Updated on 02.08.10

“Superman Syndrome” Revisited: Money and Self-Esteem

Trent Hamm

Two years ago, I posted a nice long article about what I call “Superman Syndrome” – a tendency for people to try to demonstrate their worthiness to others by buying things for them.

Just yesterday, a reader emailed me about that article:

Superman syndrome is just another example of poor self-esteem and how it can entrap you and your money. It’s no different than keeping up with the Joneses or anything else like that.

It’s true. We only need to impress other people if we feel that somehow we need to impress them, that we don’t have enough already on the table to make them happy and make them want us.

Do you buy clothes because they fit you well and keep you warm, or do you buy them based on how they impress others?
Do you buy electronic gadgets because they fill a real use in your life, or do you buy them with an eye towards showing them off to your friends?
Do you go out to dinner and pick up the tab because there’s a real reason to do so (like you’re treating someone for a special occasion), or are you thinking about how it’ll butter someone up?
Do you throw money into redecorating because it’ll improve how you feel about your living quarters or do you do it to impress and stun your guests?

In other words, is your personal worth based on what you value or what you think others value?

For most of my life, I placed an inordinate amount of value on what others thought of me. I was only cool if others thought I was cool. I was only worthy if others thought I was worthy. Thus, I would strive to make others feel as though I was cool so that, by osmosis, I would feel as though I was cool.

The end result was that I would constantly spend money to make others think I was somehow cool or worthy. I’d take people out to dinners. I’d buy gadgets based largely on impressing others (“This one would be fine for what I need, but this higher model… that’d impress ’em!”). The list goes on and on.

There are lots of problems with that kind of attitude, of course. I’ll just outline two of the most relevant ones.

First, other people are fickle. You might impress someone one day, but the next day it doesn’t matter. Why? Once a person’s opinion of you is set, it takes quite a lot to alter that opinion, and it’s a change that you usually can’t buy. Sure, in the short term, you can get their attention with something shiny and new, but they’re fickle and they’ll soon revert to their already-established view of you.

Second, the only person that you always have to live with is you. At the end of the day, when you close your door, you’re the only person there. All of the cash you’ve spent trying to impress others has turned out only to drain away the resources you need to do the things you want. You’ve got a shiny car and a lot of cool gadgets that impress people, but when you close that door at night, do you have the life and the career that you want? Are you fulfilled when you’re alone?

It took me a long time to realize that I often wasn’t fulfilled when I was alone – and that, underneath the bravado, the shiny things I owned, and my material generosity, others knew it, too. Their opinions of me weren’t made of the things I bought (for myself or for them), but from my personal character.

Spending time with someone, genuinely listening to them, and helping them when you can (usually in non-material ways) goes far more towards building a positive reputation with others than throwing cash at them – or at things to impress them – ever will. Even better, you can save your financial resources to put yourself in a better position in life, doing whatever it is you dream of doing.

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  1. Veracity says:

    This really hits home. I think this goes along with the saying,

    “You buy things you really can’t afford to impress people you really do not like.”

    Sometimes I think it is just about self-consideration. There is no point living in the stress.

  2. Stacey says:

    On the flip side, we’re using peer pressure to drive our debt-free goals. We want to invite everyone we know to our mortgage-burning party – especially those who make fun of our frugal lifestyle.

    Alas, it’s not the healthiest way to motivate yourself. Financial goals and all actions should really come from within, and not be driven by what other people think of you.

  3. asithi says:

    I think when you are genuinely happy with your life and how you manage your money, it shows. People want to be around you and it has nothing to do with how or what you spend your money on.

    I think I am pretty cool with my weekly savings from couponing. I talk about my deals all the time with my friends. Like Stacey said, because of peer pressure, whenever some of my friends are starting to get into couponing.

