Shopping is good for you (Self-awareness )
I owe my current happiness to the practice of the ancient art of Bargain Shopping.
I know what you're thinking. Every woman loves shopping for new clothes and shoes and we'll all find excuses to justify it. But I swear I'm serious. Bargain shopping was my brain-rehabilitation exercise for self-awareness. It lead me to reconnect with my lost inner voice.
Allow me to explain.
Growing up in a pre-globalization, Third-World country, there were few products available. Take grocery stores, for example. Toothpaste, ketchup, coffee, crackers...If the local store happened to have your favorite of the two existing brands, great. But if they didn't, you bought whatever you could find. There was no energy spent in decision-making.
Fast-forward, and you'll find me paralyzed in an American grocery store aisle, trying to decide between 172 types of laundry soap. Do I want Tide, Cheer, Gain, Surf, Arm and Hammer..? Do I want one with bleach? The one with color-guard? The hypo-allergenic one? Or the one for delicate fabrics? And don't get me started on the smells! Should my clothes smell like Spring Morning, Soothing Lavender or Aloha Splash?
And why do we need 37 brands of orange juice? For a perfectionist like me, who gets stuck in the details, it threatens to send me into a panic. “I know I do want the calcium enrichment, but how much pulp is the right amount?”
If the grocery store challenged me, imagine me at an outlet mall. Tens of thousands of square feet space stuffed with hundreds of racks of skirts, pants, jeans, shorts, shirts, dresses and jackets. In the middle of so many options, how could I, the most indecisive person in the world, get started?
“Wait,” you may say. “How can you say you're indecisive when you're a doctor? Aren't you making life and death decisions?”
The answer is: that's nothing! Making medical decisions involves following algorithms. “If the patient has symptom A, ask if he/she also has symptoms B and C. If the patient has symptoms A and B but not C, he/she may have diagnosis P or Q and you should order the tests X, Y and Z.” That type of rigid, flow-chart type of thinking matched well my upbringing. You have rules dictating each new step, and you follow them. You have a set of stone-based premises and anything that contradict those is, by definition, untrue.
Now, I grew up in a middle-class family which was always broke, yet had a “Blue-blooded complex.” Once upon a time, my ancestors were wealthy and owned extensive land. Yet when the Dominican dictator Trujillo took most of it away in the 1930's, the only thing left of that heritage was the pride of saying “we're not rich in money, but rich in culture and class.” The following generations in my family grew up hearing that “We may be poor, but we're not like the average poor."
Take into account that the average Dominican poor person deserves an Olympic gold medal in the sport of being joyful in spite of a lousy situation (that's another story). Not being “like them” may have sounded like bragging, but it worked to our disadvantage. Most Dominican people were too busy surviving to be burdened by existential questions such as the meaning of life or what happens after death– my mother used to say she envied them.
Imagine a family growing up “with champagne tastes on a beer-budget.” We loved classical music, while most people around us danced merengue and bachata. We owned more books than anything else, including clothes and shoes. I had pâté de foie gras sandwiches for my school picnic lunch, while the other kids had bologna. All that contributed to the phenomenon of me growing up feeling like an alien (but that's another story.)
So, one of the core characteristics of my family was the expensive taste. My mother used to roll her eyes, because every time something caught her attention in a store, it ended up being the most expensive item in the whole place – and of course she could not afford it. The other family characteristic was an excessive preoccupation with manners and correct behavior. Politeness and strict morality “set us apart.”
As the middle girl of three daughters, no milestone I ever accomplished was new (my older sister had already done it) and nothing I ever did was cute (my baby sister was younger and cuter). So, in that hopeless situation, craving the approval of adults around me, I was fertile soil for indoctrination. I became “the perfect little girl.”
In my Blue-blooded-complex family, the definition of “the perfect little lady” was very strict – and long. “Be nice and polite. Be a good student. Respect your seniors. Do your chores. Never, ever swear. Don't laugh too loud. Sit with your back straight and your knees together. Eat with your mouth closed – but not too closed. Read lots of books. Pick up needle-point and crocheting. Never complain. Always be happy with what they give you, even if it's different from what you wanted. Never ask for more than what you got.”
And of course. “Never play with the boys. All they want is to look under your skirt.”
(Ouch. That one definitely made it harder when I had to tackle the world of dating)
I remember that paragraph in a book about good manners my mother once read to us. “When someone offers you food, even if you're hungry, the polite thing to do is to say no, just in case they're only offering out of courtesy. If that person really wants to give you food, they should insist. Then and only then, you can accept.”
