In this blog, I write about both the practical and psychological aspects of compulsive shopping, as I believe both areas are important in terms of our recovery. Thus far, I’ve written far more about the practical aspects, such as wardrobe management, accountability, shopping tips, and the Project 333 minimalist fashion challenge.
While I will continue to write about these topics, I’d like to start delving more into the psychology of why we overshop and how we can stop. In doing so, I will often refer to Dr. April Benson’s book, “To Buy or Not to Buy.”
Mood Patterns of Ordinary vs. Compulsive Buyers
Today I’d like to delve into a very important topic that has recently crept more and more into my awareness, the feelings we have before, during, and after shopping. In Chapter 1 of her book, Dr. Benson mentions a psychological study that compared the mood patterns of compulsive and ordinary buyers and found marked differences. Below is a brief summary of what the researchers learned.
- Start out with a positive mood before shopping.
- Mood becomes more positive after a purchase.
- Mood becomes even more positive after they get home.
- Mood pattern: Good, Better, Best.
- Start out with a less positive mood than ordinary buyers.
- Mood climbs significantly just after a purchase.
- Mood dips far below pre-purchase mood after they get home.
- Mood pattern: Somewhat Lousy, Very Good, Lousier.
I Don’t Always Feel Lousy Before I Shop…
I found the above research findings fascinating and mostly in line with what I generally experience surrounding my own shopping. However, I don’t always feel lousy before I shop. In many instances, when I know I’m going to shop, I experience a huge mood lift as I anticipate my shopping trip. In fact, some nights I find myself unable to fall asleep because I’m on such a “high” thinking about what I might see and what I might buy.
The problem with my shopping anticipation is that the shopping trip rarely lives up to my vision of what I thought it would be. I liken this to when I was a child and would get excited for Christmas Day. I’d envision all of the wonderful presents I would receive, the positive reaction and gratitude my family would have upon opening my gifts to them, and the intense joy and peace I would experience during a magical day of love and family togetherness.
Unfortunately, the reality of Christmas almost never reached my lofty ideals, so I ended up feeling a big let-down by the end of the day and for several days to follow. Interestingly, once I discovered the shopping nirvana that is post-holiday sales, I was able to avoid my après Christmas mood slump by immersing myself in searching for bargains. As I write this, I now wonder if perhaps I’ve transferred this practice into a year-long shopping extravaganza in order to avoid experiencing the pain of letdown, sadness, and depression.
What about Feelings During Shopping?
One thing the study didn’t address is the feelings compulsive shoppers experience while they are shopping. Last fall, the television show “My Shopping Addiction” premiered in the U.S. While I have mixed feelings about this show (mostly, I felt they focused too much on financial implications of overshopping and not enough on what Dr. Benson terms “the poverty of the soul”), I did see myself in many of the shopaholics featured. One thing that really stood out for me was the way they behaved while they were shopping. They seemed to get into a manic-like state in which they moved quickly and purposefully, spoke rapidly, and appeared almost euphoric.
I used to get into exactly that type of state while shopping. While I’m normally quite introverted, I would become talkative and outgoing during a shopping excursion, often carrying on jovial conversations with sales associates and fellow shoppers. I moved with such purpose that I was frequently mistaken for a store employee by other patrons. I seemed to know what I was doing and to have authority about store merchandise, so it’s no surprise that people came up and asked me questions as if I worked there.
Now that I’ve been working on my recovery and have increased awareness about what my overshopping has cost me (not just in dollar, but also in time, energy, relationships, joy, etc.), I no longer experience the same “high” when I shop. Instead, I find myself feeling increasingly overwhelmed and anxious. I don’t go unconscious when faced with racks and racks of new clothing to see. The spell has been broken, at least to some extent, although I still fall prey to overshopping because it’s what I know (more on that later…).
I Almost Always Feel Really Lousy After Shopping
I often shop to lift myself out of low moods, and it does still work, at least some of the time. However, the effect is very short-lived in most cases. More often than not, I end up feeling much worse after I return home with bags full of things I don’t really need (or when I receive email confirmations following my online overshopping). Not only do I feel regret for having spent too much money, a number of other negative feelings rear their ugly heads:
- Anxiety over having to tell my husband I overspent and worry over his reaction (I also know I’ll have to share my accountability here on the blog and I worry about disappointing all of you).
- Overwhelm when I look into my closet and see that I’m adding even more pieces to my already too large wardrobe.
- Embarrassment when I realize I will need to return at least some of my ill-advised purchases to the store and potentially face the salesperson who sold them to me.
- Self-disgust over the lack of willpower I demonstrated by shopping when I knew I shouldn’t have done so.
- Hopelessness when I wonder if I will ever be able to stop my destructive behavior.
