The Role of False Hierarchies in Self-Esteem


Leandro Castelluccio

Self-esteem refers to the reward associated with what one can do that is complex, moving away from what others can do or what one can do in the present moment and that favors one’s life in some sense.

(On the self-esteem, as I have conceptualized it in my work “Propositions” – see in the Publications menu)

There is great confusion about the contribution that certain hierarchies and status notions in general give to self-esteem and often by extension to happiness. We have all often heard the notion of the sacrificed person, in the sense of the one who gets up to work early and comes back late, the one who spends hours studying for a career, or when it is generally spoken of the successful and hardworking person.

I argue that we must put these terms in their respective context, because within these notions there is often a concept of false hierarchies that express superiority in some sense, so it is considered for example that one is less if it is not a sacrificed person, while the other is the worthy or the virtuous. But that is a false sense of superiority, and is by no means a real contributor to individual self-esteem or happiness. Is one a better person for producing material goods for example? The key is to understand the characteristics of self-esteem, as I defined it in my book “Propositions” (see the Publications menu).

As I have just exemplified, material possessions are not the only thing people use to establish such false self-esteem hierarchies, things that are considered noble and respectable, such as “sacrifice”, at work or in study, also fall under this dynamic. It seems that one is always trying to establish hierarchies, at work, where one’s job comes into play, or also about what one studies, or the time spent studying or working, also things like how popular one is, one’s physical beauty, what one knows against what another supposedly does not know, and so with many other things. How often do people tease and criticize each other because it is said that what they study is inferior or for lazy and incapable minds? Or when people make use of their position in their work as if it were an argument of why they are right, because they use their supposed superiority to have that position.

People also seem more and more focused on the style that one should adopt at a higher level of the hierarchy, and this is reflected in the way of walking, in certain attitudes, expressions of the face and body, language, etc. The result is what I would call “caricatures” of real people, who fall into the problem of moving away from who they really are, to give a performance to others. The classic example of this I would say that it is that of the gentleman, at least in many cases, not necessarily all, where kindness, manners and individual style is something that denotes status, or has a connotation of associated superiority, somewhat hidden, where it goes beyond the promotion of certain values.

Many times we find that a person says that his or her profession is more significant because in it there is creation while others only repeat or replicate what others have discovered, he or she is creative compared to others who only apply things they have learned. I would say that one thing is not more “meaningful” than the other. This expression often means that one thing is better than another, the “meaningful” comes to replace the “best” or the “superior”. This is another way of establishing false hierarchies to feel better about oneself, but the feeling is empty, has no sustenance and such hierarchy generates more problems and dissatisfactions than well-being. Self-esteem as I define it is a highly personal-subjective phenomenon that does not primarily fall into a hierarchy, that is the difference between this and believing that what one does makes one better, or that what one does is more significant in general terms. But the truth is that creating, being an inventor, producer of goods or technology, is no more superior to other activity such as teaching, being a doctor, a farmer, etc.

Self-esteem or happiness conceived as a hierarchy, as something primarily interpersonal, does not lead to much happiness, more if we analyze its roots, which are weak. Self-esteem the way I have conceptualized it has an element of hierarchies, but this is in the background in the sense that it is an element that builds self-esteem but is not its base or is the primordial thing, self-esteem thus conforms different planes, but does not refers to feeling better because what one does is superior. The hierarchy of which I speak is necessary to determine in what to cultivate ability, what complex things on can do that move away from what others can, but the main thing here is to cultivate skill, where in essence we would find the notion of the ability or capacity to deal with existence, which can imply different positive things in one’s life, all this is integrated, so to speak, by the sense of reward and well-being in the long run.

Thus, the important thing is to cultivate skill for the satisfaction that this implies since one can deal with life itself, and this has associated different positive things, so that self-esteem is something personal, not interpersonal. The hierarchy of ability is a constructive element, you have to know in what to cultivate ability, but this is not the end in itself, so it is not about feeling better than others or doing something for their supposed superiority. So the self-esteem as I define it is to cultivate skill for the reward it generates in itself, for various reasons, such as the notion of being able to deal with existence, but this is independent of the place one maintains or gets to have in the hierarchy, it is independent of the status or even the ultimate result of what one generates (I will clarify this below). Neither being a creative genius nor an entrepreneur, producer of technology or goods and services, make one a better person. Contribution to society is also not a faithful measure of self-esteem, insofar as self-esteem is based on the place in the hierarchy, because this inexorably places us on a scale of contribution to society, which entails its problems for the true self-esteem. And so, today it is seen as a trend to be a technological innovator, the next Steve Jobs for example, and is given much emphasis to technological production as a sign of status, so if one contributes in that sense one is better, or one’s work is more significant, but this does not escape the problem I pose: to consider self-esteem as something hierarchical in a primordial way, where the notion of superiority comes into play in relation to others.