That was too much to process for a seven-year-old. “Wait, what if the other person didn't read this book? What if they did mean to offer me the food, yet when I say no they take it away? Do I go hungry for the rest of my life!?”
And if my family rules of lady-like-behavior haunted me on one side, imagine the rules on the other side – my Catholic upbringing. I remember hearing many times, “Everything that feels good is a sin – or it's fattening.” It was supposed to be a joke, but it wasn't.
“Everything that feels good” meant sex. Sex was the ultimate forbidden frontier for a young lady. But, smart as they were, the nuns in my school knew that sex was a dish so tempting for a teenager, they'd better not let us close enough to even smell it. In order to “protect us,” they gave an honorary title of “reprehensible” to anything that could remotely lead to even thinking about sex. Wearing provocative clothes. Make up. Kissing. Dancing too close. Dating before marriage-appropriate age. Even smiling too much to the boys was frown-worthy.
And even if you followed all those rules and stayed away from boys, having dirty thoughts was also a sin. (Please! It wasn't enough not to act upon them. If a dirty though accidentally entered my brain I had to feel guilty until the next chance for confession).
How can a young girl learn to know what she wants when she's bombarded with hundreds of shaming rules about what she's supposed to want or not?
The answer is: she doesn't.
I never learned to figure out what I really wanted. I became the ultimate dream of any parent (and government), the person who never questioned authority and never broke a social rule.
That was, of course, until much later, in my thirties, when I broke that sacred rule. It was the rule that said “No matter how miserable you are in your marriage, you never, ever, ever get a divorce.”
And there I was now, struggling with the decision to break that rule. Standing in front of never-ending racks of clothes and shelves of shoes in those gigantic stores. The expensive taste of my family told me to indulge in shopping for the first time. The guilt warned me not to.
After spending my life in a country where kids my age surrounded us all the time, begging for food, I've never been able to give myself permission to really splurge. Have you ever seen those Children Charity ads saying, “feed a child for $21 dollars a month? That became my standard. How could I buy a Louis Vuitton bag that cost $3,000 when that money could feed 12 children for a year? As much as I love shoes, I'd get physically ill if I ever bought a pair of “Manolos” or “Loboutins,” just imagining how many families they could feed.
So, to reconcile my desire to shop with my guilt about spending money, I became addicted to discount stores and clearance racks.
And little by little, the process of self-awareness rehabilitation started.
To earn my parent's goodwill as a kid I'd made sure I never asked for my first choice of a gift. Instead, I asked for whatever was cheaper or easier for them to give me.
But now I had to answer only to myself. For the first time in my life, I had to be in touch with what I wanted.
What do I really like? What colors make me smile? Which fabrics soothe my skin and which ones irritate it? Do I like this little-black-dress or am I only buying it because magazines claim every woman should own one? Does it matter that his business suit fits me so well, if I hate wearing business suits? If I don't look at the designer label in this shirt, do I still like it?
It was trial and error–so slow it reminded me of the muscle recovery of a stroke survivor. And then, when my closet was about to burst, (full of things I'd bought on clearance but never felt like wearing), an epiphany hit me.
The only pieces I was wearing regularly were the pieces I bought not with my brain, but with my gut feeling.
Not the pieces with the best price. Not the pieces with the designer label. Not the pieces in the fashion magazines. The only common denominator was: They made me gasp when I saw them.
I had to stop using the logical algorithms in my mind, and give a second look to the options that appealed to my heart.
A new commitment was born: “I will never, ever again choose something that doesn't make my heart skip a beat” I'd already done it too many times in my life – living half-heartedly. I'd done it when I'd chosen the first man I married and now I knew that it hadn't been the right decision.
And with that new determination – and some help from therapy – I pursued my divorce.
And when the time came to choose a life partner again, I said, “No, thank you,” and “Nice, but not for me” to more than one man. And I only rested when I found the one who made my heart gasp. The one I'd have bought at full price, with no discount. The one that fit so well and felt so comfortable, I didn't mind if I had nothing else in my closet for the rest of my life.
I'm now happily married to him.
And that has become the rule I live by. My brain may have veto power, but my heart has first dibs.
So again–only buy the clothes that make your heart skip a beat.
By the way, incorporating my gut feeling into my rigid medical mental algorithms has really paid off in my professional life.
But that's another story.