Changing Your Relationship with Stuff, through Language?

As a writer, words are very important. As you find out when learning a new language, certain words have nuances and connotations that you can only learn with time, practice and exposure to the new language. But we don’t always pay attention to the words we use in our own language.

Taking a slight detour here, if you are a person engaged in any amount of self-improvement, I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of eliminating negative self-talk. (You’ve got to stop saying, “I’m fat,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m ugly,” or “I don’t have any good ideas.”) The reason why psychologists, bloggers and anyone with a keyboard in front of them says this is because they know how powerful words are. I think you know, too. We learned when we were little kids the chant, “I think I can,” from The Little Engine that Could storybook/movie.

The words you choose may end up dictating (pun intended) the outcome of the situation. Yet, have you ever thought about how you talk about stuff/merchandise/products and the objects that surround you in everyday life? For instance, it seems as if I’m always donating stuff, but I still have a ton of it. Why is this?

The words I choose to talk about “stuff” ends up guiding my actions. If I’m not careful, I walk around saying “I need this,” or  “I have to have that.” If I say and believe I absolutely need something, I’m going to end up buying it. That’s a problem right there. I say things like, “I need a new hair scarf.”  I don’t absolutely require a new scarf for survival, I just want one to match an outfit I have. I’ve been saying lately “I need a new laptop.” Do I really need a new one if I can go to the library and type for free, or use my netbook at home? No. I want one for my comfort and convenience. Yet somehow, whenever I think about something to buy, it’s always phrased as “I need.” Do you do the same thing?

I’ve been thinking about where we learned this curious behavior. I always like to blame my parents and other older relatives for my ingrained faults– like modeling the “I need” behavior when I was a kid. But I remember my Mom always saying “Do you really need that?” whenever we’d ask for a toy or candy.  As much as I’d like to, I really can’t blame them for this.

Advertisements and the media could certainly shoulder most of the blame for brainwashing the public into believing we need specific merchandise to have a great life. Example: I need razors to shave my legs. Why? I’m a woman and the rule of society says I have to shave my legs. If I don’t shave my legs people will think I’m weird and possibly ostracize me. If I want to fit in, I have to shave. Yes, shaving one’s legs is best done with a razor. But I don’t actually need to do it. I want to and I choose to and that’s why I buy the razor.

We actually need very little. We have a ton of wants that help us fit into society better: like those uncomfortable work clothes that let us keep the job that pays for our giant shelter. But we probably don’t need those work clothes, or that job to pay for that shelter. We could find a smaller shelter that costs less, that we could pay for with a job that didn’t require those work clothes. See what I’m suggesting? Most of the things we think we need, are actually choices we’re making to indulge our wants. When there is a choice, and not a need, there is always another option. I try to remember that when I speak about my wants and my choices. That way I’ll be more deliberate with my actions.

At the end of the day, though, this is how our American society works. It’s how the human society has advanced. Humans have actual needs, kind-of-needs, mild wants and extreme desires. We invent things to make life easier, fun and more comfortable. And that’s okay. The key is to know what is really a need or a want (or a choice), why it is so, and speak about it appropriately. Words dictate actions.

We have to change the narrative regarding our wants and needs. If you think about it, most of the stuff we “need” is something we want very badly for comfort and convenience. Call it the modern conveniences of society, or first world problems.  The first step to changing the narrative is to THINK about the words we are choosing. Then, if we’re trying to save money, buy less stuff or whatever, knowing and speaking accordingly makes it easier to resist buying when necessary.

I can blame the media, our society or whoever. I can even blame myself for being easily manipulated by the system of our society.  But that doesn’t solve the problem either.   I have to be honest. I’m not really sure how to banish my desire for things. I don’t know if it’s possible, even if I’ve become a Nirvana seeking Buddhist who has denied all earthly attachments.  But I can stop saying that I need things that aren’t required for the survival of my earthly life. I can change the way I talk and think about stuff. And thus I can change my actions henceforth.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing all of this, and going to review it before posting, I remembered something in a book I read that I wanted to share.  In The Mastery of Love,  Don Miguel Ruiz (I’m so obsessed with this book right now) differentiates between needs of the body (what I call actual, legitimate needs) and needs of the mind (which I’m calling wants). The needs of the mind, he says, can’t actually fulfill the mind, because all the mind needs is love (I’m talking about you chocolate craving). If you’re interested, check out the book. His discussion on needs of the mind on pages 126-129. It’s a very good read/re-read.