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Feeling Bad? Here's What You Shouldn't Do

Research shows how a common coping strategy backfires.

Source: Dimedrol68/Shutterstock

After failing a test, an intelligent student may ask, “Am I really that smart?” A successful salesman may question her skills after failing to close an important deal. A broken engagement could cause someone to question whether he's really marriage material.

Whenever the way we want to see ourselves doesn’t line up with what’s actually going on in our lives, our self-image is threatened. To cope with that threat, we try to compensate for the discrepancy between our beliefs and our circumstances. Often, that compensatory behavior involves seeking out specific products or activities to repair our feelings of self-worth.

This psychological principle, referred to as compensatory consumption, has been well documented in research. A study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology in 1981 found that MBA students who lacked success relative to their peers—in terms of grades or job offers—used more products that signaled success. For example, they were more likely to wear luxury brand watches and carry designer briefcases in attempts to compensate for feeling unsuccessful.

Compensating for Feelings of Inadequacy May Backfire

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, our attempts to compensate for feelings of inadequacy could leave us feeling worse. A series of experiments tested how subjects felt and behaved after trying to compensate for the threats they felt toward their self-image.

Researchers discovered that people who tried to prove themselves worthy were more likely to dwell on their shortcomings. Ultimately, subjects felt worse about themselves after trying to compensate for the threats they felt to their self-image. Surprisingly, feeling bad wasn’t the only problem—their impaired self-worth also decreased their self-control.

In a series of experiments, researchers tested how feelings of incompetence impacted people. Subjects participated in activities such as writing essays about times when they felt incompetent and recalling products that helped them feel better.

Researchers discovered that people struggled to resist eating chocolate candy when they used products or activities to try to overcome their feelings of inadequacy. This was only true when subjects tried to boost their self-worth in an area directly related to their most recent shortcoming.

For example, a high-profile business person who is overlooked for a promotion may try to feel successful by purchasing expensive brands of clothing. But wearing the expensive clothing is likely to cause her to think about not getting the promotion even more. Ruminating on her shortcomings is likely to reduce her self-control and may cause her to struggle to resist temptations in other areas.

If that same professional tried to address her psychological injury, however, by focusing on other areas of her life—like her social life—she may gain more benefit. Hosting a party, for example, may increase her feelings of social self-worth and could prevent her from dwelling on her lack of professional success. Shifting her focus from a domain where she feels incompetent to an area where she feels capable is less likely to impair her self-control.

Avoid Making Problems Worse

If we're not careful, our attempts to heal our psychological injuries can equate to putting a Band-Aid on an ax wound. Here are 3 important things we can learn from this research:

  1. Retail therapy may provide momentary relief, but could lead to decreased satisfaction in the long term.
  2. Trying to project an image meant to make yourself feel better may actually make you feel worse.
  3. Masking our insecurities taxes our mental resources and leads to decreased self-control.

When you’re already feeling bad, take steps to prevent yourself from inadvertently making your problem worse. Notice when your self-worth has been threatened and pay attention to the strategies you usually use to compensate. Consider whether you’re just temporarily boosting your self-image or proactively improving your situation for the future.

When you’ve made a major mistake, experienced a failed attempt, or felt insulted by someone’s remarks, acknowledge your feelings. Then decide on the best course of action. Rather than taking steps to try and prove you’re still “good enough,” find an unrelated activity that will help you cope with uncomfortable feelings.

Learn more in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

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