That’s just a sampling of the plethora of negative feelings I experience after I overshop. I’m sure many of you have felt similar emotions and perhaps you can add a few more to the mix.
The Definition of Insanity
Why do we keep doing something that doesn’t really work? After all, didn’t the incredibly wise Albert Einstein say the following?
Insanity: doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”
Shouldn’t we know by now that shopping doesn’t really make us feel better, at least not for longer than a few hours at best? Some of us actually do know this, but we persist in overshopping because we have not yet found alternate and more effective ways of coping with our negative emotions. While shopping doesn’t work over the long-term, it does provide distraction and an enhanced mood in the short-term.
We are not alone in persisting in behavior that doesn’t serve us. All those who struggle with addictions persist with the “quick fix.” Overeaters continue to binge on high-calorie and high-fat foods despite the detrimental effects to their health, body image, and self-esteem. Alcoholics and drug addicts continue to drink and use drugs despite what it’s costing them related to their work lives and personal relationships. As a former anorexic, I remember starving myself even though I knew it would land me back in the hospital and could potentially lead to lasting health complications (which it did…).
The Bottom Line
Years ago, I used to watch The Dr. Phil Show. I remember that he frequently asked his guests the simple question, “How’s that working for you?” He was big on having people take responsibility for their actions, and I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of assuming ownership for our behavior and its consequences. Dr. Phil didn’t buy into “victim” language and behavior, even when it came to addictions and destructive habitual patterns.
One thing Dr. Phil often said that became burned into my brain was this… He said, “You can’t just get rid of a bad habit; you have to replace that habit with something else.” Sure, we can “white-knuckle” our way through a period of abstinence from our compulsive shopping. I’ve done this a number of times and sometimes I even believed I was “cured” of my shopaholic ways. Yet I always started overshopping again, particularly during times of stress and anxiety.
Sometimes people replace one destructive habit with another harmful behavior pattern, such as when recovering alcoholics start smoking or overeating. I did that myself when my compulsive shopping intensified as I recovered from eating disorders. This “symptom substitution” occurs when we haven’t addressed the underlying issues behind our addictive behaviors.
If we take the time to peel the layers of our personal overshopping “onion,” we are more equipped to develop constructive ways of meeting our needs. I’m not there yet, but I’m ready to more fully embark on this part of my journey. An important first step is to answer the question:
What am I really shopping for?”
Am I really looking to add yet another jacket, cardigan, top, or dress to my already packed closet, or am I trying to fill a deeper and more fragile need? I suspect the latter is usually true, not just for me but for most of us.
Start to Ponder the Question…
I will begin to delve more deeply into the topics of emotional needs and developing constructive habits and behaviors to address them in future posts. For now, I invite you to begin pondering these questions:
- What are you really shopping for?
- What emotional needs are you trying to address through your practice of shopping and acquiring things?
Just sit with the question for a little while and see what comes up for you. You may wish to journal about what you learn. If you feel comfortable sharing your insights, please do so in the comments section below.
I’ve written a few other posts which you might find helpful as you consider your shopping behavior and the deeper needs you may be trying to fulfill. Here are the links:
- The Reasons We Shop Too Much
- Why Continue to Shop?
- Boring Wardrobe – or Boring Life?
- Shopping for Acceptance
Stay tuned as I work to trade my full closet for a full life and hopefully help to inspire you to do the same. There is light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who overshop. We can learn alternative and better ways to cope and we can develop fuller and more joyous lives.
My compulsive shopping began shortly after my dad died 6 years ago. I had three children in college so money was tight. I began thrifting for things to redecorate my house. Before long, I was thrifting clothes. I then began buying lots of clothes on eBay. It was so easy to get the exact thing you wanted, delivered right to my house! Pretty soon, I had taken over the spare walk-in closet in addition to my own walk-in closet. I was being buried in clothes!
But here is how this relates to my dad. Growing up, my mother would take us shopping every Saturday. We would come home and model our new clothes for my dad. He always made me feel so pretty and special. It was always the highlight of my week.
I think after he died, I unconsciously began repeating the behavior that made me feel close to him. Because I thrifted items, I could buy so much more for the same amount of money. But all of it was for approval from someone who was no longer here! Talk about never being able to find what you are shopping for!
Thankfully, I started reading about capsule wardrobes and Project 333. That’s how I found your blog. After reading several of your posts, I got up the nerve to count my “summer skirts”. I counted over 35! I was shocked and completely overwhelmed. So I picked out a small capsule from my enormous wardrobe and gave that a try for a month. It worked wonders! I feel free and light for the first time in years.
Yesterday I was able to begin a huge purge. I got rid of two enormous garbage bags of clothes. They will go back to the thrift stores for someone else to enjoy.
