I’m not sure if you’re aware of what has been happening with Gaby Douglass this past week following an extraordinary Olympic performance. She won the women’s all around gold, becoming the first African American woman ever to do so, and was the driving force behind the American woman’s gymnastic teams' first team gold since 1996, second team gold all time. Yet, despite these great achievements there were people who focused on how bad her hair looked? Apparently some people are not able to celebrate or even imagine someone else’s success because somehow this presents a threat to their ego. Why would that be?
To me this boils down to self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden argues that self-esteem is a human psychological need and that when this need remains unmet pathology (defensiveness, anxiety, depression, difficulty in relationships, etc.) tends to result. I would add negativity, especially chronic negativity, and a general pessimism toward other people and life as a whole to this mix when the need for self-esteem is not met.
So let me posit a simple rule of thumb here: people who are experiencing high self esteem don’t tread on anybody’s good time. People experiencing low self esteem, even ones who are successful themselves, always have a comment to undercut somebody else’s success.
This is not isolated to only jerks or people who are mentally ill. Self-esteem is a human need that is being met at some points in our lives, while at other points it is not. We have all experienced low self-esteem, maybe feeling angry or taking pleasure in someone else’s demise. Isn’t that the basis for Reality TV’s universal success? Why do shows that highlight people’s dysfunction and failure grab such wide viewership? To me this is an example of how media sustains us by feeding our egos when our need for self-esteem is not being met under our own power by consoling us that we are not alone in our misery.
As the saying goes, “Misery loves company,” and is typically used when referring to depression. In my experience this experience is not limited to depression, but is relevant to anybody who has low self-esteem that effects a negative outlook on life, regardless of whether they have depression or not. So if a person’s need for self-esteem is not met when that person sees sees someone else succeed, or someone else happy they may become envious or angry their life is not where they want it to be, resentful that someone else’s is. Instead of feeling happy for the success of others they impose their self reproach, turning it inside out, and projecting it onto the other person to try bring them down to their level.
It is not a coincidence that the words Misery and Commiserate share the same root. What is it about wanting other people to share in our misery and negativity when we are feeling it? My guess is that it is an instinct to seek out a social means of uplifting us out of that negative mood toward a more positive prosocial state of mind. Unfortunately, beyond this more normal mechanism people can get stuck in negativity, even addicted to it. It is a quick way for a person to rationalize the crappy place their life is stuck in, rationalize their inaction, and create an excuse for continuing not to take action to better themselves. The thought may go something like this: “See! That person did something great, but they are still (insert negative adjective) just like me, so what does it matter if I do something great or not. It doesn’t change anything.”
Even if this holds true, the difference really boils down to spending your life doing nothing, or creating your own meaning out of the non-meaning of life and doing something with it.
I say do something because you never know what may come of it. One day Gabby Douglas decided to try gymnastics and look what came of that! What if Gaby had given in to the negativity of systemic racism and believed that because she was black she really had no business being in gymnastics, since hey, no African American had ever won the gold medal in this predominately white sport? Instead she went for it and became a huge success and an inspiration for not only African American women, but an inspiration across multiple generations of all Americans, if not world wide. And though people have speculated this negativity about Gaby’s hair affected her emotionally, leading her to fall on the balance beam, she is making something positive of the whole criticism about her hair. She went and hired the best hairstylist money can buy. I say Way to Grow Gaby! Don’t let the criticism cut you down, use it to build you up!
Branden, Nathaniel (1969). The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Nash Publishing Corporation. pp. 1–2.