Fighting the Feeling of "Should"

I'm guilty of owning more books and records than I have space for. I squirrel away hotel toiletries and hoard dishes that I've never used. (Yes, that creamer shaped like a cow is awesome, but given that my partner is lactose-intolerant and I take my coffee black, that that cow has basically been put out to pasture.) I'm guessing that this story sounds familiar.

Abby's recent article, 12 Things You Probably Own Too Many Of, got me thinking about how it is that we tend to accumulate so many items we don't need. This tendency to over-own is often attributed to overbuying or to a deep-seated reluctance to get rid of things, and while these two factors probably have a huge impact on the way we outfit our homes, I think that an equally important factor is the more subtle feeling that we "should" own these things.

If you've ever started a wedding registry or have been privy to the creation of one, you know precisely what I'm talking about. Suddenly my friends who never drank coffee in their lives decided that it was time to add an espresso machine to the registry. Another set of friends suddenly became the proud owners of three different implements for chopping, blending, and mixing, when the food processor that they already had would have sufficed. But don't misunderstand me, it's not just newlyweds that have this tendency; I bake often enough to make my KitchenAid stand mixer a worthwhile investment, but I certainly do not make sausage, pasta, or juice often enough to merit the pack of attachments that I also "needed" when I bought it.

So what comes over us when we give in to the impulse of "should"? I've thought of two possible catalysts for this feeling, although I'm sure there are more:

"Your Eyes are Bigger than Your Stomach," or The Falseness of Visual Desire: We look at spaces in magazines, blogs, and real life, and naturally, we begin to notice all the appealing objects or useful gadgets that others own. After looking at a few recent house tours, I've decided that I'd love horsehead bookends or a colorful Le Creuset collection, not to mention that amazing Wolf stove. It would be too reductive to attribute these desires simply to greed or jealousy. Instead, I think that we immediately put ourselves in the place of the owners (or we mentally put their objects in our places) without thinking about how we actually live. This interpolation can often cause the feeling that we should own or buy these things, even when they're impractical. That eight-burner stovetop is certainly covetable, but if I stop and think about how rarely I even use the four burners that I currently have, it suddenly becomes a ludicrous prospect to want four more.

"Don't Fix It if It Isn't Broken," or The Unquestioned Tradition: This is that moment when you decide that you need both casual diningware and formal china despite the fact that you have people over rarely, and when you do, it's for informal events like BBQs or potlucks. This is that moment when you decide that you need a guest bedroom or a formal dining room or a formal sitting room, despite the fact that you might be better served by a computer room, craft room, or library. And this is that moment when you buy a full set of washcloths with your set of towels, despite the fact that you don't use washcloths. The way that we build our homes is strangely full of assumptions, despite the fact that we all live differently, and these unquestioned moments tend to occur without us even noticing.

So what can we do to combat these tendencies?

First, try to think about what you actually would use, what would make your life richer, and what you could do without. Reassess. When you think about a new item, try to determine its function, and try to understand why you want it. Is it about need, utility, or aesthetics? Obviously, not everything you buy will be necessary in the strict sense, but stopping to consider the place the object will serve in your life can help you avoid purchasing items that you don't need or that don't fit your lifestyle.

The second aid is something that may not work for everyone, but I've personally found it useful. When I see design elements that I love, I've started clipping them from magazines or adding them to Evernote. In part, this serves as an inspiration file, but more importantly, it's a means of catharsis. Sometimes storing my desires in one place can help me realize how unfeasible it is to obtain them all. By taking a few seconds to clip the paper or to save the file, I feel like I'm still recognizing the greatness of the ideas, and it dulls the desire to buy.

Are there other ways that you fight the unspoken "should" assumptions?

(Image: Leela Cyd Ross / Jessica & Charley's Chocolate Workshop and Handmade Home Kitchen)

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Carolyn is a freelance writer and photographer, as well as a lover of all things colorful and quirky. She grew up in Texas and settled in Chicago by way of L.A., England and Paris. Currently, she is a professor at Illinois Institute of Technology.

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