“I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”
~ Emily Dickinson
I first gained interest in Emily Dickinson after reading the above poem. It resonated with me, laden with truth, somebody as well knew my secret, that we were nobodies. She openly admits her outsider status seeming happy with it, she even see’s how ‘dreary‘ it would be to be a somebody.
I knew then that I was not alone in my discovery. But in knowing so, I risked the possibility of becoming a ‘somebody’ and be ‘banished‘ from my nobodiness, as she alludes to at the end of the first stanza after meeting another nobody.
The Source of Self Esteem
For as long as I can remember, I could clearly see two large forces move within me when it came to motivating me to act in life. My ego or my pride. They are sometimes mistakenly used synonymously, but from a young age I liked redefining words in order to have some sort of way to express myself more concretely. My understanding of these words is:
Pride /prīd/: Finding self-worth and respect in yourself based on your achievements and your self-growth in comparison to your former self.
Ego /ēgō/: Finding self-worth and respect in yourself based on the opinion, respect and comparisons others make of you.
I believe this is the general understanding that – at least intuitively – we all have of these words.
Ego and Self Esteem
“We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.” ~ Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Our minds are so accustomed to gaining self-esteem from others that we find this perfectly normal. Even though this is normal, it isn’t necessarily healthy. Gaining our self esteem from others becomes an addiction, we constantly need doses of ego-boost to feel special. Look through the following examples, and try to see whether you can relate to any. Many of these are unhealthy and ingrained habits we tend to have:
- Checking our email ten times a day. This becomes a habit in order to know that we exist as ‘somebodies’ in the eyes of others. Also, many of us compulsively scan our Facebook pages in hope that someone may have Liked one of our photos, our latest relationship status or some witty comment we left somewhere. Twitter as well is the result of an egocentric culture. It revolves around the notion that we’re so special in the eyes of others that even ‘going to take a pee‘ is worthy of praise and sharing to anyone who will read.
- Youtube, Reddit or any other community-type websites with open comment systems are similarly addictive. They’re addictive to those seeking an ego-boost dose from arguing. Just look up any religious or anti-religious Youtube video and read the same repetitive cycles of arguments that go back and forth between people. The end result is that these people feel the tingly goodness of being right and being ‘somebodies‘ by proving how wrong someone else is.
- Conversations are the perfect opportunities to become a ‘somebody‘. The topic of cars, for instance, might bring up the chance to feel that ego-boost by mentioning how marvelous your car is. Or you may mention the quantity of girls you’ve been involved with, or an expensive and fancy trip you’re planning in Asia. We feel elated when we encounter someone who’s unaware of a piece of information we posses – some kind of celebrity gossip, some piece of worldly news or historic trivia – we become the knowers, the informers, the bearers of light to their darkness. None of this has any real value except that scrap of gratification you receive in the act, of not just being an ordinary ‘nobody‘ but a ‘somebody‘ that has tasted the finer things in life.
- Sports: the eternal dichotomy. People identify themselves and their ego’s with a team they’ve either inherited by birth from their family or country, or picked based on their environment and what others liked. Each supporter cheers for their team because with that teams outcome also rides as a bet an ego-boost dosage (to be part of the ‘somebodies‘ who won). However, in this case there’s also the chance to have some dosage of self-worth removed from your system in the event of a loss in the match. In the best case scenario, 50% of the stadium will leave in mirth and joy at the cost of the other 50%’s suffering and dejection.
These are just some of the subtle ways we try to find our self esteem and self worth through our ‘somebodies‘ ego. And it starts forming very early on in our life. You must have seen young children shouting “look mum!Look at me!” trying to gain their parents attention when their parents are preoccupied talking to someone or doing something else.
So consider this…Who exactly are you in this life? Your name? Prestige? Religion? Country? Respectability? Money? Power? Scholarship? This whole accumulation becomes your identity, your ‘somebody’, and it gives you a false sense of being. This is the ego. All these things are ephemeral, they are relative, one day the crowd finds value in what you have to offer, and the next day they’ll get sick of you. If you find your self worth from being intelligent, funny or pretty what happens if you’re put into a room with the funniest, prettiest or most intelligent people in the world? your ego identity is completely shattered. Just look at many child film stars or music boy bands. Is it very wise to find your own self worth from something that is so relative and fluctuates so much?
