Photo by Aiman Zenn on Unsplash
In Western society, a great deal of concern goes into our appearance. The inescapable advertisements that bombard our senses (supposedly up to 5000 a day) are filled with the kinds of celebrities that marketers have decided we want to be like. They’re promoting the idea that if we buy a cologne, we could be as chiseled and perfect as Mr. Depp. The skincare product that costs a day’s salary will almost certainly make you as desirable as the flawless Cheryl Cole.
It’s absurd, of course. The fragrant liquids that we slather onto our faces will not remove the additional chin that we’ve spent years acquiring. We’re being sold an unattainable reality, completely removed from the truth, and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Standards of beauty are set by those who want to sell us something, not by people who have our mental health in mind. They’re giving us what we want, and not what we need.
How do we prevent this from affecting our self-esteem, when it’s so ubiquitous? The answer may lie in a 2000-year old philosophy called Stoicism.
The Stoics believed that you shouldn’t worry about anything outside of your control. This includes how people feel about the way you look. While it’s important to fit in (you can’t go around dressed like a chicken and not expect some roadblocks), it’s utterly meaningless to try to impress, because you can’t control people’s reactions to you. If somebody is rude enough to point out that your nose looks like a pickle that has been rejected by the local supermarket, it isn’t the insult that has caused hurt, it’s your judgment of it. Such a comment is merely the words of an idiot to a Stoic, because they have decided to place value only in what they can control: their reaction. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare
Being able to suspend your judgment in such situations seems superhuman. Even Marcus Aurelius, once Emperor of Rome, and one of the most famous Stoics, struggled every day to adhere to his own philosophy. His Meditations is an insightful and compelling personal diary about his life as a Stoic, and the difficulties he faced.
The idea seems based on solid ground though, despite its demanding nature. Consider how many of your behaviours are influenced by wanting to impress others, and what your life could be like if it were no longer a factor? You could look and act however you wanted (to a certain degree), provided it wasn’t causing others harm. You’d have a more peaceful, less anxious mind. There’d be a great deal more honesty about you. The people who you choose to spend time with would value you for the person that you want to be, not who society thoughtlessly applauds.
The sentiment is echoed by countless others. Michel de Montaigne, a refreshingly forthright French Renaissance philosopher, encourages us to be more like the animals: totally comfortable and ignorant of ourselves, and how we appear to others. Further East, Confucius believed that:
“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.” – Confucius
So the next time you find yourself engaged in something that is purely to impress, take a moment to realise your mistake, and remember to let go of that which you can’t control.
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