I found myself wondering the other day about the Darwinian roots of self-esteem. Why are we self-aware? And why does our self-image matter so much? My guess is that we developed our neurotic self-focus for our personal entertainment: otherwise Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld would be just a couple of nice Jewish boys looking for work.
A cursory survey of the scientific literature indicates that high self-esteem is adaptive, that it helps those who have it be the ones who spread their genes. If you think well of yourself, you go after the most desirable mate. If you think you’re up to them, you take on the challenges that lead to success.
It’s sort of like nature’s vote for the football captain for prom king. That might be fine if we had not somehow convinced ourselves that the prom is being held not just once a year for a couple of years in high school but every day. Each morning we awake to another day of not being prom king, of perhaps not even having a date for the dance.
I hate my hair. I hate my neck. I’ll never be as good at that as she is. Sometimes the result of all this angst is comic, sometimes tragic. My question is this: is it worth it?
Sure it is, you say. You don’t want humans in the next evolutionary cycle to be a bunch of homely losers, do you? I don’t know. Maybe. Or perhaps better put: why should I be miserable just so the species can advance? Hell, what with global warming and deforestation, we’re not going to have a home for the prom king and queen of the next millennium anyway, so why get all twisted up with self-doubt just for their benefit.
What would we be like if we didn’t worry so much about what others think of us? The first consequence might be that we would quit worrying so much about what we thought of ourselves. Where would that leave us? Would we become unwashed slobs? Would we lose all ambition? Is there a way to stay clean without having to choose from among a hundred humiliating shampoos, none apparently intended for the mousey, thin, frizzy hair we see in the mirror?
I don’t have to tell you about the collateral damage of the self-esteem wars. The drinking, depression, anger, despair. It seems to me that the many are paying a high price for the benefit of the few, the grown-up prom kings and queens. High school is forever, it turns out.
I have a feeling, though, that even the prom kings and queens feel inadequate. There’s always someone prettier or richer or smarter. Looking out into the world and comparing yourself to what you think you are seeing is like looking at a photograph of a poor boy and his mother and thinking you understand what is in his head or hers. You might be right about a small slice of it, but there’s no chance you’ll get most of it.
And you’re not any more likely to be right about what others think of you. Not even people you think you know well. Not even people you think you can trust. Tactical deceit is also adaptive.
Within the bounds of courtesy and propriety, then, perhaps it’s best not to worry about it. Not obsessing about what others think of you is a different thing than not caring about what you think of yourself. How others see us and how we see ourselves may be linked in our evolutionary biology, but one thing our adaptations have given us is an ability to know that and to separate the two things.
We are the only ones who know ourselves: the ornate richness of the grand aspirations we want to share; the blackness of the thoughts we want to hide, the ones we hope are nothing more than nightmares. Amid the daily cacophony of slights, snipes and gripes it is easy to get caught up in the terror of self-doubt. At those moments, a graceful retreat from the field of combat may be in order. A withdrawal to a place quiet enough to hear what the Bard meant when he said: To thine own self be true.