An intelligent student may ask, “Am I really that smart?” after he fails a test. A successful salesman may question her skills when she struggles to close an important deal. And a failed business venture may cause an entrepreneur to think, “Maybe this isn’t what I was really meant to do after all.”
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 current 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 1981 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology 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.
Our attempts to compensate for feelings of inadequacy could leave us feeling worse however, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Researchers conducted a series of experiments to test how subjects felt and behaved after trying to compensate for the threats they felt toward their self-image.
Researchers discovered that when people tried to prove themselves worthy, they were more likely to dwell on their shortcomings. Ultimately, the 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 help them feel better. Researchers discovered that people struggled to resist eating chocolate candy when they used products or activities to try and 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 of her life.
If however, that same professional tried to address her psychological injury 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 may 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
Our attempts to heal our psychological injuries can equate to putting a Band-Aid on an ax wound if we’re not careful. Three important things we can learn from this research are:
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 ourselves feel better may actually make us 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 you’re self-worth has been threatened and pay attention to the strategies you usually use to compensate. Consider whether you’re temporarily boosting your self-image, or proactively improving your situation in the long haul.
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.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.