Fear of Leaving Empty-Handed
Have you ever gone into a shop and browsed, only to feel like the woman behing the counter is watching you, and like you can’t leave empty handed? That compulsion to buy something?
It can get a bit ridiculous. When I first left home, I had to know what was inside every shop, I think it was just curiosity and an enjoyment of the time I could spend doing it. However, I seemed to keep leaving the shops with an item or two. Sometimes three. Sometimes these items were fairly expensive. Always I didn’t want or need them. I couldn’t understand why I kept doing it until I got stuck in a particularly cloying boutique.
It was the kind of shop that calls itself a boutique, that sells things which are labelled in squiggly handwriting with the name of some unreadable (and unremarkable) “designer.” The window display had been some pretty hats, and for some reason it lured me in. I wondered what else they sold.
I went inside. A particularly sour-faced older lady in the over sixty category, wearing a very unattractive floral print dress (prints had been out for about 10 years by this point, and wouldn’t ever make a comeback in the garish incarnation she was sporting) and a necklace that seemed to be garotting her neck fat. She glared down her nose at me and didn’t say a word. I looked around to see what the shop sold. There was a lot of things that the older lady might wear to watch a regatta or go to a wedding. I could see the Queen shopping somewhere similar. Nothing had any price tags on. I started to panic because there was nothing in the whole shop that I could buy. Not a single thing. Everything was repulsive in some way or another. I felt too hot, the temperature was stuffy and the artificial floral air freshener was catching in my throat. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t buy anything, so I looked obsessively at every single item, pretending to be interested, and I had an epiphany – I didn’t have to buy something in order to leave. The exit was right there, all I had to do was be brave and walk out. I suddenly realised that when I came into shops like this I tended to worry that sour older women like that would just see my school uniform and assume I was shoplifting when I wasn’t, causing unpleasantness. She couldn’t stop me for shoplifting – because I hadn’t shoplifted anything. It didn’t seem like such a silly worry at the time, so I had to take a very deep breath, close my eyes, pull the door open… and I was back on the street, walking away, never to see the inside of that awful place again.
I felt like I’d escaped from a spider web.
For years, I felt very uncomfortable when trying to leave a shop without buying anything, although it wasn’t unmanageable. I did still find it quite difficult, however, and there were a few times I ended up leaving with something I thought I wanted to buy, but if I’d really thought about it, I wouldn’t have bought it. It all came to a head in my first year of university. I’d just got my student overdraft, and I saw a dress in the window. It was sparkly and pale pink. I went inside to try it on. It didn’t fit particularly well and it had a huge design flaw that made my legs look terrible. Additionally, it was actually a very unflattering pale peach, and made my skin tone look dead. Oh, and it was also £250. But do you know what I did? I bought it anyway. I didn’t find out about the colour until I got back to my room; they must have had some very odd lighting on it in the shop.
I got it home still feeling really pleased with myself about buying the dress, pleased that I was now the sort of person who could spend £250 on a dress without thinking about where that money would come from. Pleased, in short, that I was able to participate in consumerism at a higher level than when I lived at home. I equated spending power with success.
It was about seven or eight years later that I finally realized that I had made a poor choice. The years came and went, I never actually wore that dress to any of the variety of functions I attended, at all of which it would have been appropriate, because I was afraid of someone spilling something on it, or standing on the hem. Every time I tried it on I would look in the mirror and feel very pleased with myself for having such a nice dress. Through the bad times, the times when I was working at McDonalds and when I was unemployable because I couldn’t walk, I would try the dress on and feel the same way I had when I bought it – like I was going places. I felt like anyone with a dress like this must be on their way up in life. I loved it. And underneath that thought process, I also hated it. I felt like it was a tangible reminder of my own weakness, my inability to not buy things, something I knew was a personal failing even as it made me feel happy. The feeling grew on me that I had never worn it, and time was always moving forward, and it was just taking up space in my life. I didn’t need it, and I didn’t want it. Every time I altered the hemline or changed the drop of the skirt, it still didn’t look right and I couldn’t put my finger on the reason.
The bottom line was, it was an expensive waste of money and it was also an overpriced and poor fitting monstrosity that I would never have occasion to wear.
When my wedding day came, I pulled it out. The most expensive dress you ever wear, we are told by the Wedding Industrial Complex, is supposed to be your wedding dress. Well I wasn’t going to spend £250 on a wedding dress, but I also didn’t actually like that dress and didn’t want to wear it in public. I think the peach colour had progressively faded from the moment I bought it and when it came to my wedding year it was a really yellowish peach that made me look positively anaemic (which I was, but I didn’t need to look like I was). My actual wedding dress was £10. When I first started minimalizing the house, six months after the wedding (we haven’t been married anywhere near a year yet), that £250 dress was one of the first things I got rid of.
Do you know how good that felt? It felt better than when I bought it. I felt like I’d unhitched a cart that I’d been dragging behind me for years. I felt lighter and more moveable. It’s several weeks later and I’m still glad I got rid of it.
The fact that I was able to get rid of it means that I am putting that part of my life – the naive thoughts that being able to consume more expensive items equates to success and happiness – behind me, I’m committed to minimalizing my life and letting go of the things that are weighing me down.
All my sandbags will be cut loose, so I can soar amongst the stars.
No longer am I afraid of leaving empty handed. I don’t need to buy things to prove to shop assistants that I have spending power. I know that I can buy anything I want to, but that doesn’t mean I have to use that power. In Kung-Fu, it is taught that true wisdom is knowing when not to fight. So in minimalism, we learn that true wisdom is also knowing when not to purchase things.
I think this is probably linked to FOMO – or fear of missing out. Sometimes I worry that if I don’t buy something when I see it I’ll never get back to buy it when I really need it. This is an obstacle I’m still trying to overcome. But that’s okay, because minimalism is a journey, and it starts with choosing which pair of shoes to wear to take that single step. Unless you’re a centipede. In which case you can wear all of them.