What are the problems of doing something because of one’s supposed superiority or hierarchy? For basically three reasons. On the one hand, if one bases one’s happiness or self-esteem on the hierarchy, it is very unlikely that one is at the highest point of it, if it is in the realm of creation for example, only the greatest creative geniuses of history occupy that position, it is unlikely that one gets to occupy that place, so there will always be someone better on the scale and that generates dissatisfaction, there will always be a better, more creative person with greater capabilities, and below in turn, will be all individuals of lesser ability, where inevitably a feeling of contempt or devaluation will generate, which is not a satisfactory way of treating people: one will go with feelings of superiority treating others as inferiors, but in turn, one is never superior at all, seeing those who are above one.

Secondly, we do not consider global structures in the human being, what do I mean by this? Given certain conditions in particular contexts, what one creates or produces in the absence of one’s doing, another person will most likely end up doing it, that is, that someone else would inevitably have created or done what one did, if one had not done so in the first place, others would have discovered the same or generated the same inventions. This would decrease one’s place in the hierarchy, one may have done so, but inevitably another would have done it likewise.

And thirdly, what one does or creates is not in the majority of the cases permanently or totally certain, eventually someone will discover that one’s theory is not correct or at most is incomplete or imprecise, or one’s inventions will be replaced by better ones or will literally stop being used. One can say to himself that he at least contributed to the advancement of certain things but in general terms the importance or the place in the hierarchy that one occupies diminishes, since if one person discovers, for example, that one’s theory is incorrect one would fall on that scale, and there would be dissatisfaction, and reality shows that much of the knowledge we generate is changed by a more accurate one, it did not turn out to be true or at least totally true.

Faced with these factors we also have the envy towards the successful as another element, which generates frustration, doubts and personal intolerance. One can fall into a quest for success to eliminate that envy, but that is nothing more than putting more wood to the same problematic fire: hierarchies. The ways that one seeks to achieve that can be negative for one, but even if they were not, the problem remains, because that supposed success that one wants to achieve and no longer have envy and to say that one also has triumphed, while being something hierarchical and interpersonal, will not really contribute to self-esteem, but to a false self-esteem that does not bring well-being in the long run.

In this context, we must take into account that thinking something true does not make us better, which goes hand in hand with having a skeptical attitude towards knowledge or ideas. Why do I say this? Because in discussions and debates, individually, much more is played than the truth of something, and sometimes that does not seem to matter so much, but what it comes into play is the feeling of superiority or self-esteem of oneself, that is associated to one being right, if one’s position is correct or one’s perspective or ideology morally superior to the other. As reasoning goes hand in hand with hierarchy and that with superiority and self-esteem, the skeptic capacity or attitude decreases, which leads to a deterioration of the process of searching for the truth, because one does not see things in a fresh way to put it one way and not try to learn and consider other points of view, but one closes oneself, the evidence against one’s position is dismissed, the opponent attacked as a person, and so on. And all this has the effect of frustration and discomfort when what we consider true and we have defended to the point of fatigue shows signs of contradicting reality. So it is important to understand that debates and discussions today go beyond the truth, we play with much more than that, we play with hierarchies, with a false sense of self-esteem, feelings of power, personal pseudo-welfare, etc., that is why the attitudes, the opinions of the people, the aggressiveness that is observed in the discussions, in different media, because personal issues come into play, that speak of establishing hierarchies, demonstrating one’s power, etc. Perhaps this helps us understand the level of aggressiveness and dispute that exists on various issues in social networks and in the public sphere in general, there are sets of hierarchies and constant reaffirmation of a supposed superiority of one over another, people argue on certain subjects to show that one knows more or is better than another to determine what is true, this is what lies behind, not truth in itself, even among people who seem to have broad cultural knowledge.

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