Buying Out Of Bitterness – And How To Avoid It

Photograph by Jasper Colt. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Photograph by Jasper Colt. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

I have this thing. Where I buy clothes whenever something goes wrong.

Black skinny jeans at the end of one relationship, a pink mini skirt when another slipped through my fingers. I would show them what they were missing. A tiny printed bikini when I felt the worst about my body (now isn’t that ironic?). If I wasn’t going to get approval from myself, I would get it from others. A pair of pale pink trousers with black piping down the leg when work overwhelmed me. If I couldn’t be good at what I did, at least I would look the part.

Apparently, I’m not alone. While doing some reading for a university paper, I came across a study that basically said that if we feel like our identity is threatened, we’re likely to go out and buy things that reconfirm that identity.

So we have these ideas about who we are in our mind – caring mother, marathon runner, sexy girlfriend, competent employee, dog lover. Sometimes these identities feel shaken, compromised, at risk.

We get a bad performance review at work, an unkind comment from our boyfriend, we fail at something we’ve always been good at. And all too often, the reaction is to go out and buy things that tell us that yes, we are those things after all. A pencil skirt to reconfirm that we are good at our jobs, a low cut top to prove that we are attractive and desirable, a pair of sneakers to show the world that we are an amazing runner after all.

But as I think back, I realize that none of these bitter buys are still in my closet. Not only did they not give me the confidence I was so desperately looking for, but they didn’t actually work well enough for me to stand the test of time. When we buy in bitterness, we’re buying impulsively, we’re buying in anger, and we’re buying for what we wish we were, rather than for what we actually are.

Now, that’s not to say we have no hope of getting lucky and ending up with something that works out after all, but we’re hardly giving ourselves great chances to do so. And that all-too-easily adds up to dissatisfaction, not actually using the item we buy, wasting materials and polluting in the process.

So how do we avoid it?

  • Take A Moment

If shopping is our knee-jerk reaction to criticism or failure, this is hardly useful. If you feel the urge to shop coming up as soon as you experience these negative feelings (I’m putting my hand up for this one), take a moment.

Give yourself a set amount of time – whether it be a day, a weekend or a week – to put that idea on pause. The shops are hardly going anywhere, and if it’s the best solution now, won’t it be the best solution in a weeks time, too?

  • Remind Yourself Of What Is Working

Negative experiences seem to stand out so much more than positive ones – I can get ten compliments on how I look, but you can be sure that it’ll be the one negative one that sticks in my mind for the rest of eternity.

The study I mentioned before says that when a part of you feels compromised, focusing on another quality you have can help minimize that desire to buy things in order to restore your shaken sense of self. Apparently we don’t focus on threats to specific areas of our self-concept as much as we do on maintaining an overall sense of ‘this is who I am’.

Actually DOING something to remind us that there are other areas in our lives in which we rock is something I plan on trying more in the future. Whether that’s being kind and patient with a child or older person, baking up a storm, or playing our favourite instrument, it might just give us that confidence boost we’re looking for (and not finding) in shopping. And it can’t exactly hurt, can it?

  • Hold The Guilt, Please

And if we do slip, and try to find that reconfirmation on the sale rack, let’s not beat ourselves up about it. The last thing we need in situations like these is to add guilt to an already shaken self-esteem. Do what you can, and aim for slow and steady improvement over time. Not perfect, but better.

Source:
Gao, L., Wheeler, C., & Shiv, B. (2009). The “Shaken Self”: Product Choices as a Means of Restoring Self-View Confidence. Journal Of Consumer Research, 36(1), 29-38.

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12 thoughts on “Buying Out Of Bitterness – And How To Avoid It

  1. That’s an interesting subject to write about! I didn’t know there were actually studies that experimented on this process of confirming our identity through the objects we buy.

