Psychology and Shopping: Ideal & Real Self

Figuring out who you are is a big question, and inherently relies on comparing yourself to other versions of yourself or to others. Your answers to that question may have some elements that are fixed while others change over the course of your lifetime. A common exercise in social psychology/sociology classes is to answer the question “Who am I?” 20 times over. How you choose to answer this is going to be a mix of what comes to mind first, what you value most, maybe some insecurities you have (“bad at math” was common amongst the social science students in class), and some demographic information when you start to run out of ideas.

Another thing to consider when thinking about who you are is how close you are to being who you want to be. There’s a lot to unpack from that as well, so I’ll keep it simple by working with “real” and “ideal” self. “Real” is, simply enough, who you are right now, for better or for worse. This is who you see yourself as, and can be a combination of your perception and what others give you as feedback of who you are. “Ideal” is who you are striving to be, whether within realistic reach or beyond what you could ever do. I don’t mean that in a defeatist way, there are limitations to what we can do – or what we care to do, just as much as we all have our strengths and passions. I like to learn through visuals, so we’ll compare how low and high overlap of “real” and “ideal” self can play out.

In our first Venn diagram, there’s not much overlap between “ideal” and “real.” We aren’t going to make any other assumptions about this sense of self – my blog posts are long enough on average, so we’re not going to try to unpack level of happiness, feelings of self-worth, sense of success, or anything else, we’re sticking to just what’s in the circles. So, there’s minimal overlap between “real” and “ideal,” which means that, to this person, there’s a lot of catching up to do for them to be their ideal self. What can influence this is the types of messages they’re exposed to and whether they choose to internalize these messages as faults/failures they need to change.

For example, you likely don’t internalize the types of messages we see in pop-up ads or spam mail (the “dermatologists hate her!” type), but you may be more inclined to consider listening to or heeding the advice of someone whose opinion you value – even if you weren’t aware of the “issue” in the first place. The more and more things or abilities that get added to the ideal pile that you don’t already possess, the further gap – or more minimal the overlap – will be between “ideal” and “real.”

The second Venn diagram has much more overlap. Who this person wants to be and who they are is mostly consistent. This could be someone who manages the number of messages they choose to internalize, someone who is able to fulfill their goals/enact their values, or someone who may see the value in their faults and how it makes them human which in turn is included in their “ideal” view of themselves.

You can reasonably expect that the gap and overlap will change throughout your life. There can be parts of yourself that you’ll (almost always) value, and other parts that used to be “ideal” but either no longer fit your lifestyle, or your goals and responsibilities have changed. How this can be a factor in shopping habits is whether the aspirations you have can be fulfilled through shopping/physical items. If you feel the need to follow specific trends or fads to feel like you belong with a specific crowd, there are likely items or fashion staples that you would need to purchase to “keep up” with everyone else. This can be related to hobbies as well (a topic I’m coming back to later this month), where to get into certain hobbies and the lifestyle that surrounds it can lead to a lot of money being spent for the sake of getting “in.” Granted, you would absolutely need to buy a kayak to get into kayaking, but for other hobbies like table top gaming or crafting, my experience has been that there’s an undercurrent of gatekeeping if you don’t own a bunch of stuff or specific brands related to the hobby.

For a personal example, when I got hired after university, I felt like I needed to overhaul my entire wardrobe for it to be work appropriate (despite having pieces that would have been fine to wear at work), which resulted in a shopping spree in preparation for entering “the real world.” I internalized that I needed to look a certain way for work, spend a chunk of money to emulate that look, and four years later, own only a handful of those pieces. On the other hand, I was in the later years of high school (16 years old) when Silly Bandz were a thing, and I saw no value in purchasing any despite most people I knew having at least some and otherwise being the type to like the idea of having a complete collection. The “need” for these items were not internalized at all, and I largely forgot about them short of watching a YouTube video about 2010s trends and fads.

It’s been a long while since I’ve last done my 20 “who am I” questions, though I’d wager that what my focuses are now are less geared toward fitting into specific groups – especially through status symbols – and more about liking who I am and what I bring to the table.