Photo credit: Kristan Lawson
On the cruise ship, formal afternoon tea finds me gazing back and forth between jewel-pretty pastries and—past massive yachts sporting helicopter pads—Monaco, alight with countless actual emeralds and sapphires worn and sold along its terraced streets.
Astounding. But why do I find it so hard to stay present, in the moment, loving this?
Because I'm suffering from luxury anxiety.
I need luxury therapy.
For me as for many others, low self-esteem translates to Don't-deserve-it-itis and Funphobia.
That's because we think we have flaws so awful as to bar our rights to nearly all good things.
We avoid people, pleasure, beauty, adventures and opportunities because our two "diseases" tell us that, at the first flash of joy, we will be harshly penalized as we deserve to be: This pleasant, pretty and/or precious thing will be snatched from our hands or hearts. We will be scolded, hit and hurled by burly bouncers out the door.
We have internalized these fears so deftly that we don't see them as fears. Some of us proudly call ourselves minimalists. Assuming an air of moral superiority, we scoff at all things lustrous, costly, showy and ornate.
And what is the condensed, concentrated, sometimes unwittingly cartoonish form of all these things we mock which deep down we believe we don't deserve?
Spanning the gamut from, say, virgin forests to gold palaces, depending on personal tastes, luxury signals extra-special, unapologetic pleasure and deliberate indulgence.
Which is to say: Everything that some of us with low self-esteem flee, fear and deny.
Its every glimmer, purr and dollar sign presents a dare: Come on, you're worth it.
To which we say: No, I'm freaking not!
I felt this firsthand last week when, defying a near-cataleptic lethargy, I took a cruise.
The moment I boarded that sleek, cobalt-flanked ship, the Azamara Quest, questions flooded my mind.
Why are my fellow passengers smiling at me? Why do crewmembers calling me "madam" hand me cups of iced tea? Why is my stateroom so inviting with its snowy linens, fruit bowl and veranda open to the silky, serene, dolphin-studded sea? Why will room service bring me pancakes on a tray, to eat while watching Portofino draw closer and closer, candy-colored in a steamy Mediterranean dawn, or Marseille gleaming golden, its cathedral vigilant atop her hill? Why am I welcome to this exquisite dessert buffet? Why can I lie on this soft padded deck chair between sea and sky?
For someone who spent most of her life hating herself, such questions are downright menacing.
Luxury's in-your-faceness is the diametric opposite of self-denial, the manifest expression of Hey, maybe I don't hate myself as each subsequent glimmer, purr and dollar sign persists, comes closer to convincing us. That's the nature of luxury, perhaps even its point. It won't back down.
And yes, while lives and loves and fortunes have been lost pursuing luxury, for those of us who struggle with low self-esteem, it is a kind of medicine. Just being in its presence, even if we never spend a dime, acclimatizes our reluctant, self-abasing selves to liberating possibilities and fantasies.
What if I owned that villa, swam that beach, wore that bracelet, cruised around the world?
Exposure therapy—drawing closer and closer, incrementally, to whatever one fears—helps many people heal from phobias. Luxury therapy is a kind of exposure therapy. It asks us only to expose ourselves to unabashed pleasure, beauty and (sometimes) wealth.
Stand in its presence for five minutes. Feel yourself resist. Examine why. Next time, stay longer. Observe, and then—even if only a bit—luxuriate.
Accept that dare.