    Another thing that works for me when I feel down or insecure is to compensate with a positive moment rather than just an object. You mention playing an instrument or another confidence boosting activity, but simply allow ourselves a enjoyable moment can also do the trick. For example, instead of buying say, a new dress, what about getting a hammam session, or going to the restaurant with friends, or get a bottle of fine wine and scented candles to put together a nice little evening?

    It is a way to lift the mood, but also to put things in perspective and remember that the world is still spinning despite whatever disaster put us in a bad mood, if it makes any sense. Anyway, thanks for discussing the subject, it’s very interesting :)


    • Hi Kali, I’ve added a reference to the study (which I should have done anyway, silly me) in case you want to have a look at it. I often find something fascinating when researching for a paper that then influences me far beyond that essay.

      I like your suggestion for focusing on a positive moment rather than buying something new. From personal experience I think that’s a more effective way of changing our outlook, and most of the time it has better environmental / ethical consequences, too. It’s also an easier way of involving other people, which can be useful in changing our perspective :)


  2. How very interesting!
    Taking a moment can be helpful, but unfortunately there are many times when something rattles us for longer than a week. And although not shopping for a semester, or even a year, would probably not kill anyone, it is hardly the most viable option ;). But I will remember the second tip on acknowledging what IS working in your life (and I love that the suggestions are so very attainable), and also Kali’s addition. I especially find that spending some ‘quality’ time with loved ones can lift a poisonous mood and put things in perspective.


    • You’re definitely right that some insecurities can plague us for years or even a lifetime. I hope the second tip would be more useful in these cases. I think it’s also important to realise that these insecurities don’t go away after we shop – it probably takes a few failed attempts to notice this, but once we do we can work towards building a sense of self esteem in other ways.


  3. It is well documented fact that a lot of people with mild to moderate clinical depression, shop to cheer themselves up. Sadly it doesn’t work long term.


    • I think it’s something that is quite easy to use as a crutch, even for those of us who aren’t diagnosed with anything as such. Of course marketers use this to their advantage – As just one example, “Because you’re worth it” is a hugely successful slogan that encourages the use of consumption as a way of affirming that sense of self-worth.


  4. I’m going to echo everyone else in saying that this is such an interesting topic! I know that I have shopped a lot in the past due to insecurity, but of course never got rid of it by buying anything. My thinking at the time was that it was because I couldn’t buy everything I ‘ought’ to own; then there was a time where I could afford more or less anything I wanted (within reason, I wasn’t buy yachts or anything), but unsurprisingly my life wasn’t really that much improved. Only when I began hobbies/activities that were really substantive and built usable skills did I feel like I had something that actually made me feel better when my self-esteem was threatened. Shopping is kind of like the junk-food of self help. It tastes AWESOME for about 5 minutes, then it’s over, and it hasn’t provided your body with anything that it actually needs to function.


    • It’s great to hear that developing skills helped you when your self-esteem was threatened, this is definitely going to be an area of focus for me when I feel like shopping to make up for something. I also like your point that shopping in this way is similar to junk food – it’s a comparison I’ve often thought about. Both have that short-term appeal without being followed up by anything long lasting!


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  7. “And if we do slip, and try to find that reconfirmation on the sale rack, let’s not beat ourselves up about it. The last thing we need in situations like these is to add guilt to an already shaken self-esteem.”
    I think there’s too quick an urge to forgive oneself for these indulgences. If you buy something to make yourself feel better, and it’s possible to return it, do so. Most American women have way too many random items of clothing, usually cheap and not well-made. Really paying attention to my consumption habits meant I had fewer but better pieces that I actually wore, rather than storing in a closet.


    • Thanks for your comment, Paula! I completely agree that paying attention to our consumption habits leads to having less stuff, but stuff you actually use and love – that has been my experience, too.
      I do think that admonishing ourselves for slip ups just adds to an already shaken self-esteem, which is hardly productive and might lead to more damage being done. Returning ‘bitter buys’ when possible is a good suggestion, I hadn’t thought of that.


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