Identity - It's Not What You Own

We all need love, acceptance, community, and a sense of accomplishment.  These factors contribute to our mental health and self esteem.

Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow have demonstrated that once our basic physical needs are met, we embark on a path to self-improvement.  Whether that leads us to seek out new experiences, new skills, new possessions, or a new look, we always want something more and different.

This drive has a positive side.  Invention and innovation have always come from the urge to be and do more and better.  Dissatisfaction with the status quo has created tools, machines, art, music, democracy, and movements for human rights and social justice.

But it doesn't always lead to happiness.

Unfortunately, the desire to "be all you can be" also fuels discontent.  I know you've felt it, when everything you've already done or acquired feels like old news.

We're always trying to enhance our looks, our wardrobes, our jobs, our homes, or our relationships, but once the initial happiness wears off, we adjust, and then we start looking for the next new thing.  That dopamine high is so short lived!  We compare and compete with others, and keep searching for things or experiences to compensate for our perceived inadequacies.  We may try to gain significance through

  • designer clothes
  • the latest phone or smart gadget
  • liposuction and Botox
  • a luxury car
  • a remodeled kitchen
  • a diploma from an elite college
  • a promotion and a prestigious title
  • exotic travel

We may get everything we thought we wanted, everything we genuinely desired at some point.  But those items eventually become background noise, things we don't really notice or appreciate any more, part of what we have to clean, store, insure, repair, upgrade, work at, or continue to pay for.  Then we need something new to bring back the excitement.

If we equate our belongings and experiences with our value as persons, we enter a never-ending quest for acceptance and respect.  We must continually prove our worth.  We try to satisfy our very real emotional and psychological needs with the temporary high of acquisition.

It's easy to confuse material possessions with real achievement.

Advertisers prey on these needs, of course.  But the real problem may be that it's much easier to buy something than it is to accomplish something.  It's much easier to look successful than to expend the time, energy, attention, and commitment it takes to leave the world a better place.

And that can leave us feeling hollow and unsatisfied.

So how can we break free?

1.  Identify your true need.  Your pursuit of the next purchase, experience, or program for self-improvement is about an internal need.  What is that need, really?  Are you buying a new car to prove you are worthy of respect?  Do you need a designer handbag to feel a part of the group?  Figure out your intangible emotional need.

2.  Determine a way to actually meet that need.  If a pair of shoes is giving you self esteem, that's a problem.  I'm not judging you, because I've been in the same situation.  But what is a true solution to your need?  If you lack self-worth, maybe you need therapy, or a life coach, or an activity that bolsters your confidence and makes you feel needed (such as volunteering for a cause you care about).  Buying something won't do that.

3.  Separate your identity from your stuff.  If we believe our possessions or experiences indicate our value, we become slaves to those things.  And if times change, whether by job loss, age, or some other factor, and we have to give up those things, a piece of our self-worth and identity will go with them.

4.  Focus on what really matters.  The desire to thrive is a noble one, and it shouldn't be wasted in seeking a fancier house or a bigger wardrobe.  Remain ambitious, but choose goals that are worthy of you.  Strive to create, to contribute, to be healthy, wise, courageous, playful, and compassionate.

We can escape the treadmill.

We don't have to be caught in an eternal loop of desire and discontent, mere consumers who are constantly enticed into buying something new.  We don't have to be so busy trying to impress everyone else that we ignore our true needs.  Minimalism can help us find lasting satisfaction.

We can reduce the clutter in our homes and schedules, gaining peace and confidence.  By keeping only what we value, we actually gain a clearer understanding of ourselves, and simplify our lives at the same time.

We find our true identity when we own and do less.


  1. Thanks Karen. In my Buddhist class tonight the teacher was speaking about a similar thing.That we need to derive our sense of self confidence from feeling good about cultivating positive qualities of mind (like compassion) not our need for respect, reputation, pleasure or things.


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