We evolved to have a fragile self-worth

Imagine you are a member of a tribe. How would you feel if, after days of unsuccessful hunting, you entered the camp with empty arms? Can you picture the group turning their eyes to you in hope, and see their look of hope turn to disappointment, and then to despair, when they find you have let them down?

In hard times, the pressure to pull one’s weight (to contribute) and be appreciated (valued) for that contribution would be enormous. When the tribe turns its eyes to you it means there are expectations of you; expectations you may not be able to meet.

I suspect that as we evolved over countless generations, those fears became innate. I think it’s no wonder many of us fear public speaking. The sight of the tribe’s eyes upon us stirs up primitive fears, primitive responsibilities. Our fear of letting the others down, of being a burden, of being rejected, is almost palpable.

In some Papua New Guinean tribal societies a devastating punishment is to be ostracised. The person is ignored and made to feel invisible. In just a few hours that person can be reduced to a gibbering mess.

‘You are not my sister.’

Ostracism is also a cruel bullying tactic. In England there is a term for it: schoolchildren can bring a child to racking sobs by shunning them, by ‘sending them to Coventry’. Employees refusing to strike are also ‘sent to Coventry’.

If we evolved to fear the tribe’s rejection then it is no wonder much of our behaviour is designed to avoid rejection, and to make ourselves feel wanted, and valued. And, it’s why most of us fear becoming a burden.

If we didn’t care about what people thought of us we would become selfish and uncooperative. Quickly we would be rejected. That would be harsh in today’s society, but millennia ago it might have meant rejection and death.

If I am right, all this means we evolved to feel insecure about what other people think of us. We evolved to have a fragile sense of self-worth. Not a low self-worth, but a fragile one. That ongoing insecurity can manifest as:
– our need for status,
– our inclination to avoid confronting people or earning their displeasure,
– our need to conform (or at least, not stand out),
– our vulnerability to criticism and to ostracism,
– our propensity to ignore twenty compliments yet deeply absorb one insult,
– becoming a workaholic,
– succumbing to peer pressure.

Our insecurity prompts us to do what is necessary to be accepted by others. And, in our efforts to be accepted, our skills and workload improve. The tribe benefits.

I am saying that evolution ‘wants’ us to have a nagging, never ending insecurity because that keeps us striving to contribute on an ongoing basis. That prompts us to instinctively find ways to feel valued: by being good workers, good spouses, valuable teammates . . . and provided people express appreciation for our contribution, we can feel valued. Many people become good and productive people because of their efforts to keep feeling valued.

When we succeed in feeling valued on a sustained level our anxiety diminishes and we feel connected, and help satisfy our deep need to belong. But it’s not easy to feel valued on a sustained level. If it were easy we would have less motivation to keep contributing to the tribe, and that’s not good for us and it’s not good for the tribe. Evolution ‘wants’ us to keep feeling insecure. Yet, we have to be able to ameliorate that insecurity and succeed in feeling valued, otherwise there would be no incentive to strive and be rewarded. It’s a balance, and most of us are on that ‘tightrope’ every day.

But some people do manage to remain in touch with their self-worth, and become self-nurturing. Their self-worth is still fragile, but not so fragile that they feel the need to entertain, or to impress, or to please, or to become dependent on another person’s love. So, how do they manage to retain their sense of self-worth?

See you in the next chapter!

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