  4. KittyBoarder says:

    A bit off topic..
    I am still not convinced “couponing” is a way to go to achieve financial goals, especially those from Sunday paper that only allows you to save a dollar here or 25 cents there. To be, it’s wasting of time. The time spent on cliping coupons can be used to increase skills, thinking about new ideas to make more money, or exercise.

    I know dollars and cents add up. But it’s like taking a minimum wage job. For the amount of time you put in, the saving is way too small.

    I’d rather use the time to do something more productive that benefits my business, my career, my soul and my body. Cliping coupons to save $10 for grocery sounds dreadful…

  5. chacha1 says:

    I think this post is particularly apt for my city (Los Angeles) where “keeping up” is not as important as “showing up.” Being seen at the “right” club or in the “right” designer jeans, carrying the “right” bag, going to the “right” hairdresser. It’s a higher-stakes continuation of high school: cliques rule.

    Depending on the community a person wants to impress (or wants to make an impression upon), there will be different sets of “right” things. In a suburb it might be the “right” minivan and the “right” Little League team.

    I think part of deconstructing the Superman thing is to dig into who is deciding what’s “right” and whether that judgement is justified for the individual. And a big part of THAT is realizing that “right” IS a judgement and, as such, only an opinion.

  6. KittyBoarder says:

    Yes, this is defintely one thing I noticed when I was visiting LA. The town has more BMWs than anywhere else in the country. I wonder if people are driving the Bimmers because they really enjoy the Bimmer performance or they just want a “shinny” car on the street…

  7. Nicole says:

    chacha1– As far as I can tell out here, it’s also the “right” parenting style along with the stroller etc. Back in TX the arguments were spanking vs. time-outs and everyone shopped at Target. Here you’re supposed to use whatever the latest version of “non-violent communication” is (and apparently time-outs are violent). I’m glad I’m too busy (commenting on forums *cough*) to try to keep up.

  8. Cecile says:

    It is sad when we let other people dictate what we really want in life. Do something because it makes you happy and fulfilled and not because your neighbor or your friend is doing it. Buy that dress if it makes you feel comfortable and good about yourself and not because it’s the in thing.

  9. SEC Lawyer says:

    This is bad advice to people who are in sales-oriented careers. Like it or not, those who dress well do sell more than those who don’t. Those who entertain customers often and well do sell more than those who don’t. Et cetera. Of course, those who don’t sell for a living don’t need to think about this. School teachers, for example. Or other government employees. But most of the best-paying jobs do have “sales” elements. The key thing is to avoid spending money to impress people who don’t really matter, such as total strangers or casual contacts or (for that matter) close personal friends. But remember that those who do matter — customers — often do care about clothing, restaurants, country clubs and other trappings of the good life.

  10. Will says:

    This post really came at a good time for me. I’ve just made the decision to dumb down my life. I’m getting rid of my Blackberry and getting a basic phone, and also getting the least expensive basic cable package. For far too long I’ve been trying to impress people with things, and today it stops for good. Thank you!

  11. Laura In Atlanta says:

    “To be, it’s wasting of time. The time spent on cliping coupons can be used to increase skills, thinking about new ideas to make more money, or exercise.”

    I’m always surprised when people (Trent included, I think) say that coupon clipping is time consuming . . . it takes five minutes to flip through the inserts, find the coupons for items that you normally buy and to file them away until you need them. Seriously, i don’t understand why people think it takes hours!

  12. BD says:

    @Laura (#8) –
    Agreed! It takes me five minutes too, to go through all the coupon inserts. This isn’t brain surgery, nor are there thousands of coupons to go through.

    Five minutes to save 5 or 10 dollars? YES. That’s hardly minimum wage.

    As for the article, heh, I guess I’m pretty self-centered in that I don’t care what the neighbors think. Anything I buy, I buy because I need it, or I’m going to get a lot of mileage and enjoyment out of it. I never buy stuff to impress other people, because I’m the one who has to live with it (and pack it all up and haul it when I have to move).

