“Superman Syndrome” Revisited: Money and Self-Esteem

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.