Lots of people feel unrecognized and unappreciated. They experience themselves to a considerable degree through feelings of being unworthy and unloved.
When such people spot a celebrity in the flesh, they have an emotional reaction that usually varies according to their self-esteem and also to the degree in which the celebrity is famous. A celebrity’s ranking on the billboards of stardom determines his or her status in their eyes.
If the celebrity they see on the street is the local TV weatherman, their eyes might soak him or her up for an instant or two, and then they’ll probably go about their business with a minimum of emotional disruption. However, if the celebrity is a high-flying Hollywood movie star, their eyes fasten like rivets to this person. They’re likely to slip into a woozy state of disequilibrium complete with rapid pulse and sweaty palms.
The lower one’s self-esteem, the greater the emotional thrill that’s experienced in the presence of a celebrity. The ubiquity of celebrities is a cultural anomaly that flourishes under the auspices of the low self-esteem of the masses. Low self-esteem also signifies more time spent fantasizing about being a celebrity. Many celebrities, meanwhile, are emotionally dependent on the adulation they receive from us.
Within the cult of celebrity, fame matters more than substance. Soaring regard for the celebrity doesn’t hinge on whether he or she is a person of high or low character. One of my clients said his main claim to fame was a three-day drunk he “enjoyed” with a famous stuntman. What matters to such individuals is the emotional thrill they get from being observed, noticed, and perhaps even verbally acknowledged by someone deemed a Very Important Person.
Because the person with low self-esteem feels his value to a lesser degree, he craves any emotional surges of good feelings about himself. A celebrity’s notice of him (or the prospect that a celebrity will at any moment notice him) makes him feel as if he’s been anointed by a god. Just to be a fan of a particular celebrity can seem like self-validation. Fans of a celebrity settle for crumbs at the banquet of their own greatness.
I saw my first celebrity in the flesh at age fourteen. Not a lot of them showed up in the north woods where I lived, but one day I walked into our jukebox hangout in town and saw Little Beaver, a midget wrestler, sitting on a counter stool sipping a milkshake. I scrambled across the street, plunked down my chocolate sundae money for a pen and pad, and hurried back for his autograph. His scrawl got me high without my sugar boost.
Most of us have some shortcomings of self-esteem. Even successful and prominent people at times inwardly reproach themselves for allegedly being, deep down, inadequate or even worthless. How many times has a movie star’s inner critic tormented him for not being more famous? Under such an accusation, this movie star would understandably feel grateful for the fans cheering him on as he walked into the opening night showing of his latest big hit. “You see,” his defenses could say to his mocking inner critic, “You’re wrong—I am somebody important. Look at how many people see and honor me.”
Just about everyone, to some degree, is accused at times by his or her inner critic of being unimportant and insignificant. A person with low self-esteem might be cruelly accused by his inner critic: “You won’t amount to anything! You’re always screwing up! You’re a loser! And everybody knows it!” To compensate, he or she is tempted to identify with celebrities, to imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of such an allegedly important person. This identification provides a temporary defense for our attachments to feeling inadequate or unworthy. “This is how I like to feel, full of my own splendor,” proclaims the inner defense. “This is what I want for myself!”
Put another way, many of us labor to some degree with the feeling of not being recognized for who we are and for the work we do. So when we stand in the presence of a celebrity, we not only rub shoulders with this person, we rub psyches as we strive eagerly to pick up some of the magical omnipotence of someone whose self-importance is revealed for all to see and admire. “You see, this is what I really want to feel for myself,” we claim in our unconscious defense. “I’m tired of feeling like a worthless, unknown nobody. I love to feel important.”
We not only exalt celebrities, but we love to peep at their trials and tribulations. It can feel so good to see a celebrity suffer. That way we do not have to feel so bad about not being a celebrity. We manage temporarily to neutralize the inner-critic attack that mocks us with, “How come you’re not as smart and well-known as that person.” To see a celebrity unravel before our eyes provides us with the sour-grapes defense, “Look at what’s happening to him. See how pathetic he is. Who says I should be like him!”
This defense doesn’t have to involve just celebrities. Years ago I saw an article in a national magazine about a 41-year-old man who shot himself in the head and died only minutes after he had shot his 18-year-old son to death in a hunting accident. What purpose did it serve to give this private tragedy a two-page spread in the magazine? It’s because people with low self-esteem love to read this stuff. “Boy, it’s nice not to have it that bad,” they think to themselves. Or they say through inner defensiveness, “You think I screw up—well, not nearly as bad as that!”
When I was a kid back in the 1950s and watched The Mouseketeers on television, I remember asking myself, “How come I’m not one of the kids on that show? Am I not good enough for the Mickey Mouse Club?” Deep down I felt I wasn’t. Even back then the media and their visual images provided numerous chances every day to compare oneself unfavorably to others. Media proliferation seems to have made the current situation worse. Yet if we bring more awareness to these underlying psychological aspects, we can awaken and connect more deeply with ourselves and our own intrinsic value.
In psychoanalytic language, celebrities are personifications of our ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is the grandiose impression of one’s self formed in childhood when our megalomania or extreme self-centeredness is most pronounced. Naïve childhood beliefs—such as “I just know I’ll be president (or a great artist or writer) when I grow up”—are taken very seriously by the youngster. It feels certain we’ll achieve such lofty status. As adults, we can project this lingering idealized self onto celebrities: They are what we would be, we think wistfully, if fate hadn’t been so cruel. We see in them our idealized self, if only faintly. Our inner critic, meanwhile, is always ready to torture us with criticism and reproach when our life doesn’t measure up to the expectations of our idealized self. We feel a split inside, and we can begin to criticize, dislike, and even to condemn ourselves for falling short of this idealized self-image. Even if we are relatively successful, it’s not good enough according to this irrational inner standard.
Now we’re targets of our inner critic. It can torment us by pointing out the discrepancy between what we have become and managed to achieve versus what the idealized self-image says we’re supposed to have accomplished. When we “buy into” the belittling thoughts and feelings emanating from our inner critic, we can believe the worst about ourselves and feel like lonely nobodies. Then celebrities seem to us like gods.