why are we so wimpy?
This past year I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why we as humans have become so wimpy.
I’m not going to preface that statement with a preamble. Why? Because I think it’s true and I’m sick of protecting people’s feelings. If you look at history, we as humans behave remarkably more wimpily than we used to — the status quo is that we seem to have become almost universally deficient in courage.
While courage is about speaking our minds, aligning our actions with our values, and aiming our aspirations really, really high, wimpiness is the opposite. Wimpiness is cynicism, insecurity, self-victimization, and an utter unseriousness of purpose. And lately, this specific strain of wimpiness seems to constantly be winning the cultural fight.
This highlights the fact that as a culture, strength no longer garners our utmost respect — vulnerability does. We value protecting the weak much more than we do admiring the strong. To a certain extent this has always been true — glorification of the victim, or what Nietzsche calls “slave morality,” is arguably as old as human nature itself.
But the intense polarization of politics today has pushed this to new extremes. Victimizing oneself is no longer reserved as a last resort — it has instead become the most popular multitool to accrue political power.
I think this is bad. At a macro-scale it drowns out the voices of real victims. On a micro-scale it has massive negative repercussions on how a person sees themself. This is because identifying as a victim isn’t typesafe: it quickly spills out into all areas of your life as a cheap and impervious justification for anything you do. And it doesn’t stop there: adopting a victim mindset also encourages you to base your worldview around negative experiences in your past that “proved” the world to be beyond your control. In practice, this quickly robs you of your sense of security, purpose, and most consequentially — it eats away at your agency. From my vantage point, valorization of victimhood is one of the most pervasive culprits for widespread wimpiness today.
Now, I make no claim to be particularly courageous myself. I’ve always been a tad sad and prone to overthinking — leading me to languish in the modern psychiatry industrial complex for years. While my sample size = 1, I’ll say that I started to shed my wimpy layer when I decided to stop seeing myself as a victim. None of the meds, treatments, or stupid advice like “smiling more will trick your brain into thinking you’re happy!” worked for me.
What worked was not letting myself wallow on things in the past and instead focusing on my dreams for the future — and crucially, actually making those dreams come true. This wasn’t a therapy-born realization — it was a realization reached by hitting rock bottom and then choosing to re-engage with the real world.
My problem with therapy is that for people like myself who didn’t really need it (i.e. generally emotionally-intelligent people that are just experiencing garden variety neurosis) therapy transactionalizes an experience we were designed to receive through our relationships. This would be fine, except that it often makes you dependent on this highly-individualistic practice by delivering a cheap imitation of the experience you’d get given you were receiving this support through real relationships. When used wisely, therapy can be a terrific tool to solve specific issues. But it wasn’t designed to deliver meaning or replace religion — despite what the cultural consensus today would have you believe. At the end of the day, we forget that therapy is a business. The incentives are anything but aligned to help you move on: once you’re in the system they have every reason to keep you there for as long as they can.
Leaving therapy marked a distinct turning point in my life. I didn’t want to be seen as a victim anymore, so I started acting out what the opposite might look like: I presented myself like I belonged. I got good at reading environments and tailoring myself to their ideal archetype. I was an amoeba: nimbly navigating each conversation to avoid exposing my lack of expertise, quickly calibrating my ratio of agreeableness to disagreeableness to stockpile respect points, speaking quickly and concisely to mimic their conception of intelligence, and nodding with warmth and knowingness at all the right moments. When I managed to play the part perfectly, I was rewarded — with jobs, friends, invitations, acceptance. But it felt like I was playing with fire. When existing is a performance, your whole life starts to feel like a stage that you can only fall off of.
Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” monologue explains this well. I think a general rule of thumb is that if a person seems too perfectly suited to an environment to be real, they’re probably playing a part. People don’t normally slot into neat boxes. Being able to perceive and mold yourself into exactly what others need is a skill — but it also requires you relinquish a certain amount of ownership over your life. As your costume grows heavier with decisions and responsibility, your act starts to fray around the seams.
When it inevitably does, you might look around without your stage makeup and see who stuck around. That’s what I did, at least. What I found was that the people by my side also happened to have historically been huge sources of motivation for me to do courageous things. And maybe, just maybe, there was something to that.
