I am vain. There, I said it. Let’s get that out of the way from the off. I take care of my physical appearance, and whilst I’d take pride telling you I care less than I used to, I am more concerned about how my hair looks, how my clothes fit, and what my body looks like, than I’d feel comfortable admitting. I’m sure I’m not alone; one look on Instagram is a digital window to a society with an unhealthy obsession with vanity.
Yet there’s a reason this article asks how much vanity is healthy, not if vanity itself is healthy. Like all human traits, vanity exists on a spectrum. In Understanding Human Nature (1927), Alfred Adler, considered one of the most influential pioneers of modern psychology, noted that “it is probable that every human being is vain to some degree,” but “exaggerated beyond a degree vanity becomes exceedingly dangerous.”
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Adler notes that because vanity is looked down upon, many people hide their displays of vanity, making it appear in a multitude of unlikely ways. “There is a type of modesty, by way of example, which is essentially vain,” he writes. “One man may be so vain as never to consider the judgment of others; another seeks greedily after public approbation and uses it to his own advantage.”
So, yes, I am vain. Thanks for the tip Alder: hiding that is an act of self-deceit and false modesty. Equally, seeing all vanity as negative or unhealthy overlooks the benefits of healthy levels of esteem, or pride. This article will hold a mirror to vanity, explore its healthiest expression, and cover ways to detect these traits within.
The Different Types of Vanity
In psychology, vanity is connected to social comparison theory and how people compare their lives to others. Upward vanity is a sense of ‘ranking’ above others, whilst downward vanity is a sense of ‘ranking’ below. This is a losing game. Anyone who judges their value or appearance in relation to others is always going to find someone better looking, more successful, or living a more aesthetical #NoFilter lifestyle. It’s impossible not to look up if you spend time looking down.
The rise of social media makes this problem more complex and nuanced. Every day, billions of posts are shared online, the majority of them with high degrees of vanity. We become obsessed with likes, followers, and subscribers, all of which boost the ego. AI can encourage vanity, too. In a disturbing and-yet-unsurprising example, a study by Algorithm Watch found that the Instagram algorithm favors images of people half-naked, encouraging users to show flesh to increase reach.
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Social media is known for amplifying vanity in a multitude of ways. Psychologists have identified two definitions — physical vanity and achievement vanity — to describe the phenomenon. I’m sure all of us can see how these two forms transfer to social media, from images of unnaturally sculpted or Photoshopped bodily perfection to filtered and highly selective photos showing unrealistic portrayals of various lifestyles.
In addition to the definitions above, psychologists identify four standard components of vanity:
- concern for physical appearance
- a positive or inflated view of physical appearance
- concern for achievement
- a positive or inflated view of achievement.
Vanity arises from an obsessive and excessive view in these areas, often combined with an inflated, or egotistic, view. The stereotype of someone whose vanity is off-putting or offensive fits these criteria. But, as we’ve explored, a concern for physical appearance or achievement can also lead to upward vanity, and feelings of insecurity.
Is Vanity the Same as Pride?
When I started to take my spiritual practice seriously, it led me to contemplate my relationship with vanity. I’ve always focused on my appearance, oscillating between high and low esteem. Some days I’d feel great, others not so great. Often my sense of worth or value could be changed by something as superficial as not enjoying my latest haircut. I’d outsourced my worth to my appearance, which is dangerous territory. After all, we all age, and our appearance changes.
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I made the decision to stop caring. Caring about my appearance isn’t balanced or spiritual; therefore, I no longer care. At the same time, one of the foundational practices was the Buddha’s Middle Way, a balanced approach to avoid attachment in form of aversion or indulgence. I soon realized my choice to stop caring was an example of Adler’s false modesty, vanity in a different form, an extension of spiritual ego.
The Misconception of Sin
The notion of Christian sin, which includes pride and vanity as an extension, creates an imbalance view of these traits, as if they have to be avoided at all costs. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle’s describes the meaning of original sin, and illuminates how this has been widely misinterpreted:
“Literally translated from the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, to sin means to miss the mark, as an archer who misses the target, so to sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering. Again, the term, stripped of its cultural baggage and misinterpretations, points to the dysfunction inherent in the human condition.”
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When I first read this, it was a lightbulb moment. Rather than traits to be avoided at all costs, the ‘deadly’ sins are ways that we miss the mark, expressions of the ego, rather than identifying with who we really are. Balance doesn’t mean avoiding at all costs but seeing when excess occurs in an unskilful way. If the value of life is mistakenly placed in physical appearance or achievement, suffering is likely to follow.
Exploring the Mirror Within
Diving deeper into this process highlighted that vanity in itself isn’t a problem, it’s how you relate to vanity. Taking care of your appearance, enjoying new clothes or the look of a fresh haircut, or feeling satisfied posting a picture of you looking good online; all of these are healthy when in balance. I’ve been through the process of self-denial around my vanity, ostracizing all traits I associated with vanity into my shadow.
Exploring the mirror within requires you to be self-aware of vanity’s role in your life. Always aim to maintain balance, and avoid excess. In my experience, the scales are always in flux. Something might trigger insecurity, causing me to become more focused on my appearance as usual. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, not having access to the gym brought up insecurities related to body image. I had to see this and work to re-address the balance.
So, begin by assuming you are vain. Ask yourself: am I honest about my levels of vanity? Can I take pride in things I do, in a healthy, not hubristic, way? Can I feel good in my physical appearance without feeling better than others, or worse, or allowing this to dictate my sense of self-worth?
Vanity is ultimately superficial, a sin only in the way of missing the mark. Acknowledging that is part of the process. Just because something is superficial doesn’t mean it has to be banished or has no value. For example, I love small talk in healthy doses. There’s a joy to be had in discussing the weather or covering things that aren’t so meaningful in a light way. But if all you engage in is small talk, in every conversation, never diving into meaningful or intimate topics, your heart will lack nourishment.
When you become aware of your level of vanity, consider the balance. What needs to change? Are you excessively concerned with your physical appearance? Are you showing off your successes to feel accepted or validated by others? Are you sharing on Instagram through healthy self-expression, or because ‘likes’ boost your ego?
How much vanity is healthy? Only you can answer that question. And that answer comes from inner exploration and a mindful approach to how vanity affects your life. Physical appearance or success don’t define any of us, yet neglecting either is false modesty, vanity in disguise. Own your success, indulge in vain pursuits with a smile, knowing vanity’s rightful place, and enjoy it for what it is. As Mason Cooley wrote: “Vanity well fed is benevolent. Vanity hungry is spiteful.”
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