I know I’ve circled around these themes a lot recently, and I don’t want to be repetitive. But I’ve really been fixated on these constructs of self-esteem and personal validation that have taken up so much cultural attention lately, particularly among the youth. I suspect that they have the exact opposite effect of what’s intended: I think they make people less confident and less happy. As so often in modern life the demand to feel good makes people feel bad.
The first and most obvious point is that nobody knows what it means to be “valid.” It’s entirely unclear to me what the boundaries are for this notion of validity, which is not true for more durable concepts like happiness. To be “valid” means whatever people find convenient at the time, making the condition a moving target. And if we recognize “happiness” as the simplest expression of the emotional state humans desire, there’s an essential way in which being happy is very different from being valid: happiness can come from within, at least theoretically, but being valid always implies some sort of exterior criteria. Indeed, the demand that we all acknowledge that Black/trans/disabled/etc. lives are valid quietly accepts that validity can only come from communal decree, not from the individual. But there’s a big long philosophical corpus in human culture warning people that investing your wellbeing in transitory things you can’t control is a mistake. Of all the toxic and disheartening elements of the internet era, the worst is the way that our concept of human value is so often seen as purely crowdsourced, I think. It’s resulted in an internet where a huge portion of the activity ultimately amounts to people begging strangers to approve of them.
I’m particularly concerned because of a certain broken syllogism I observe out there. Much of the conversation on being valid stems from the perception that people from minority identities have their validity systematically undermined in our culture. I think that’s rather far down the list of problems that the social justice movement should concern itself with, but sure, I don’t doubt that people of color or women or whoever else are made to feel less valid. Problem is, this kind of talk seems to imply that white straight cis dudes are walking around feeling valid all the time. And they’re just… not. People from the dominant majority don’t float along on a cloud, self-assured and comfortable. They’re anxious and self-hating and skittish and sad, just like you. Because that’s life, man. There are no doubt many benefits that accrue to white dudes like me, and no question that we should work to spread those benefits to everyone. But social justice ideology has created this expectation that one of the things enjoyed by the overclass is feeling good about yourself all the time, and this is a terrible expectation to create in people from other groups. Nobody gets to feel permanently valid.
I don’t mean to be a bummer here. But it’s important to point out that we’re born in terror, we exist for no reason, we experience confusion and shame as children, we busily prepare ourselves for lives we don’t want or can’t have, we are forced to take on the burdens of adult responsibility, we compromise relentlessly on what life we’ll pursue, we settle and settle and settle, we fear death and ponder our meaninglessness, we experience the horrors of aging, and when we die the only comfort we have is that we aren’t conscious to learn that there was never any heaven or God to give it all meaning. This is the inevitable reality of human life and it can never change. That condition has a way of spilling out into our quotidian day-to-day concerns of being desirable or important.
The laurels our culture covets most are fame and money, right? Well, have you noticed how many rich and famous people overdose on drugs or commit suicide or otherwise wreck their lives? Even being a rock star can’t turn off the part of your mind that hates you and wants you to feel bad. And things change. I mean I’m sure Madonna lives a life of almost impossible comfort, but at one point she was the most famous celebrity on the planet, a megastar of a wattage people just don’t achieve anymore, a titan of music and a successful actress and known by public acclamation to be one of the sexiest and most desirable women alive. But now you periodically hear about how she’s had even more plastic surgery and looks unrecognizable and refuses to dress her age, the mark of someone who is not truly happy with herself. I think it suggests that even someone so immensely successful and famous has a cruel part of her brain she can’t turn off. You will never have the external validation that Madonna received, obviously, so if you’re waiting for events in your life to provide you with the fuel you need to love yourself, you’re going to be disappointed.
I’m not saying life is constant pain. It’s not. (Life is certainly better than the alternative.) If you’re lucky enough to live in the developed world and aren’t in grinding poverty or facing serious disability or abuse, you’re living better than 99.9% of human beings in history. And there’s times of comfort and of fun and of passion and happiness. But I suspect it’s genuinely easier to become rich and famous than it is to learn to love yourself. Besides, most of adult life is boring and disappointing. I have the only job I’ve ever wanted and I have some really cool projects cooking outside of this newsletter, and I find myself somehow in the top 5% of American earners, and I’m with someone I love completely. But I don’t walk around feeling like a cool empowered valid self-actualized #boss because that’s not how humans work and isn’t real. The people who you see around you that make you think they feel that way are faking it.
Look, I’ll probably be made fun of for saying this, but I’ve never felt intellectually inferior in my life. I don’t know what that would be like. I’ve met many people in my life who were smarter than I am, certainly. I’ve been frustrated when I couldn’t understand something. I’ve asked stupid questions and given very wrong answers. But none of that has ever eroded my sense that I’m an intelligent person who has a lot to contribute to the world. Based on my experiences, you’d think this was a kind of superpower; so many people seem not to feel this confidence, appear to feel stupid or slow or talentless, and also seem to think that these feelings are the source of their unhappiness. In grad school my peers were often obsessive about declaring their imposter syndrome, they were competitive about it, always wanted to insist that they were the ones who felt the very least deserving to be there. (It was performative and very annoying!) So you might imagine that my unconscious and effortless and intrinsic sense that I’m smart enough for whatever comes would make me feel valid and worthwhile, right? No, dumbass! I just have different reasons to hate myself. That’s life my dudes.
I don’t doubt that there’s some small handful of people who just feel good about themselves all the time. But that shit’s genetic, or if you believe like so many in our culture do that our personalities are the product of things that happen to us while very young (a belief with almost no evidentiary basis), then they got lucky when they were like two years old. You can’t just achieve that. As the poet said, the world belongs to those born without the curse of self-knowledge. If you haven’t been one of those very rare people up until now, you’re not just going to become one. Do some people have a higher natural setpoint of self-forgiveness than others? Sure. That’s life. It’s not fair.
If you’re planning to come out as gay, or transition, or convert to Catholicism, or announce yourself as autistic and proud, or anything like that, I’m happy for you and want you to live life as your most authentic self. But authenticity isn’t going to change your emotional relationship with yourself. Wherever you go, you’ll be there, and none of those things will fill the hole in you. We say “when I get that job, I’ll be happy, when I get the girl, when I get the apartment, when I get that promotion, when I move to the big city….” But while those events can certainly make us happier on the margins, they can’t change fundamental elements of our psychology. Give up on loving yourself. Give up feeling valid. Scratch out the most comfortable and interesting life you can. Try to be kind to people around you. Have integrity and tell the truth. That’s all there is, and it’s more than enough. Life is good, good enough. But it's our nature to have unquiet minds.