You’re Not Materialistic, You Have an Attachment Disorder
America's Justification of a Trauma Response
I’ve become aware that my pieces have gotten more bold, more pointed, more “controversial” in the last few months. I think that’s been intentional as I start to realize that most of my writing in the past was self-aggrandizing and designed to incite curiosity, but not any kind of challenge out of my readers. There’s a difference between thinking and reacting. I don’t want you to just think, I want you to feel. I want you to react.
I’m trying to push that line as far as I can with this.
I’m writing this now as I recover from corrective surgery for my recently diagnosed sleep apnea (a tonsillectomy, septoplasmy, rhinoplasty, and some soft tissue removal in the back of my throat) and have overseen the mother of all fire sales within my building. Everyone I live with probably hates me by now because of all the emails they’ve been getting of my posts to our resident forum titled “FREE OUTSIDE 11D:…” Over the last week, I’ve given away all of the well-meaning yet misaligned bandaid purchases I made in the last 2 years as I tried to reverse engineer a cure of the symptoms of my apnea. A weighted blanket I bought for “deeper sleep,” a foam roller for my tight back, a humidifier for my stuffy nose, a yoga mat for my tight hamstrings, an air purifier for my polluted NYC apartment with no window screens.
This process has been humbling — I hate having extra things and naturally run towards the well vs the shallow end when it comes to problem solving, yet it took me 2 years, entire hobbies, and hundreds if not thousands of dollars to realize that the true issues going on were way deeper than I could even comprehend. While my health issues were physical in this case, I think the same type of thinking (running to bandaids) is too much applied to our mental health, something I think America’s capitalist context reinforces more than most other countries’.
When I say materialistic, I don’t mean someone who really likes things. I really like things, the few I own and cherish. I don’t mean someone who enjoys the finer things either. I don’t, but know plenty of people who like their expensive clothes and nice trips and are plenty happy. When I say materialistic, I mean someone whose marginal well-being and self-worth is disproportionately affected by their ownership of particular things. Someone who gets a bigger high than they should from buying something new.
The adage is as old as time — money can’t buy happiness. It’s a true one. Money certainly can’t bring more long-term happiness into your life; it serves more to eliminate stressors that make happiness harder to generate. Whether that’s rent, student loans, or an unexpected medical bill, having money helps alleviate the mental burdens that we can use as reasons for our discontent (I call them excuses but that’s another post).
But while it’s widely accepted that money can’t bring internal happiness, it also can’t mute internal sadness. Your shit is your shit, and I’m not here to preach about how to work through it — just to observe that how people my age spend their money would make the people in the circumstances I listed in the previous paragraph enraged.
Especially in a city like New York, almost everyone I see in my position, who graduated with little to no debt, is working high paying jobs, and thankfully rests in good health, dedicates most of their discretionary income to distractions. Coffee to make your job seem more exciting than it actually is (or cover up your poor sleep hygiene), alcohol to ease your social anxiety and peer pressure to “hang out” after work or on weekends, and Netflix to fill the time in between. That’s not to mention static purchases like clothes, makeup, supplements, gym gear (don’t even get me started).
You don’t need another pair of shoes, you need a therapist.
I am certainly addicted to the internet, have spent thousands on revamping my wardrobe 3 times since I moved (definitely not necessary), and have more than my fair share of childhood trauma, but I’m at least mindful and humble enough to admit that. I’ve gone through every iteration you can when it comes to finding content in something outside of my mind and each time have realized how utterly false they all are. Everything I mentioned above I tried to make my well and eventually stopped trying, not to mention countless other bandaids my blog has tried to shine light on since I started it 2 years ago.
Just like we’re not biologically wired to have access to people we know at all times, we’re not biologically wired to need things that don’t contribute directly to our survival. Literal baggage was a detriment to our ability to stay fleet of foot and mobile, able to uproot our bases at a moment’s notice if we or our tribes were in danger.
Now, you’d think that because we’re much more stationary creatures that it would be ok to have a few more things to survive on— I agree. Don’t get rid of your can opener.
However, there are now so many things, too many unique, personalized ways to outsource our well-being to something other than ourselves. Technology is an obvious culprit, but long before there was smartphone addiction, there was internet addiction, there was shopping addiction, there was alcoholism, there was TV addiction. Hell, even cleaning (the act of maintaining the purity of your things) can be addictive. People who wanted to run from themselves have always found a way to do it — materialism is just another version of that.
Anyone who has an attachment to things that’s overly personal or sees their things as a part of themselves has vulnerability issues that stem from a broken self-image (trauma-induced or not).
Similarly to pets (who provide unconditional positive regard that make us feel worthy of love), things can’t hurt us. They do exactly what we want, all the time, nothing more, nothing less. They can break, just like pets can die, but that pain is not personal (and therefore not nearly as painful) in the way that true human relational pain is. You risk far less buying a new vacuum or a new dog than you do entering a relationship or standing up to your parents.
I’m pro-capitalism and know that it’s not the problem (other capitalist countries are far happier and healthier than America) but worry that our particular brand of ideology has made it too easy to reduce any spiritual/personal/emotional/mental strife to “not having x” or “not having enough of y.”
Even if it’s not something tangible, I see the same outcomes-oriented toxicity in how capitalism teaches fulfillment. I’ve never been caught up in things, but am just starting to unlearn my unhealthy reliance on productivity to justify my existence, no doubt shaped by my Eastern European immigrant roots that were molded by America’s calloused, rushed hands.
“I just have to graduate college, then I’ll love myself. I just have to get that job, that promotion, then I’ll love myself. I just have to move to Australia, then I’ll love myself. I just have to become a therapist, then I’ll love myself. I just have to write a best seller, then I’ll love myself. I just have to find love with someone else, then I’ll love myself. I just have to get married, then I’ll love myself. I just have to forgive my parents, then I’ll love myself. I just have to have kids, then I’ll love myself.
I just have to know I love myself, then I’ll love myself.”
IT’S ALL A TRAP DON’T YOU SEE?!?!?!
A singular focus on fulfillment through success (a model that’s been validated over and over through mass media & generations of post-Depression parenting styles) removes the need to think critically about why you want success in the first place. What are you chasing that you don’t already have?
We need to fundamentally change the narrative about how we look at human flourishing from something that’s earned/given vs something that’s illuminated. It’s not out there for us to run and capture, it’s inside for us to discover and nurture. What really brings true peace and joy — hours of sitting with yourself, learning, reflecting, healing — has no value in a capitalist context.
For anyone reading this that disagrees, I encourage you to sit and journal for the next 10 minutes and see if that feeling stays.