Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.
• Oscar Wilde
What is your self-worth security blanket? When you are a little low and need to reassure yourself, what is it that you do? Here are some of the common ones:
The Mirror Glance
You head to the bathroom to rinse off your hands. You look in the mirror. Maybe you even make a face your ego finds attractive. Maybe it is a certain body part or a flattering angle. This may seem harmless, but what happens when the Judge no longer likes what he or she sees?
The Bank Balance Check
Women in New York have a saying, ‘Men’s erections go up and down with the stock market’. For men in particular, a great deal of social worth is placed on one’s material wealth. It doesn’t matter if it is how many yams in your hut, how many horses in your herd, how many inches of rim on your tires, or how many dollars in your bank account. Money has been woven with one’s value.
So if you find yourself checking your account balance, or counting your chips at the table, be cognizant that wealth might be woven into your identity. And anything outside of ourselves woven into our identity is setting us up for unhappiness.
The Social Media Refresh
Psychologist Charles Cooley coined the term “Looking Glass Self” in 1902. The principle stated that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. Cooley had no way to predict the behemoth of social media, but if he is right and there is a tendency to form a view of ourselves based on the perception of others, it is no wonder that social media is as seductive as it is.
What used to be intuitive and ephemeral now has hard numbers. How many likes, shares, follows etc is instant validation of other’s perception of you, and therefore your perception of yourself. Refreshing social media posts repeatedly is like a mouse hitting the dopamine button, but the problem is that eventually the juice runs out.
As benign as they may seem, these are indications that you aren’t walking freely in true self satisfaction. Any part of your self love that is conditional will ultimately fail, due to what I like to call the law of conditional tolerance. The law of conditional tolerance states that self validation or pleasure based on an external condition deteriorates exponentially, and therefore to return to the same level of satisfaction one must increase the conditions themselves exponentially.
For example: Let’s assume that going from $100,000 to one million dollars in the bank account over the course of a year improves conditional validation/pleasure from 1 to 10 on a subjective scale. Immediately upon achieving that mark, or as soon as the pace of increase declines, the pleasure starts to deteriorate. In a year or so, the self satisfaction on that million earned will be back down from 10 to your baseline of 1, even though some related aspects of having more money might still be enjoyed.
In order to return to a conditional validation level of 10, you will need to go NOT from $1mm not to $2mm, but $1mm to $10mm. The ratio is exponential. Ultimately this isn’t sustainable, which is why conditional satisfaction always fails.
This is one of the reasons why wealthy people are often unhappy. If they have attached their self worth to their bank accounts, they will forever be chasing an uncatchable rabbit. The same goes for social media. A hundred likes on an image may work for a while, until you are used to that, and then you need 1000. Beauty is even more challenging as it is something that is absolutely impossible to improve indefinitely.
This is largely what Buddhists are describing when they say that attachment to things is the root of all suffering. A lot of people interpret this to mean that one should disavow themselves of the material world. But then you don’t get to enjoy the pleasures at all!
I prefer to take the Toltec approach, in understanding that the enjoyment of things is a warrior’s ‘controlled folly’. The controlled folly is simply bringing in another level of awareness that helps put things in perspective. All of these things (wealth, beauty, status) are folly. They are castles built of sand at low tide. But we can enjoy sand castles as long as we don’t mistake them for rock.
So what is the rock upon which one builds a foundation of self love, self satisfaction, and happiness? For every person that may be different. But in general it is the infallible aspect of yourself that is true in all cases at the very core of your being.
It took 33 years of searching and a lot of ayahuasca for me to find my rock. It may take some time to find yours. It is a blend of your own hard won spiritual beliefs, and an understanding of your unique self. But once you have found it, and you build your self-love and worth upon it, you are free to play in the sand all you like.
What is most important to your identity is infallible. Standing on the rock, through your own controlled folly, you are free to experience unlimited enjoyment of this world.