  13. I have a sister who pesonifies this concept–just never knew there was a name for it.

    Very low self-esteem. Goes out and blows thousands of dollars at Christmas time for a bunch of gifts that other family memebers do not even want. And she lives on a very limited income.

    It is sad, actually.

  14. littlepitcher says:

    Dads who try to weasel on child support are notorious for this style of spending, to impress the child while stiffing mama.
    Perhaps it should be called “deadbeat spending” rather than “superman”?

  15. EJW says:

    Coupon clipping (or cliping, however you want to spell it) a waste of time? Would it be dreadful if once a year someone handed you at least $520? I routinely save $10-20 a week clipping coupons. It takes very little time as noted by posters above, and allows me to sometimes have convenience foods (95% of what my family eats is homemade), items for lunch packing, or the snacks all my kids friends’ have on hand for very little money. Best of all it makes the chore of grocery shopping into a game.

  16. oilandgarlic says:

    Living in Los Angeles, it is very hard not to get caught up in making a good first impression. Ironically, I think I’m more immune to the superman mentality because I grew up here; the ones who really succumb to it seem to be transplants. Perhaps they watched one too many episodes of 90210 while growing up? Plus they’re drawn to LA for a reason.

    Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed is that my wealthier friends seem to negotiate more and are more comfortable in their skins than poorer ones. When you’re poorer, you often want to appear richer and pick up the tabs, not use coupons, etc..

  17. chacha1 says:

    #9 SEC Lawyer said: “The key thing is to avoid spending money to impress people who don’t really matter, such as total strangers or casual contacts or (for that matter) close personal friends”

    Ah, but those are often *exactly the people* we need to impress. EVERYONE matters. Our close personal friends may forgive us anything in our own interactions, but would they recommend us, as a business professional, to an associate or acquaintance of theirs? Or do they know that we, secretly, are a slob or a flake?

    You have to look *and act* the part – that was the gist of my earlier comment, perhaps badly stated. The wannabes who come to L.A. are banking on someone *they don’t know* seeing them and assessing them as “right” for some creative project. (My point was that without the talent to follow through, most of these folks won’t make it past the casting office, no matter HOW well they present themselves.)

    Total strangers or casual contacts may be the people who can send work our way. So while we do need to assess the relative value of the latest gadget/car/garment/whatever on its own terms, and according to our personal values NOT the neighbors’ opinions, when it comes to personal presentation, pretty much everyone is interviewing for their next job every. single. day … and it’s wise not to forget that.

  18. KittyBoarder says:

    Yes, coupon cliping is dreadful. $10 – $20 savings cuz you have to orderly buy the specific items in the store is dreadful.

    I am in my mid 30’s. I used all my energy and focus on new skills trainings, schools, self-educations, running through my financial books, establishing new business and now I earn $275000 a year steadyly. So yes, $10 saving is dreadful. I believe in money making and then save and invest majority of it by working at my investments. Not coupon cliping.

  19. Brandi says:

    Coupon clipping can be as intensive or as casual as you make it. I only use a few coupons since I buy few convenience foods and have certain brands that I like for many products (also buy lots of foods in bulk or at a salvage store so coupons are moot). I look at couponing as one of many strategies I employ to save money. If I find a coupon for something I can use, great. I don’t spend enormous amounts of time searching for them or clipping them. I also believe in making money and investing, but couponing is mildly fun for me so I do it. I think the point is to do what works for you. For those of you who detest coupons, don’t use them and CHILL OUT.

  20. KittyBoarder says:

    Totally agree. Even from “saving money strategies”, we don’t have to “keep up with Jones” to do what everybody else is doing… There is never a one size fits all strategy out there…So like you said, do what makes sense to yourself and that’s the best strategy. Just like what this post is saying, buy the stuff make you happy, not to impress others..

    For me, since I don’t have the clipping coupon habit, I simply don’t even know where to start…Plus, I don’t buy anything regularly and I don’t buy that much grocery.. so it just doesn’t work out..

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