In the current economic climate, with millions of people losing their homes and jobs, many of us are experiencing a -plummeting sense of self-worth. And while a diminished sense of self might seem like just another failing asset at a time when we’re -desperately hoping to catch a break, it’s actually an important part of Mother Nature’s plan.
To appreciate this, we need to remember the first rule of existence: It takes energy. Because we require energy every moment of every day, our intelligence system is designed to record our energetic losses and gains, as well as the pertinent details of these transactions, for future reference. Our internal representation of our self is a neural composite of the common elements in these records — the “you” factor in the equation, so to speak. And intrinsic to this self-representation is an estimation of our social prowess: our self-esteem. Self-esteem reflects our gains and losses in the social world and serves as an indicator of where we might best position ourselves in order to effectively negotiate with others. Regardless of our profession, the primary commodity we are trading is our self.
As social beings, alliances are a vitally important energetic resource, and we are all de facto traders in a biological market. Our dealings begin in the womb, where our nascent neurohormonal system strives to acquire as much energy as our mother’s system willingly offers — and then some (a situation, which at the extreme, results in gestational diabetes). As infants we negotiate for our mother’s milk and comforting embraces with smiles and antics, tears and tantrums. As children we compete and cooperate with our siblings for our parents’ time and resources, and as adults we engage in a lifetime of negotiations with potential employers, colleagues, friends, and mates. In fact, our style of negotiation defines our personality, the collection of characteristic behaviors we employ in our dealings with others.
Our value to a potential cooperator is a variable that rises and falls. Sometimes our value in the market of life changes due to a change in ourselves — a dip due to an illness or injury, or a bump up following the attainment of a credential or an award. But at other times, our valuation changes in response to market fluctuations, which is what so many people are experiencing now.
It’s easy enough to see the benefit of a “self-estimator” that prompts us to pitch our selves at the appropriate level in our dealings with others. Certainly, any one of our ancestors who had acted like the chief but hadn’t earned the privilege would have incurred the wrath of his or her tribe, and hubris remains equally unattractive in contemporary society. Likewise, selling one’s self short has never been a sound long-term strategy. So, all in all, our experience-based self-esteem system continues to serve us well, as long as the market is stable and not too complex. But that’s not the world we’re living in today.
With the current collapse in the financial, housing, and employment markets, many of those who are experiencing devaluation didn’t earn it; they’re every bit as competent as they were before the floor fell out from under them. If there is no option other than to accept a reduced station in life — say, by taking a lower-level position than one’s experience dictates — that’s a viable and reasonable short-term strategy. But it doesn’t require that we need to own a diminished sense of self-esteem. We can simply recognize it as a psychological nudge in a direction to which we might want to move, if only temporarily.
Alternatively, we can take a step back and see that the human biological market is now an incredibly complex and multidimensional space. Skills and talents that have lost their value in one sector of the market may be highly valued in another. And the greater the fluctuation in the market, the greater the number of new opportunities that rise to the surface. Regardless of the tack one chooses to take in these turbulent times, it’s important to realize that we are multidimensional. We have multiple representations of self within us, and each one is reflective of a unique facet of our value.
Beyond these agents that direct our interactions with the world, we have a higher-order self — an emergent representation that can observe these changes without wavering, a self that knows it is integral to the energetic fabric of the whole of humanity — and beyond.
Peggy La Cerra, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience and co-author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness and the New Science of the Self.