Shopping for families; selling unconscious desires


After decades as an American consumer, I have finally developed the acumen necessary for surviving the holiday shopping season. With the exception of a few hectic hours, I have so far successfully avoided malls and online shopping. Truly, I feel blessed this holiday season.

Unfortunately, I have not escaped saturation with advertisements for the makings of the traditional holiday feast and ideas for the perfect gift–which seem to always come in denominations of “under $25, $50, & over $100.” Radiantly happy families adorn these ads, jockeying for space with cashmere shawls, Norelco razors, and discounted turkeys.

What’s really being sold? Modern American consumerism is steeped in psychological manipulation. The pioneer of modern propaganda and public relations, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Taking cues from his uncle, Bernays originated the enduring trend of selling to unconscious desires rather than actual needs. Do Americans want more shawls and razors, or do they really want (and need) more loving families?

I often quote results from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to underscore the emotionally challenging and adverse conditions of many American homes. Child abuse statistics are also quite sobering and reveal how painful life can be for the most vulnerable members of our society. There are likely quite a few people who would like to “buy” a happy, loving family over the holidays.

It can be exceedingly difficult to trust love as an adult if, as a child, one learned that love is a risky endeavor. When caught in the contradictory feelings of need and fear that a compromised sense of intimacy can create, who wouldn’t prefer the emotionally safer route of giving gifts secretly wrapped in unconscious motives?

Fortunately, trusting love is not limited to those blessed with being born into loving, supportive families. Love is a human birthright. We are all hardwired to love. As Carl Rogers observed, “There is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfillment of its inherent possibilities.” For humans, this inherent possibility is found in our capacity for meaningful and supportive connections with others, and it is a part of ourselves that we are never too old to rekindle.

As children, we know intuitively love is our nature, and our love spills into anything—really, everything—capable of being love’s receptacle. Through love, we watched as our toys became real, and no doubt it is the child part who still believes in the loving magic that is the gift’s unconscious promise.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that HAPPENS to you. When a child loves you for a long time… you become REAL.”

“Does it happen all at once,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once. You BECOME. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept…”

…by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

–Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

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