It may appear rather trivial – the thought that we ought to live for ourselves, by ourselves, and, at the very least, without the constant obsession in pleasing others. Indeed, “Be yourself”, “You’re your own best judge” are adages that are routinely and ritualistically blasted on self-help sites and books – the gist is clear, we shouldn’t depend upon others’ validation and endorsement in order to accrue self-worth. You, and you yourself alone, judge yourself best.
But reality is less straightforward than that. Through means – both insidious and benign, covert and explicit – society primes us to depend upon others’ approval and disapproval in adjudicating our own achievements. Indeed, Rousseau coined a phrase for it – amour propre, which he contrasts against the ostensibly more primordial and cherubic amour de soi. We’re stuck on the treadmill of constantly seeking to please others, and, in doing so, we forget ourselves.
Such priming is ubiquitous, and it’s easy, even proclivous, for us to fall for the traps here. After all, the encouraging slogans you read – e.g. “Try harder.”, “Show them what you’ve got.”, “Let the world see the better side of you” – are innocuous and ubiquitous. The underlying ethos, however, is by no means purely affirming – the affirmation, where it exists, is constructed upon needing to satisfy and placate the invisible others; the imaginary others who watch on, who cheer from the sidelines as you are hounded, or hound others, on social media feuds.
Fame, status, publicity – these are all addictive goods for many. Indeed, the adrenaline rush from a mass influx of likes. Or the rousing applause one gets through Zoom meetings that are never held. Or the thoughtful “Thank you” and “Brilliant!” that one receives from strangers – reputable ones, at that. These are all sources of strength that seemingly sustain oneself. Yet when they disappear, when they dissipate – that’s when the reality hits: you are nothing, and the crowd’s moved on.
Such thinking is unhealthy – it reflects an undue fixation with popular appeal, which is in turn rooted in a quasi-majoritarian presumption that the more folks one pleases, the more one pleases, the better one is. Beware of such dangerous thoughts – call them out, engage them, and, above all, don’t normalize or internalize them. Question, critique, and stay skeptical. For through skepticism, you become a stronger, healthier, and more resilient agent.