In the United States, we live a society seduced by materialism in the pursuit of pleasure and comfort. Some of us also buy status items in order to enhance our self worth. We live in a world where preoccupation with self-gratification risks isolating us from each other, leaving us vulnerable to neglect of those with whom we share our lives. For too many, life has become about money, possessions, comfort, and pleasure. As the saying goes, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Too many of us abandon the fulfillment of Love and connection and swim to the Siren of Materialism. We even hear the terms, “shopping addiction” and “Shopaholic” in recognition of the addictive nature of unhealthy materialism.
Materialism can be an aspect of the disease of narcissism, in which we feel inadequate and deficient just as we are, rather than feeling good, whole, and complete despite our flaws and imperfections. Like an addiction, narcissism is a compulsive self-preoccupation at the expense of connection and interconnection. The daily agenda of a narcissist is to self-soothe through interpersonal relationships, in which they seek affirmation and gratification, as opposed to the opportunity to love. The Narcissist also feeds on power and control, as these fuel their grandiosity and sense of omnipotence in order to mask their fundamental core experience of being bad or defective. They take material riches as a sign of their value and worth.
Narcissism takes many forms. All of us have some form of it. There is a healthy form of narcissism in which we feel good about who we are while being mindful of our faults. Healthy narcissism involves taking care of our needs and asserting our rights without abandoning our care for and consideration of others. Healthy narcissism leads to a healthy materialism, in which material goods are a means to take care of ourselves and empower us to love others and fulfill our other life purposes. In this type of materialism, materialism is a necessary means to an end, rather than the end itself.
If we look carefully at our own narcissism and materialism, we see other interconnections and similarities. First, gratification is shallow and temporary. We may be happy for a moment as we drive our luxury car off the showroom floor, but that happiness fades quickly as the problems of our lives reappear from the fog of our new possession. Similarly, we may bask for a moment in the narcissistic glow of our perceived enhanced status in the eyes of others, but this glow quickly fades, leaving a persistent, gnawing angst throbbing at the core of our being. The angst that in some vague way, we lack value, are not worthy, or are just plane bad.
When we adopt materialism as a way of soothing ourselves or enhancing our perceived value, we are merely putting a temporary bandage on a festering wound.
There is a better way. First, we need to see the transient and unsatisfying nature of our purchases, and ask ourselves when we are to buy something, “Is this necessary for me to pursue my life goals, or is it something I want to buy to sooth the pain on my existence?” We then need to firmly renounce these band aide purchases and commit ourselves to addressing our dis-ease directly and authentically.
One of the greatest human inventions of all time is the 12 steps. Although they are not for everyone, and use outdated terminology such as the word “God” in a way that can alienate the non-religious, they still can serve as a cure for narcissism and other character pathology.
The steps create an integrated and comprehensive methodology for character transformation. In Step 4, one does a “fearless and searching moral inventory, of both one’s virtues and liabilities. This is a courageous process of investigating ourselves and seeing exactly who we are. In step five, we admit what we have learned, first to ourselves, then to “God”, and finally to another person, often our sponsor. This step goes a long ways towards healing the shame of narcissism, as we experience being accepted and valued by another person, despite our dark secrets and flaws. Further steps facilitate relationship repair and reconnection, continued spiritual growth, and service to others.
Individual and group therapy also serve as potent tools for the hard work of character transformation.
We do well to engage in “mindful consumption.” Ask yourself, “Is these purchase necessary for me to achieve my life goals?” If the answer is “Yes” and the purchase is within your budget, buy away. If not, exercise mindful restraint.