What is Enough?

Two posts crossed into my feed over the last weeks:  Jeff Ikler’s discussion with Sarah Elkins touching on how to feel relevant, and David Marlow’s post How many towels do you need?

Starting with David Marlow’s question: neither of my children had to buy towels when they moved out.

I don’t feel particularly guilty about that; one reason being that, naturally, a family of two needs fewer towels than a family of four – please have some.  The other reason was that our oldest kid establishing their first home coincided with some friends asking if we would empty a storage room for them – and the content basically moved into the post-dorm rental – towels and all.  The friends were paid a fraction of what Ikea would have charged for new items.  They just hoped to get rid of rent for storing things they didn’t need for the foreseeable future, so they were overjoyed to be paid at all.  The upside from getting their used stuff – apart from the price – was that if and when our design-conscious offspring decides to exchange the stuff for something else, nobody feels neither guilty nor offended.

I am a great believer in using what is available. Particularly if you are young and establishing your first home.  Not only because it is cheaper and allows you to prioritize buying what you really want gradually, but also because it is good for the planet.  And who knows, the old table that you found at somebody’s garage sale or in your parents’ attic may be beautiful once it is stripped of old varnish and gets a fresh coat of oil.

Which brings us to Sarah’s acquaintance who was always talking about expensive things he had bought or important people he knew.  Somehow, I doubt garage sales or hand-me-downs were part of the way he rolled.  (Or perhaps that was exactly the way he usually rolled to be able to afford the “good stuff” – but he never talked about the hand-me-downs; talking about the expensive stuff was a smoke screen?)

What kind of needs are we filling with expensive stuff or namedropping?

Sarah mentioned her neighbor might have needed to feel important.  Why stuff and namedropping had been the ways he thought this need could be met, nobody knows.  But modeling often plays a part in what we think of as important.  Perhaps this method paid off with people other than Sarah?  Or in other places than Montana?

What makes you feel important?

What makes you feel that another person is important?

Or he might have needed to impress.  Who might his imaginary audience that needed to be impressed be?  Was he acting subconsciously to meet a parental approval?

What is it really, to impress, anyway?  Is it to prove that I am better than you?  Does “impress” implicitly carry an element of surprise – which means that people are impressed because they didn’t expect something of us?  If used that way, it is a little condescending to my ears.

Or is impressed just not to disappoint +10%?

Do you ever feel the need to impress or are you content not to disappoint?

Do you feel a need to be impressed?

When do you impress or disappoint yourself?

When were you last impressed and by what?

Less I give the impression (pun intended) that this is a mental exercise for your, the reader’s, benefit only, let me be clear that I am truly interested in your answers.

You see, I have four throw pillows resting against the headboard of our bed.  They are or no use what-so-ever, on the contrary.  Every evening I move them aside before turning down the bedspread – every morning they get back on the bed.  I never had four annoying pillows on my bed in the old country.  Why are they there?!!  Because it is customary.  They look nice – nobody sees them but us, but still…

What does it signal to have things that, not only are they not needed; they are even in the way?  Are we signaling that “we have made it”?  Have we subconsciously inherited some forefathers’ desire to signal that they had made it?  Against the odds, on a new continent, arriving with only what one could carry, I can see how one might wish to signal success – not necessarily just to the surroundings but also to one’s own nervous system.

I can’t claim that we, as immigrants, arrived with only what we could carry.  We arrived with a 40-foot container of stuff.  Looking from my old desk at old stuff we have inherited from parents and grandparents, have been given, or bought decades ago on another continent allows me a feeling of continuity and soothes my nervous system.  I don’t care if it signals success or the opposite to you.

But those throw pillows puzzle me…

Does credibility hinge on signaling success?  Is that what Sarah’s neighbor is conflating about: that being able to afford stuff signals that he is successful and in being so, he is more credible?  Does it work that way?  Or does credibility come from showing up consistently with clear values and a non-hostile demeanor?


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Great questions, Charlotte, that made me think.

    My take on enough was also the subject of my article: Why do people build larger houses than they can afford or need?
    We both agreed that nobody needs an 800 sqm house for two people with two dogs. People build or buy huge mansions to impress and feel important. Those who want to show others they are ‘important’ by showcasing their wealth never impress me. Being able to afford stuff doesn’t mean you are better than others or more credible.

    In a way, we all need to feel important – to ourselves and others. What makes one feel important varies from one individual to another. You may not feel important or appreciated when changing a diaper for your mother, but you should feel important because, by such an act of caregiving, you help and make one’s life easier.

    I am a great believer in improving what we already have. However, it is in human nature that you always want more than enough. How much is enough to be happy? As linked research shows, younger, city-dwelling people who value power, success, and independence desire unlimited wealth. Most participants would be happy with a limited but significant sum of money. So much for the saying that money can’t buy happiness. Only a fraction of people is guided in life by the saying: “Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.”

    Related to your pillow puzzle, we made a small apartment makeover recently. Along the way, we got rid of excess stuff accumulated throughout the years following the just-in-case philosophy. How much stuff to leave was indeed a difficult decision for all of us. Two throw pillows survived. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. :)

    • Funny serendipity, your comment Lada, because as a young and still childless professional I actually thought being a nursery professional was less important than what I did. Having children changed that. The person who raised my ire asking if I worked at a nursery school recently passed away, so I literally just recounted my memory to their kids, shaking my head as I recalled it.

  2. Also, what I realize as well. At least for me, I have less in the terms of $$$ today, but I trust that will be restored in one way or another. All I can say, in the eyes of others I had a a successful career, retirement was set up, at the end of the day, the career was littlerly compromising my health, so i quit Yup just like that I quit… Best thing I ever did, health is on track, so I may have less in the way of $$, but what good is any of if I can’t enjoy life. So I chose to enjoy life, trust $$ this is always abundant….it just shows up differently. My heart and soul are happy. :)

  3. Charlotte, I enjoyed reading this post. I feel so much of of success depends on the individual and if they are trying to keep with society’s definition of success or their own. For so long the collective has created this false sense of success with “stuff” how much it costs, and who do you kow… blah blah blah… I feel the definition of success depends on the person and their inner evolution. As for name dropping and speaking about the cost of things as you described, well I feel that definitelly says something aobut ther person doing the talking…At the end of the day we all pee, poop, and live life. I have grown to a point what matters to me most is the way in which one lives, humbling, with gratitude and a willingness to be part in creating their life. No longer put things before people…I feel values and evolving culture so related. I recently read a friends blog called Diane’s Day, and in one of the blogs she wrote, I paraphrase it. “Some people have big problems, some people have small problems. it doe not matter the size, a problem is a problem.” I feel this could apply to success as well. …

  4. I love your “economic” mind Charlotte

    I also like yourtwo main reasons why we should be happy to acquire basic things economically and gradually buy what we want.

    The enough mentality is lacking. You reminded me of the movie Sound of Music. The father used a whistle so that his kids could hear him in the spacious house.
    Having more than enough is waste and may have serious bad effects.

    • I don’t know if economic is the right word, Ali, but knowing to prioritize…

      Yes, Captain von Trap was a bit too practical with his whistle – I wonder if even he could remember which tune was for which kid.
      My mother tried to teach us that unless in dire straights, if we wanted to reach somebody, it was our responsibility to move rather than yell throughout the house. Somehow, I don’t think that would have been how the Captain saw it.