation.

This episode is one of the reasons why I am in the field of HR.

One of the first tests you must overcome to succeed in HR or even as a managed/leader is to recruit people without judgment on the wrong parts of a candidate's actions, experiences or background.

For example, can you not make a preconceived judgement on a person by their name, gender or race?

What works for me is to get into a conversation and let the content of the conversation lead my judgement.

I hope to get to know them better and understand their value.

However, it is hard not to judge when you recruit.

I once worked with a manager who only declined a CV based on visual judgments.

This particular manager just saw the front page of an application, usually just their name, put a big red cross on it, and wrote no!

Not interested in getting to know the person at all.

Just a tiny detail was enough to judge someone as an unsuitable candidate.

Sadly this is very common.

What it all boils down to is that we have a lot of envy and often put an inflated value on ourselves.

But at the same time, we are afraid of being judged, but we still forget that we always put others in boxes.

Am I aware of my status?

I would like to know if I have any or want any.

I know I have some status anxiety, as most of us do.

We all want to become something, and we tell ourselves that we can succeed in what we do.

Having an optimistic outlook on life is essential.

Yes, I judge people but understand that I do it. Do you? It is impossible not to.

The pressure from the media and everything around is extreme.

I am unsure about the implications of this in the future, but without too much judgement, we can live a happier, more fulfilling life together.

Thoughts from 2023

Reading what I wrote these days, I realised that even back then, in 2010, we had the social pressures from media to be or become something and someone.

Today with Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and all other social apps, dating apps and influencers, this is heading to the moon and beyond.

Working with people today, especially the generation born and raised in a world of social media, has its unique challenges.

Awareness of these issues is essential if you want to be successful in your business and hire, manage, and ultimately retain your human capital.

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Status Anxiety
Organisational Psychology
Media Influence
Human Resources
Human Capital Strategist
Paul Arnesen
Human Capital Strategist
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