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.