A pattern started to emerge: the courage created by my focusing on contribution (“what can I do to support the people and things I love”) over identity (“I am not a wimp, how can I prove that”) was 10x more concentrated in strength. That’s my answer to why I was so wimpy: I was searching for meaning facing the wrong direction. It’s hard not to start feeling sorry for yourself when your palette of motivation methods consists only of a couple unflattering shades of your identity and a few quickly fading images of your experiences.
Neither therapy nor the parts I played for other people granted me a sense of purpose. Instead, it came from contribution. Society’s prevailing narrative today will tell you to look inside yourself for the courage to continue. This is, in my view, utterly incomplete. I’m unconvinced any of us possess purely internally-created reasons to be brave (and if you do, plz tell me). To speak our minds, align our beliefs with our actions, and aim really, really high, we need reasons outside of ourselves. Not flimsy award or accolade-shaped reasons — but sturdy, deep-rooted, grounding reasons like relationships and responsibility.
These realizations are what got me so interested in wimpiness. With my sense of purpose now firmly rooted in the people, places, and projects around me, I resolve to ask more risky questions — and to feel ok performing the act of asking them imperfectly. I’m unconvinced there’s any other way to make sense of the world.
Which is why I’m still wondering why we’re so wimpy. And not just me personally, but us as a society and culture at large. Why are we so universally deficient in courage? What led us here? How could we not be this way?
So I’m planning to get to the bottom of it. Starting by untangling the web of wimpiness, I will then put each strain of symptoms under a microscope: individualism, loss of religion, therapy culture, self-created conflict, and much more. If you happen to have thoughts on the topic, I’d love to hear from you: email@example.com
Disclaimer being that this assertion most likely only applies to you if you’re tuned into your emotions and possess a network of deep friendships that allow you to openly reflect on how you feel. If that isn’t true, therapy might actually be a great first step for you to learn to consciously recognize your emotions and then work on building relationships where you can continue to do so outside of the therapist’s office.
The above newsletter will be the “explain your extremely clickbait-y title” section of a larger research project I’m working on this year that’ll culminate in a thesis-length chunk of words hosted here on the interwebz.
I don't disagree with the general thrust of what you are saying, particularly after carefully reading your definition for "wimpiness," but I also think a huge part of what you are calling "wimpiness" is a rational collective response to the very real collapse of systems of reliable, long-term meaning-based reward (religion is one example you mention). Does it make sense to use a noun that indicates a deficiency of character to describe a phenomenon that might be better understood as a rational reaction to a change in context, and/or environment? I don't think so. I'm worried it falls into the same trap as many of the articles you cite here, describing individuals of a particular generation as essentially whiny babies without asking how conditions have changed to make their behavior make sense. I think you are going to put your finger on a lot of SUPER interesting things through your writing, but why frame it as causes for this thing called "wimpiness"? The lens feels limited because it's already bought into the idea that the world is essentially a collection of individuals who are influenced mostly by their own character, which is inside them.
Finally, I want to suggest one other possible reading of the things you outline here: is it possible that what we are seeing is not the loss of courage so much as the loss of collective systems of meaning, in the sense that courage is always read upon a backdrop that we AGREE is worthy? What I mean is, if someone fights off zombies to protect their baby, we all agree that's courageous because we all mostly agree that babies are valuable, and being a good parent is great. But I think another thing that's happening is that people are starting to care about things that are more and more niche. And what may look like wimpiness to you or me may just be someone being courageous about something very, very specific.
Said in other words: how do we talk about someone else's "ambition" without having some external sense of what it's worth being ambitious ABOUT? I know folks who I consider VERY ambitious because they're doing their best to live according to their own values, but this sort of complex engagement of their own values means that they are what others would describe as underemployed, perhaps delusional, and doing something "small." Can we talk about ambition without the spectre of competition? Maybe we can't. Maybe that's a problem.
Just some thoughts I wanted to share. I think the general phenomena you are describing here, especially at the end of your article, are very real and worth studying. But I think framing your inquiry in relation to some sort of collective moral deficiency might be falling into a trap.
Thank you! It was a good read. "To speak our minds, align our beliefs with our actions, and aim really, really high, we need reasons outside of ourselves. Not flimsy award or accolade-shaped reasons — but sturdy, deep-rooted, grounding reasons like relationships and responsibility." Yes! Have been mulling over this for a long time and each time I question if commitment and deep conviction can come from projects and pursuits that sit apart from responsibility. I lean towards being "useful" and of service though a perennial challenge has been that to be useful, I need to first be legible and that requires that I file off certain edges and choose certain labels. I struggle with that. It's a tricky game.