I have begun cataloging my wardrobe by season – clothes, accessories, and shoes. I am looking forward to enjoying this smaller wardrobe. I am also looking forward to returning to some of my old hobbies – quilting, cross stitching, and making jewelry. I still miss my dad but I am no longer compelled to keep up the insanity!
Thank you for being here just when I needed you. I plan to follow along with your journey as I make my own.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Anne. Good for you for gaining awareness of why you were overshopping. That’s often the first step toward recovery. Since your epiphany, it seems you’ve done so well! Congrats on trying a capsule wardrobe for a month and later doing a major wardrobe purge. I’m glad you plan to return to some of the hobbies you enjoyed in the past. I hope they bring you great joy. I’m so happy my blog played a role in your recovery!
I remember shopping with my sister, who has great taste and won’t buy what she doesn’t need, and telling her that I got an almost sexual feeling when pulling up to the mall parking lot to shop. And then I’d nearly leave her behind, while I struggled to not flat-out run inside. Pretty disgusting, huh?
I resonated with what you wrote, Marcy, and it gave me a chuckle. I never quite characterized it that way, but I think I got an almost sexual feeling from shopping. Sadly, I’ve also left loved ones in the dust in my haste to shop. I hope not to do that anymore, as I agree that it’s not at all the best behavior!
Debbie, I’m glad you finally brought up this topic.
Seven years ago, I was in a less than stellar relationship with a man who didn’t really care about me (a fact I chose to blinder myself to at the time). I stayed in the relationship because I figured I was 50 years old– “too old to do any better”, so I continued to put up with his putdowns. Every time he would do something that made me feel unloved, I would go shopping for a new handbag.
I live an hour away from a Coach Factory Outlet, and every time I felt sad about our relationship, I would sneak off by myself and buy a new bag, usually spending around 200-300.00. I felt driven to purchase a present for myself as a way of saying “I love myself”.
On the way to the outlet, I would feel a bit unrelaxed. I felt that I was shopping for the wrong reasons but I couldn’t stop myself from going. Once I got there, I didn’t feel euphoric, I often felt panicked. I told myself I had come to buy, and buy I must in order to justify my hour long journey.
I bought many bags over the course of the several years we were together, bags I didn’t need in the first place. Once I had made my purchase, I continued to feel a bit apprehensive–it wasn’t about the expenditure, it was the reason behind the expenditure and about my lying to myself about my situation from which I found that I felt I could not extricate myself (although I did within a few years, and quite neatly once I decided I was fed up!)
When I got home, my mood would usually descend into a deep funk and I realized that I didn’t want, or in some cases, even LIKE the bag after all–that it was just a symbolic substitute for the loving feelings that I yearned for from my relationship. So, within a few days (during which I would hide the bag in my closet), I would take the bag back. I did this over and over for several years. A few of the bags I actually really liked once I got them home and kept them, but most of them were returned. I felt horrible about myself for doing this, instead of doing something productive to truly benefit myself, but at the time I think my self esteem needed to be given presents, even though the whole purchasing exercise was an utter waste of time.
I don’t do this anymore. Once I got out of the situation and was blisteringly honest with myself about what was motivating this crazy behavior, I quit it. I don’t shop to buy myself consolation prizes anymore. Oh, I still go to the Coach Factory Store, but very seldom, and when I do purchase something, more often than not, its some kind of accessory. These days I carry a huge leather tote bag for all my business doodads and I find that Coach makes some of the best accessories for carrying small tools, keys, and the like to keep things organized.
Thanks for sharing this part of your history with us, Deby. I think many, many people overshop for the types of reasons you mentioned. I was once in a very similar relationship in which I was often put down and criticized. Feeling unloved and unworthy definitely fueled my overshopping and other compulsive behaviors (back then, compulsive dieting and exercise). You chronicled the cycle so well and I resonated a lot with what you wrote. I’m sure others do as well.
I’m glad you no longer feel the need to buy things from the Coach Factory Store in order to validate your self-worth. I’m also glad you can still enjoy that store and what you buy there (in moderation). It’s good you got out of that negative relationship and I know you’re in a much better place now. Who says that women over 50 (or any age really) need to settle? No way!
This is the first time I have ever admitted this behavior to anyone. I never even spoke of it to my friends because I was too ashamed for the reasons why. I have wanted to talk about it for a long time, because I have come so far from the person who used to behave like this in secret a few years ago!
I’m glad you felt safe to write about it here. I understand the shame and it’s unburdened me a lot to write this blog. I can definitely see you’ve come a very long way in the past few years! Thanks for always contributing so much to the conversation here!