If you are a ‘nobody‘ you don’t know who you are and it’s frightening – for this you have to have a lot of courage. Ego’s allow you to become a ‘somebody‘. When you become a nobody the question of “If I dont know who I am, then what am I doing here?” is replied with “whatever I’m doing here becomes meaningless“. The reaction then is to find out who you are by identifying yourself with as much as possible. You make yourself as known to others and as special as possible, because if others know who you are, then you’ll feel that you know who you are as well. This is basically what egotism is. Ever wondered why there are wars, business monopolies, social corruption, human abuse and exploitation? A ‘nobody‘ out there is trying to become a ‘somebody‘.
There’s a parable of Napoleon which I don’t know whether true or not. Napoleon was having trouble reaching for his hat someone had put on top of a shelf. One of his guards offered his assistance: “Let me help you Sir since I’m bigger than you”, Napoleon smiling answered “My young boy, you may be taller than me but you’ll never be bigger“.
Egotism is a business deal, a transaction. You exchange your freedom to be yourself to gain others respect.
Pride and Self Love
Ego is a by-product of others opinions. These opinions are given to you – but something that is dependent on others can also be taken away from you. Pride is a totally different phenomenon. It doesn’t require others validation, you become enough unto yourself, you have the unique individual dignity you were born with – your pride comes from inside your world. Pride has nothing to do with competing like ego does. Ego’s force you to compete over outside things in the world that others value, e.g. who has the most money. You can’t compete with Pride however – that would be like comparing who’s the best at being Matthew M___? or Arthur Smith? There’s only one person, one individual unreliant on others. The only thing you can do is compete with yourself, taking pride, and feeling dignity and respect with how much you’ve grown spiritually, physically, emotionally or mentally from your past former self.
Many people including religious collectives condemn self love as if it were the same as egotism. Their reasoning seems to make sense on the surface: “If you love yourself you will become an egotist, a narcissist“. This is not true however. A person who loves themselves wants to become the best they can be, they want to explore themselves and in doing so they find out how harmful gaining their self worth from their ego can be. If you truly love yourself you want to take care of yourself. It’s only self-hating people that harm themselves physically or mentally.
The parable of Narcissus says that he had fallen in love with his reflection after looking into a pool of water. A person who loves themselves does not fall in love with their reflection – this is an egotist, or one who finds their self worth in how other people see them. In Narcissus’ case, he fell in love with others reflection and opinion of him – this was the metaphor of the parable. A person who loves themselves simply loves themselves. No mirrors, opinions or reflections are needed; they know themselves from within. So the question is: do you need a mirror, or other people, to prove that you exist? If there were no mirrors or people in this world, would you become suspicious of your existence and how much you’re worth as a person?
When Emily Dickinson refers to being “banished“, she is saying that we are all ‘nobodies‘ when we internally evolve and find our self worth from our pride. “Don’t tell! / They’d banish us, you know“. When she meets another ‘nobody‘, she falls into the risk of becoming a ‘somebody‘ because now this other nobody can ‘tell’ others about her, forming an opinion of her, feeding her ego. In meeting the other nobody, she will be ‘banished’ from her nobody land and join the rest of the worlds somebodies.
In the second stanza she goes on to say “How dreary to be somebody!” In being a nobody she doesn’t have to pretend to care for ego-boosting conversations, the putting on of social masks, or pretending to be who she isn’t, to gain others temporary respect and admiration. Being a nobody is very freeing. “How public, like a frog / To tell your name the livelong day / To an admiring bog!” It’s an excellent simile to compare our constant need for attention to that of this amphibian. If you’ve ever been to a bog, you’ll hear frogs croaking without any respite. The only admiration they get for all that work is from the bog; a soft wet ground that when you venture to walk on, you get covered in dirty mud.
Many of you will only take away from this article that sensation of having finished reading something entirely – perhaps even having some new piece of information to carry around, to become a somebody at some opportunity you get. A few of you might even apply it and make it more than just a dime-bag dose of ego-boost. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.