Reality Check: Effective Living in a Material World

Karen, introduced last column, has bones to pick with society and its emphasis on materialism.

At the drop of a hat (or shopping bag) Karen can launch into a tirade. Her theme: “We are bombarded with high pressure sales; credit is pushed on us; we buy things we don’t need; we throw away too much.”

She would like to think that she is teaching her children that relationships and personal achievements are more valuable in life than money and things. What the children see, however,is a mom who is sometimes so stressed that she chooses to blow off steam by shopping.

Karen feels genuine remorse about her shopping behaviour, but has difficulty changing what she’s doing. She buckles to what she perceives as society’s pressure: the demand to dress stylishly, to keep her home decorated, and to provide her children with the toys that their friends have.

To ease her remorse, Karen makes impulsive donations to organizations that promote her beliefs, regardless of whether she can afford it. And she is happy to argue with anyone who dares to suggest that she is wasting her money.

Two unpleasant consequences result from her behaviour: guilting over her own participation in materialism, and angering over the non-caring attitudes of others. Neither of these reactions helps Karen lead a satisfied life. What might work better?

One suggestion for Karen is to take a serious look at what she can, and can’t, control. Karen could embrace her personal freedom by recognizing that magazines, fashion trends, colleagues, and friends do not necessarily know what’s best for her.

The credit card does not control her choice to spend; she does. The availability of goods does not control her choice to buy; she does. Her home does not force her to redecorate; no one but herself chooses to revamp her wardrobe every season.

While Karen states that her values are non-materialistic and relationship-building, her true priorities are reflected in what she does.  In light of those contradictions, a powerful question for Karen is, “Knowing that you can’t have everything you want, which wants are your highest priorities?”

Our choices are almost always constrained in some way.  Few have all the money we could want, and time is limited, too. Whenever we make a choice, consciously or not, we demonstrate our priorities.

Karen’s choices have been based largely on how she feels right now: “I want what I want when I want it, and I want it right now.”

If Karen wants her shopping behaviour to better reflect her values, she could try developing the following new habit: Rate every purchase on a scale from 1 to 10. How strongly does it fit her values and priorities?  This self-evaluation step could help Karen become more aware of her shopping choices.

Clear priorities can help Karen defend herself against the many temptations that she faces. Making conscious choices could also reduce her guilt response when she feels that she doesn’t measure up to her own ideals.

Identifying and changing behaviours can be hard work. Do you think it’s worth the effort?

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