Until I read a book called :59 Seconds by Professor Richard Wiseman, I had never thought about a relationship between self-esteem and materialism. As soon as the professor pointed it out, though, I could instantly see the link and how they rise and fall in inverse proportion to each other. When I thought about it some more, I saw how they can also rise and fall in direct, not inverse, proportion.
There are two aspects to materialism, external and internal. The external aspect is about the image we want to project, how we want the world to perceive us. Some people flaunt their wealth in an attempt to demonstrate to those around them (although principally to themselves) that they are successful. Their materialism is based on wanting to impress their friends by always having the latest, the biggest, the most expensive whatever it is, struggling to bolster their self-esteem by polishing the façade.
On the other side of the same coin is the person who chooses to strike an anti-materialist pose. As an angry victim, I spent many years ostentatiously having the oldest, cheapest, most decrepit whatever it was. My self-esteem was low and I thought flaunting my poverty was a good way to demonstrate my failure and draw attention to my suffering.
The first approach is probably more fun than the grinding austerity I insisted on wearing as some sort of badge of honour, but neither is really effective in boosting self-esteem. The image is not the person; even if we manage to fool all the people all the time, we’ll never truly convince ourselves with our own propaganda. Fulfilment lies not in eliciting the admiration of others but in loving and respecting ourselves. All we’re doing by setting huge store by our abundance or scarcity of material resources is shifting responsibility for our own welfare to other people. We’re relying on other people’s reactions to build our self-esteem. This is never going to work: self-esteem has to come from the inside.
The internal aspect is about the material things themselves and how we feel about them. It’s a well known fact that money can’t buy happiness but it’s equally true that money can make life much easier and material wellbeing can promote happiness. This is another coin with two faces – on the one side, we’ve got the person who buys endless stuff, almost like an addiction, desperately seeking fulfilment through retail therapy. On the other, we have the person who feels he/she doesn’t deserve nice stuff and that spending money on him/herself is an unacceptable indulgence.
Again, neither attitude fosters self-esteem. Buying things because we like them is better than buying them to impress other people, but the responsibility for our welfare is still outside ourselves as we pin our hopes on the next purchase to lift our spirits. Material stuff is never going to fill the void. The sooner we realise that and start working on what really matters, the sooner we’ll reach a stable, happy equilibrium.
To those who feel uncomfortable spending their own money on themselves, I say this: life is for living and I urge you to examine your reluctance to buy the things you want. Of course, there may be good reasons for your stance if finances are tight and you’re responsible for people who can’t provide for themselves, but it’s worth reassessing your feelings every now and then, in case it turns out they’re not actually your feelings but ones your parent-figures instilled in you at an early age.
Self-esteem is not acquired by amassing wealth or refusing to, nor by spending it or refusing to. It cannot grow in the shadow of Mammon but thrives if nurtured independently of material concerns.