Status anxiety: when striving for success impacts our mental health

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Bored and underpaid at work while colleagues seem to easily move up in their careers, jealous when a friend buys a new car, worried you cannot afford a product everyone around you is raving about… That feeling of being stuck while others around you appear successful is called status anxiety.

Alain de Botton first introduced the term “status anxiety” in 2004. Status anxiety occurs when we compare ourselves to others and fear that we are not meeting society’s standards for success. As a result, we feel trapped in our current economic or social status. This leads to a feeling of shame, which can be detrimental to our mental health.

In the words of Anna Keshabyan and Martin Day from the Department of Psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland: “Status anxiety is believed to be exacerbated by economic inequality and negatively affects well-being.” However, it is possible to turn the noise down and to focus on what you need to feel successful in life.

Money and happiness

Status anxiety is driven in part by our cultural beliefs about wealth and self-fulfillment. In the Western world, we often think that money equals happiness. We also tend to view other people in higher social classes as more confident compared to those with less wealth.

Some people use these beliefs to motivate themselves in a healthy way and to strive for educational and career success without sacrificing other priorities in their lives. But in other cases, we exhaust ourselves physically and emotionally to try to keep up with our peers, yet never seem to get to where we want to be.

Even if we can move up the socioeconomic ladder, it doesn’t mean our status anxiety will go away. As Alain de Botton puts it: “Even Bill Gates will suffer from status anxiety. Why? Because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why we end up feeling we lack things even though we’re so much better off than people ever were in the past.”

A person’s environment can intensify status anxiety. For instance, income inequality and social media both exacerbate status anxiety. Research has found that people who use Facebook experience lower self-esteem when viewing accounts featuring others doing activities to increase their attractiveness or fitness.

​​From shame to status anxiety

At a deeper level, the emotional root of status anxiety is shame. According to researchers from the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, shame occurs when “a core aspect of the self is judged as defective, inferior, or inadequate.”

Shame appears when we fear that our peers will be negatively judged or rejected by others because we are not meeting their definitions of success. It turns out, that’s exactly what is happening with status anxiety. Sociologists Jan Delhey and Georgi Dragolov explain that when we experience status anxiety, we become afraid of losing respect from others in our peer group.

While status anxiety may start with comparing ourselves to other people, the real problems come when we turn what can be a healthy comparison into unhealthy shame and self-judgment. When we internalize our assumptions about other people’s opinions, it negatively impacts how we feel about ourselves.

In their book about wealth and peer pressure, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss link status anxiety to “overconsumption, luxury fever, consumer debt, overwork, waste, and harm to the environment,” which can lead to “psychological disorders, alienation, and distress.”

In other words, while spending too much and putting oneself in debt is destructive in the short term, the shame that lies at the heart of status anxiety also has a long-term impact on our mental health. But there is hope: status anxiety can be managed so we become kinder to our wallets and our minds.

Managing status anxiety

When your status anxiety causes you to spend too much money or obsessively compare yourself with people on social media, you can take some steps to reduce these behaviors.

If you suffer from the overspending type of status anxiety, give yourself time to think before hitting the “place order” button. A little distance can do a lot to change your perspective. When you shop online, add items you want to your cart but leave them there overnight. After a good night’s rest, take a look at your cart and see if you still want the items. Often, you will realize you don’t need the latest tech toy and you will empty the cart.

As we have seen, social media is also linked to status anxiety. It is almost impossible to stay offline in our increasingly connected world, but many apps can help you limit your time using social media on your phone. Also, think critically about the social media accounts you follow. Are they making you feel bad about yourself and your personal success, which could lead to social anxiety? Unfollow the accounts that are harming you, and if you are feeling bold, try removing social media apps from your devices altogether.

In the long term, it is worth reflecting on what success means to you. Forget about how success is defined by your family, your friends, and society at large. Let go of any external expectations. Take a bit of time to think: how do you define success for yourself in different aspects of your life? What are the steps you need to take to get there? Place the focus back on yourself to reduce the noise from other people and their biased expectations.

Remember, status anxiety occurs when we believe we are not meeting society’s standards for success compared to our peers. Shame lies at the heart of status anxiety, as we are afraid of being judged and rejected by our peers. That means people with status anxiety may spend money on things they do not need, put themselves in debt, experience low self-esteem, and show signs of depression. 

Reducing social media use and taking more time to consider purchases can help decrease status anxiety right away, but understanding our own definitions of success is the best long-term remedy to social anxiety. What will you do today to understand what success means to you?