Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Social Comparison Theory and You

The High Cost of Vanity | Psychology Today

I saw a post online the other day about shopping addiction.  Specifically, the poster was asking how many others share the equestrian tack-buying fetish.  My hand shot up immediately.  I buy tack and other things compulsively.  There's no rationale that suits this compulsion.  I don't even opt for high-end goodies.  I get bored, and I shop.  Period.  I have very few interests that lend themselves to this habit, so I major in tack, shoes, and jeans.  I have a lot of all of those.

My tack room is disturbing only when one considers that there
is only one rider involved here.
A few years ago, I had an excuse.  Zip was having orthopedic issues, and I blamed, in part, his saddle.  So I bought more.  Three of them.  Then I had to buy matching girths, new stirrups (because changing them from one saddle to the other is time-consuming), leathers, pads, and so on.  That was almost reasonable.

Once the saddle issue was settled to my satisfaction, however, I moved on to other items.  Boots, bridles, bits (I own so many bits), and on down the list of possibilities.  Only toward the end of the craziness did I start thinking about upgrading to high-end goods.  I give myself credit for that.  OCD is not the same as Social Comparison in essence, though it's related in causality.

The article linked above and the explanation of Social Comparison Theory are enlightening.  It all harks back to my earlier post on how we valuate ourselves based on our "stuff" .  We are slaves to our egos.  I will take issue right now with the fact that the PT article goes on to give instructions on how we can obtain those high-end goodies we crave at discount prices.  I expect better of PT articles than to play into the syndromes they describe.

It's not a happy thought that our desire for the best of everything is simple vanity in service to our egos, is it?  We get together in huddles with our like-minded friends and rave on about "quality" and how it relates to durability and the like.  But in the end, we're only looking for validation of our decision to spend the mortgage payment on a saddle we really don't need or breeches no one will ever see us wear or boots that are so trendy they won't fit our legs (which are not trendy).  I did fall for that last bit.  I refused to go whole-hog and buy the high boots, but the combo trendy paddocks boots and half-chaps will never be besmirched by horse dirt because my lower legs are far too short and the boots only work with those chaps.  I could sell them on eBay, but I'm not done punishing myself for my idiocy.  They're hanging in the tack room where I can see them every day as a reminder.

Now that you know why you're doing this, will you stop?

That depends greatly on how much money you have and how strongly attached you are to your inner narrative--the story you've made up to explain who you are.

The article talks about upward and downward comparisons.  Are you feeling driven to be surrounded by lesser beings?  That might be because you actually don't have a heart-felt belief that you belong elsewhere.  Do you board your horse at a place where the other horse owners are happy just to have horses?  Have you attended shows or clinics where folks like your co-boarders are criticized behind gloved hands by the upper-class sorts?  Are you feeling a need to distance yourself from that image but uncomfortable about the idea that you belong elsewhere?

Often our real selves drive through the gaps in our inner narratives and cause what's called "cognitive dissonance".  That's when our beliefs and reality just don't match.  We feel odd and stressed and can't explain why.
Me and my bud, Leslie, back in the day (1964) when we all looked
like we'd bought our stuff second-hand because we had.  And
no one cared or criticized.  We just rode.

The same goes for a situation where you are low man on the equestrian hierarchy pyramid.  Do you put yourself into that setting then concern yourself about having cheap goods while those around you are flaunting their six-figure incomes by paying the big bucks for the big brands?  Do you actively think about selling your old, comfy, workable saddle and investing money that could be better spent elsewhere in the same saddle your fave barn mate is showing off?  When you hear certain maker names, do you start to drool?  Why are you there?Cognitive dissonance occurs when we don't get the reality of who we are.

The saddest part of this paradigm among horse people is that there's nothing in it about riding ability, horsemanship, or any other related factor.  The important things are left to drift while the pointless details take on a huge presence.  Who cares if your horse bucks you off during every ride?  You've got the most expensive tack in the barn!  Hell, you have the most expensive horse in the barn!  Riding him isn't even on the table.

My solution to the problem is simplistic, so it probably won't be acceptable.  You just need to change your inner narrative.  You need to change the story you tell about yourself.  You write it, so you're the only one who can change it.  Take some time to know yourself as you really are.

Imagine if you stop telling yourself and the public that you're a special being with superb "taste" (whatever that means to you) and no concerns about cost.  Create a story that says you're a dedicated sportsman who wants nothing but the maximum enjoyment from your efforts.  If you find a locus for your activities that truly matches your natural style, you'll likely stop the upward/downward comparisons.  If you take each situation at face value as it relates to your new story, get the most from it in terms of increasing your skill level that you can, and move on when you've mastered what is available, you will be focused on the part of horse ownership that matters:  Your relationship with your horse.

Even then you're likely to fall prey to the FT (Famous Trainer) syndrome.  You might possibly feel that you need to find a trainer with a bigger name than the trainer available at your barn.  You might find yourself shopping online for trainer-labeled goodies that will allow you to pretend you have actually mastered something of social value.  I own a John Lyons-branded bit.  It happens to be one that works well for most horses, so I don't feel too bad about myself for buying it.  I've never met the man or attended any of his clinics, nor have I paid the outrageous sum for a week-long boot camp at his place Out West somewhere.  But for a brief moment in time, I wanted to feel as if I had, so I ordered the bit.

The end result of acting on the unreasonable desire to compete is usually depression and anxiety.  Either you will come up against the reality of not having money to pay the bills because you spent it on something you didn't need, or you will find that no matter how much you spend, there are more, better, more expensive items you don't own.  Either way, you will be angry and upset with yourself on a subconscious level, and you'll feel sad and depressed and frenzied.

Don't do that.

Don't compare things that are pointless and of little value to your bottom-line goal, which is to enjoy the sport of riding at whatever level you and your horse inhabit.  Don't belittle others for their choices, and don't belittle yourself.  Just go out and ride your goddamn horse and have fun!

Ride on!

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