For those you who haven’t worked in retail in a while (or may never have), you might be interested to know that most sales associates have specific sales goals (daily, weekly, monthly). Returns are deducted from the sales goals. So while the initial sale helps the sales person who helps you in the store, the return is deducted from the goal. This means that the sales associate must first erase the deficit with new sales and then reach the daily sales goal. For the return of a $20 t-shirt this is easily achievable. But when people return higher priced items like designer purses, it can really impact the sales associate’s performance. I think if more people who rely on returns as a way to manage their over-shopping habits knew this they might try to modify their behavior.
When I learned this stuff about sales goals & returns, I stopped buying “on spec” and then returning what I didn’t want. I spend way less time shopping (even though I work in retail) and almost never have to return anything because I limit my purchases to things I really need, not just want.
You make a good point, Dottie. I didn’t fully understand the implication of my over-returning practice until I read the following article a few months ago (written by a local Nordstrom employee): http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2013/mar/13/cover-selling-service-nordstrom/. I never wanted to hurt anyone with my shopping and I felt bad that some of the helpful sales associates I worked with were penalized by my returns. I am definitely returning things a lot less these days. Of course, when one orders things online, it can be difficult to avoid, but I think retailers kind of count on those types of returns because of sizing variations. Using the “power pause” I’ve mentioned when shopping (either in person or online) can help to reduce returns. You have some time to remember your goals, priorities, and budget, and don’t end up making as many mistakes as a result.
Fantastic post! It captures so many things that I know all too well. Thanks so much for writing this post!
Thanks so much, Frugal Fashionista. I’m glad you liked the post!
I overshopped when I was happy, sad, angry, peaceful…..One of the main reasons I overshopped was that I was looking for excitement. The other reason is that I do a lot to help other people. Either physical help or listening to problems. At some point I was giving so much more than I was receiving. So I would shop and buy something to “reward” myself instead of doing something more sensible like setting boundaries.
I have had a miserable couple of days. I briefly thought about going shopping, but since shopping trips are few and far between these days I didn’t want to “waste” one on a bad mood. I tried venting to a couple of friends, but I still felt pretty angry. Then I tried taking a walk-okay it was more of a stomp and when I got back I felt…..overheated. Next I talked to my awesome sister in law and she looked at things from a very different and humorous point of view. Before too long we were both hysterically laughing. I have a feeling that I have dealt with the emotions in a more effective and lasting way than I could have with sweaters.
I identified a lot with what you wrote, Tonya. Much of my overshopping has been about looking for excitement. I also have a tendency to give a lot to others (often in the form of listening and providing advice) and sometimes feel the desire to reward myself, too. I commend you for your fortitude over the past few days. You kept trying things to deal with your feelings and didn’t stop until something helped. I’m glad your sister-in-law is someone you can talk to and that you ended up laughing together. You’re making such great strides! You’re a great example of how doing the exercises in Dr. Benson’s book (even though it’s very time-consuming) can really take one a very long way on the path to recovery!
Debbie, I have read two of your blog posts so far, and there is already so much I can relate to. You have made me realise things in me which I have intentionally avoided to acknowledge. It’s hard to admit one has a serious problem. My husband warned me not to shop again because he notice I was getting out of hand recently. Instead of agreeing with his advice I turned it around and shed light on his problems instead.
You mentioned that your compulsive spending is reoccurring, and that there were long periods of time where you didn’t spend. I too share this same pattern! Currently I’ve been feeling depressed and detached from my husband and of course to compensate the compulsive spending has taken over… from my understanding, this euphoric feeling we experience while shopping is a release of the happy hormone dopamine. Our bodies become dependant on this hormone when at times ( as you mentioned) we feel depressed, anxious, lonely or lacking emotionally in other forms.
I’m curious Debbie, what have you done to suppress your urges to spend, what do you do to distract yourself?
Welcome, Laura, and thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found my blog and are enjoying my posts. I think the pattern of overshopping in “binges” is common. The shopping is there for us during times of stress and overwhelm, so that’s where we turn, just like others will drink, eat, gamble, or do drugs to deal with their emotional pain. I definitely don’t have all the answers, at least not yet. What’s helping me the most is to write this blog, not just for the time it takes, but also for the accountability to my readers and the fulfillment I receive for hearing that my words are making a difference. What’s also helped is to set some goals and rules for myself to guide my behavior. Have a budget and a shopping priorities list and using the “power pause” before buying things has been helpful, too. Perhaps you could try journaling about your feelings or calling someone you trust (if you have such a person) in the space between wanting to shop and actually shopping. Sometimes I still shop instead of doing the things I mentioned, but I no longer default to shopping. It’s gradually getting easier for me and it can for you, too. It takes time, but recovery IS possible!