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.
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.