How shopping can trigger low self-esteem issues.
It happened again yesterday.
As soon as I entered the supermarket, I wanted to leave.
Not simply stroll away, but flat-out flee.
My hands twitched. My pulse raced. As my ex-roommate used to say about a lot of things: I felt just ... sick.
Those of us with low self-esteem often struggle to complete simple tasks that others manage easily. Meals. Bathing. Dressing. Shopping. Commuting.
Sometimes these tasks trigger us because they echo traumas that kneecapped our self-esteem. Dressing is hard for me because my parents ridiculed my clothes, snorting Eww, armpit stains already and You look pregnant in that. And no: Maybe because they started when I was so young and kept it up for 27 years, I haven't gotten over it.
But some tasks are not exact echoes of our pasts. Sometimes they challenge the generic, nonspecific impairments low self-esteem inflicts. For instance, we lack confidence. We tend to fear others. We lack a stable sense of self. So even if food never was an issue in our families, we might hate supermarkets nonetheless.
We might feel claustrophobic in their crowded aisles — because low self-esteem makes us ashamed of being seen close-up, or even accidentally touched; because whomever's shopping cart collides with whose, we'll blame ourselves for being clumsy and apologize. We dread those crowded aisles because standing near strangers makes us feel like unwanted invaders, stalkers, overstaying party guests.
Carts barreling toward ours might make us feel attacked or unseen: opposite emotions, both of which cut deep.
And shoppers who position themselves — wittingly or not — directly in our paths, blocking our progress through the store and our access to merchandise, fill us with frustration and fury, neither of which we feel we have the right to express.
We simultaneously envy and resent their guiltless willingness to take up so much space. These aisle-occluders might have learned early in life that their desires would be, must be met: right here, right now, regardless of how long it takes to choose between blackberry jam and marmalade.
Flooded by seemingly conflicting and forbidden feelings — I hate, yet wish I was, him or her — we who have low self-esteem often shut down: dissociating, overwhelmed, desperate to flee.
Even uncrowded aisles unnerve us. Facing so much merchandise can spark what psychologists call "choice overload," in which even well-adjusted individuals panic when asked to choose between six or more options, then regret whichever choice they made. We whose selection-making mechanisms are disabled by low self-esteem — I always make the worst choices because I'm stupid (or whichever adjective we think applies) — are keenly vulnerable to severe choice overload.
I wrote "eggs" on my shopping list, but not which size! I'm such an idiot.
If our purchases impact others — if we're shopping for a household, say — the stakes soar higher:
My choices will disgust not just me but also those who depend on me. Their fates lie in my incompetent hands.
Such mental monologues lead not just to après-shopping regret but also to a special self-loathing emotion I call pre-gret — regretting actions not taken yet.
This is why some of us hate supermarkets — and shopping in general.
But shopping is just one of many "easy," "ordinary," "daily" tasks that topple us.
Others don't understand: that choosing quickly what to wear/eat/say without regret or pre-gret requires confidence and self-belief. Commuting and bathing require hope: that we can improve and survive.
These ostensibly simple things are hard for us. So is completing such a task, with all its challenges for us, somehow less laudable than when athletes push past their pain thresholds to win a race?
We should create our own new lexicon that redefines "accomplishment," "completion" and "success."
What if in order to hate ourselves less during difficult tasks we vow to notice at least two small random joys? Sunlit cotton and the lightness of onion skins, for instance. Or the clink of coins. (And let's also vow not to hate ourselves if we forget.)