“I watch reality television because it makes me feel better about myself, and I can just escape reality for a little bit,” my students often tell me.
As they see young adults start a fight in a bar, women break each other down over some man they are in a contrived competition over, or see people make bad choices over and over again in their lives, my students feel vindicated.
“I may not be that rich, but I would never make that decision.”
“I may not be that pretty, but I would never act so foolish.”
I may not have this or that or the other, but at least I’ve got sense, they tell themselves over and over again.
And that, to many people, not just my students, is the primary gift we get from these faux-documentary-ish reality television shows: the ability to believe that while we don’t have the trappings of that pretty life, we at least have these other things going for us. And those things, we tell ourselves, really are what matter most to us.
But, here’s the thing.
If you are sucked into a reality television show and what you feel while you watch it is “Oh, at least, I am not that much of a train wreck,” then I would argue that maybe there is a value conflict going on and maybe it really isn’t that good for your self-esteem at all.
Because when we need to compare ourselves to others- whether we see those others at the mall, at a party, in class, at the office, or on a reality television show- to determine our worth, to have it vindicated and articulated, then two things are true:
1. What the show has going on really does matter to us in some way because we are giving it some of our precious, finite time and our limited energy. If I give the Kardashians 30 minutes of my time (I am assuming that a Kardashian episode is 30 minutes long; it could very well be longer for all I know) five days a week for 50 weeks a year (assuming you take a little bit of a vacation from the Kardashians at some point in the year), then you have given them 7500 minutes which is 125 hours (and over 5 days of your life) of your time. I’m sorry but you can’t give away 5 days of your life accidentally without the thing that you are giving it to mattering to you in some way. So, if you are voting with your time, you are also voting with your values. You are saying, “This show and its messages matter enough to me that the trade-off is worth it. It is worth 5 whole days of my life.”
2. You are on a slippery slope with your self-acceptance. Because here is the thing: if our ability to feel positively about ourselves is predicated by how we feel about other people and their choices, then we are always vulnerable to how we feel in a moment, what we see at any given time, who we are with at the moment of judgment, etc. And none of that is rooted in our authenticity, truth, and depth. At the end of the day, you actually do not feel better about yourself when you say, “At least, I am not that much of a train wreck.” You actually feel like “all I have going for me is that I haven’t done that- yet.”
When a reality show- or anything or anyone else other than you- is your standard for your worth then you are vulnerable, malleable, dependent on someone else’s failures to articulate or even begin to recognize our own successes. Our scale, our model, our measure isn’t ours and it doesn’t come from an empowered place. It comes from an “at least” place and that’s never a place of power.
And so we need to quit fooling ourselves. If we watch these shows and think, “well, I am better than that,” then we really must quit believing that these shows have no impact on us and are just for fun and we have to face the truth. We have to come to understand that they are exploiting us by giving us low standards and slippery foundations and we can’t stand on either of those.
I am not saying that every reality show is bad or that I never watch them— I love the talent competition shows like So You Think You Can Dance, The Voice, and Project Runway— but I do know that if you are looking at some of those faux-reality shows to make yourself feel better then you are building your esteem on a house of cards. Turn off the television and focus on who you are and how you want to be in the world. Reality TV has destroyed many a life among its stars. Don’t let it take you down, too.