When I was younger, I knew a girl who seemed to be a really sweet and friendly person. However, I soon discovered that the only time she was friendly to me was when she needed to borrow money. Initially I really liked this girl, and I lent her money a couple of times because I thought she was my friend and needed help. Eventually I discovered that “my friend” didn’t really care about me personally; she viewed me more as a vending machine from which she could get money occasionally. When I refused to lend her more money, she grew cold, distant and rude.
If you are like a lot of people, you have had the unfortunate experience of someone using you to get something they wanted. In the process, you probably felt like the person treated you like an object instead of a person. Most of us are pretty adept at realizing when other people treat us as objects. We are not always as adept at recognizing when we treat ourselves as objects. I think, however, that we do this quite frequently and that it causes us a lot of pain and suffering. It is actually not very surprising that we treat ourselves as objects because from an early age, we are conditioned to view ourselves in this manner. My goal in this post is not to blame us for treating ourselves as an object. My goal rather is to help us recognize this common problem and to learn to treat ourselves differently and better.
In my last post, I suggested that if we want to have a good life, it is essential to begin by loving ourselves. I also suggested, drawing inspiration from some ideas in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that to do this we need to give ourselves the best and most noble gifts. One of the best gifts we can give to ourselves is the gift of respect: the gift of treating ourselves as people and not as objects. In this post, I want to examine why we treat ourselves as objects rather than people; how this causes us suffering; and how we can learn to respect ourselves and treat ourselves as people instead of objects.
First, let us examine more closely what happens when we treat someone else like an object. This will help us better understand what it means to treat ourselves like an object. When we treat other people like objects, we use that person as a means to our end. Rather than recognizing that the person has emotions and needs of their own, we focus on what the person can do for us. In doing so, we treat people in the same way that we treat objects (or tools) like cell phones and hammers. For example, when we use a cell phone, we don’t care about a cell phone’s emotions, needs, or projects. We just use the cell phone to get what we want—information or connection.
We do the same thing with hammers. When we use hammers, we are only concerned about what the hammer can do for us—namely, pound a nail into a board or pull one out. Now, of course, cell phones and hammers don’t have emotions and projects of their own, so it is right for us to treat them this way. But when we use people merely to get what we want rather than caring about their emotions, needs, or projects, we are treating them like we treat tools such as cell phones and hammers, and certainly this is not a good way to treat human beings.
Now let’s examine how we treat ourselves as tools or objects. We treat ourselves as an object when we use ourselves merely as a means for getting stuff. For instance, we do it when we treat ourselves merely as means for getting professional success or earning money. We do it when we use ourselves merely as a means for gaining romantic partners or popularity or fame. We do it when we use ourselves merely as a means for garnering admiration or love from other people. In all of these cases we are treating ourselves as if our main purpose is to get something else—to be something different than what we are right now.
Of course there is nothing wrong in itself with pursuing success or money or romantic partners or popularity or fame or admiration. The problem is when we view ourselves merely as a means for gaining these things. And there is evidence suggesting that we actually do treat ourselves this way a good deal of the time. For example, consider how often we feel like we are deficient or worthless when we fail to achieve professional success or, as another example, when we think that other people find us unattractive. If we were able to view ourselves as a person and not merely as an object for gaining success or admiration, our feelings would often be quite different.
But, it is actually quite understandable that we struggle with the feelings we do when we fail to get what we want. From the time we are young, we are taught from many different sources (usually various media and economic sources) that our worth is measured in terms of our productivity, our success, our string of admirers, the beauty of our bodies, or other various accomplishments. In other words, we are taught from the time we are young to treat ourselves as objects for getting stuff rather than as persons valuable in ourselves, apart from any accomplishment we might achieve.
It is no wonder that we learn to treat ourselves this way. It is important to realize, however, that it causes us a great deal of pain when we treat ourselves as objects. Nobody likes to be treated like an object by other people. Imagine how it affects us when the person closest to us, namely ourselves, constantly treats us like an object. Even when we don’t recognize that we are objectifying ourselves, we understand it at some level, and it shows up in some of our most painful emotions. For instance, consider the painful feelings below and how they might be a result of treating ourselves as an object:
You fail at something, and you feel horrified at your incompetence and stupidity.
A romantic relationship ends, and you feel worthless and full of shame.
You feel like your body is too big or too thin or not beautiful enough, and you feel self-loathing and disgust with yourself.
You believe you are not making enough money or achieving enough professional success, and you feel worthless.
While these feelings may have many different causes, one of the reasons these feelings arise is because in each of these scenarios, we feel like our body or our person has somehow failed to achieve some necessary goal, and therefore we think we are somehow broken or worthless. But why would we think this? Why do we naturally conclude there is something wrong with us if we don’t get these things?
Certainly some distress is normal when we fail to achieve goals we have for ourselves. However, rather than just feeling temporary disappointment and distress over not achieving these things, we often feel deep and prolonged shame and emptiness when we don’t achieve them. That we feel this way suggests that we think our identity or purpose in life is somehow inextricably linked to achieving these things. It suggests that we primarily view ourselves as a tool for achieving these things, and when we fail to deliver, we don’t know how to relate to ourselves.
Consider how similar this is to situations when other people treat us like objects. When other people use us to get what they want, they are often kind, gracious, and friendly to us until we don’t give them what they want. But when we fail to deliver the goods, they become aloof, cold, distant. They might even shame us. This is what we often to do ourselves when we objectify ourselves. We are happy with ourselves as long as we deliver the goods, but when we fail in some way, we react to ourselves with shame, self-loathing, coldness, etc.
I am not suggesting in this post that we blame or criticize ourselves when we find that we are treating ourselves like objects. Rather, I want us to have compassion for ourselves. I want us to consider what it means to treat ourselves as a person and not as an object. I want us to consider that we have worth entirely independent from the things we want to get and the goals that we want to achieve. Let me relate this to you specifically. Treating yourself as a person and not an object means that your primary purpose is not to be successful or not successful; or beautiful or not beautiful; or thin or not thin; or admired or not admired; or famous or not famous.
Your goal is to be you in all of your complexity, joy, sadness, success, and failure. Allowing yourself to be you in all of your complexity is how you respect yourself and treat yourself as a person rather than an object. When we respect ourselves, it allows us to build a peaceful, confident, and stable foundation for our lives. In addition, it helps recognize and refuse other people’s attempts to treat us as objects, too. In my next post, I will discuss the gift of presence. Consistently giving ourselves the gift of presence is one of the primary ways we respect ourselves, and it is one of the primary ways we treat ourselves as people and not objects.
 Although I do not mention the philosopher Immanuel Kant in this post, my ideas are certainly influenced by his ethical theory which he discusses in his works like Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals and Metaphysics of Morals. In these works, Kant argues the moral law commands us to treat people (including ourselves) as an end in themselves, rather than merely as a means to our end. This principle is articulated clearly especially at section 4:429 in Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals.