As I mentioned previously, I am working through the exercises in “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop” by April Lane Benson, Ph.D. Periodically, I will share some of these exercises on the blog. I won’t share them all, but I will post key exercises I feel will have the greatest impact for my readers.
Today’s post is the first in a series that will stretch at least through the end of 2013, and perhaps longer. I will continue to write about other topics here as well, as I like to keep things varied and interesting for both my readers and myself. Yet I feel the exercises in Dr. Benson’s book will be highly beneficial toward my personal recovery from compulsive shopping – and yours as well.
In this post, I elaborate on my reasons for shopping too much. Although I’ve shared some of these reasons in a previous post, I delve deeper today. I’m doing this for two reasons:
- I want to get to the bottom of my shopping addiction so I can overcome it once and for all.
- Many of you have told me that my “baring my soul” posts have helped you feel less alone and enabled you to look within for your own motivations.
The 11 Main Reasons for Overshopping
In looking over most of the reasons for overshopping in Chapter One of “To Buy or Not to Buy,” I’m struck by the fact that most of them apply to me. Dr. Benson gives 11 possible reasons for shopping too much:
- To feel better about yourself or more secure
- To avoid dealing with something important
- To express anger or seek revenge (shopping used as a weapon)
- To hold on to love
- To soothe yourself or repair your mood
- To project an image of wealth or power
- To fit into an appearance-obsessed society
- In response to stress, loss, or trauma
- Because it’s the lesser evil
- To feel more in control
- To find meaning in your life or to deny death
Of these potential motivations for overshopping, only three do not apply to my current situation: to express anger or seek revenge, to hold on to love, and to project an image of wealth or power. The other eight reasons definitely ring true for me loud and clear! And truth be told, even the reasons that don’t currently resonate for me have held true at some point in the past.
So here goes… the reasons why I shop too much. May the truth help to set me free!
To Feel Better About Yourself or More Secure
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with low self-esteem. I was a shy and introspective child who had difficulty making friends and fitting into the mainstream at school. While I’ve gotten better at getting by in society, I continue to wrestle with confidence issues and cultivating and sustaining deep and lasting friendships. I often feel like a bit of a pariah among women, as I do not have children by choice. I feel like many women wonder what could possibly motivate a woman not to have children, as it’s supposed to be the most fulfilling thing a woman can do with her life.
To add insult to injury, I am not exactly a driven career woman, either. While I’ve always wanted to have a career that makes a profound difference in the world and also pays well, I’ve fallen short time after time in both respects. I don’t give up, but I feel a bit weary of the search after more than a quarter of a century of trying to find my “path.”
Back when I was anorexic in high school, I used to relentlessly compare myself to my peers. When I looked around at my female classmates, I always saw others who were smarter, prettier, wittier, and more popular than I was. Being thin was my consolation prize, as in “at least I’m thinner than she is.” As an adult, my consolation prize is often that I’m better dressed than the women around me. I didn’t know how to have the better career, family, personality, friends, etc., but shopping was something at which I could excel.
So I shopped and shopped and shopped in a relentless attempt to feel better about myself. I thought that if I could only dress stylishly and look impeccable, I could finally be acceptable to myself and others. Sadly, it’s never really worked, as the bar was always raised, by both my impossibly high standards and by the moving target of the fashion world. I continued to feel not good enough no matter how much I shopped, but since I didn’t know what else to do, the frenetic shopping continued.
To Avoid Dealing with Something Important
I sometimes shop to avoid dealing with something more important, including figuring out my next steps in terms of my career. Thinking about the “what’s next?” question can be extremely daunting, so I often find myself putting it on hold and turning instead to “what’s next for my wardrobe?” I can actually come up with an easy answer to that latter question, whereas the former inquiry has my head spinning with uncertainty.
I also shop to avoid having to think about the scary health challenges I’ve been facing in recent months, the answers to which are not any more forthcoming than what to do about my career. I’ve been trying all sorts of potential solutions to my health woes, but so far nothing has yielded significant positive results. Much of the time, I feel lousy and don’t even venture out of my apartment. So on the days I’m feeling better, I feel compelled to hit the shops and avoid the morass of confusion for an hour or two. When I buy something new, I get a boost in my spirits, which leads me to my next reason for shopping too much.
To Soothe Myself or Repair My Mood
Sometimes I worry that my current state of health is something of a “new normal” or worse that things will deteriorate further. Over the past few months, my health-related anxiety has been very high and sometimes it’s hard for me to think about much of anything else. Unfortunately, the career anxiety also raises its ugly head on a pretty much daily basis, and the combination of both worries can send my mood into a tailspin.
While sometimes I do other things to lift my spirits, such as going for a walk or seeing a movie, shopping remains high on my list of mood-altering activities. Nothing else seems to give me the same “high” that searching for and buying new things provides. I know this makes me seem incredibly self-centered and superficial, and I’m not proud of that, but the honest truth is that shopping does help me to feel better. Of course, that uplift in mood doesn’t last long, but I do get a shot of enthusiasm and positivity for a few hours or even an entire day. Then the truth comes rushing back to me, along with a flash of guilt for spending too much money and/or buying too many things. Paradoxically, my mood then plummets even lower than before I shopped, as I wrote about in “Feelings Before, During, and After Shopping.” Clearly, I need some better ways to soothe myself or repair my mood.
To Fit Into an Appearance Obsessed Society
Like it or not, Western society is definitely preoccupied with appearance, particularly when it comes to women. Sadly, we are all judged by the way we look and the way we dress. Southern California, where I live, is especially concerned with the way women look, and women over forty are judged particularly harshly. As I move into my late forties, I feel increasing pressure to look young, beautiful, and slim.
As a recovering anorexic, I have long struggled with insecurity about the way I look. My quest for ultimate thinness destroyed many years of my life and had me walking a tightrope between life and death for far too long. While I’m fortunate to have made it out alive, I continue to struggle with body image issues that fuel my overshopping. I’m continually searching for the “perfect clothes” that will enable me to look in the mirror and like what I see instead of lamenting my “fat thighs” and “big hips.” Of course, those perfect clothes do not exist, as self-esteem comes from within instead of without. No garment will lead me to like how I look unless I accept myself for who I am, pear shape and all.
Not one to make things easy on myself, I threw myself into an appearance-based profession when I decided to hang out my shingle as a wardrobe consultant/stylist. While my primary motivation was to help other women feel better about their appearance and increase their confidence using clothing and style as tools, I found myself thrust into the fashion industry. I felt increasing pressure to not only dress well but also to wear the latest trends. My shopping increased exponentially as a result of this pressure, especially when I was a member of a wardrobe styling group. I ultimately decided that wardrobe styling was not the career for me, particularly if I want to overcome my shopping addiction and promote ethical and sustainable shopping for myself and others.
In Response to Stress, Loss, or Trauma
This reason relates to a two of the reasons above: avoiding dealing with something important and trying to soothe myself and repair my mood. During times of stress, loss, or trauma, we often have no idea what we are feeling or how to process our emotions. We’re afraid that if we sit with our feelings, we may crumble into a heap of tears or lose our minds completely. Sometimes we don’t want to think about the stressful situations in life or deal with the grief we’re experiencing.
I have often shopped to escape my feelings, both because I wasn’t sure how to process them and because I wasn’t even sure what my feelings were. Grief is especially difficult to deal with, as there are really no easy answers. Our loved ones are gone and not coming back and even the happy memories can make us sad in the beginning. Uncertainty, as is the case with my current health woes, is also a difficult state of affairs. We don’t really know what’s going on, so we aren’t even sure what to feel.
I realize that at times I’m writing in the third person instead of discussing my own personal situation. I think that’s because as honest and revealing as I can be in this blog, I feel some things are too raw to reveal. Suffice it to say that when I’m feeling extremely stressed, sad, or vulnerable, I often head to the shops to experience a bit of escape and relief. Of course, any respite I experience is fleeting, but in the absence of clarity for how to address my feelings, I’ll take even a temporary oasis in the desert of emotional pain.
Because it’s the Lesser Evil
For many shopaholics, shopping is not their only form of compulsive behavior. Many compulsive shoppers also struggle with another form of addiction that is more embarrassing or difficult to deal with. In my case, my eating disorders predated and coexisted with my overshopping for many years. Although I battled both issues for at least two decades, my battle with anorexia nervosa almost killed me and landed me in the hospital six times during my teenage years. While I don’t minimize the severity of my shopping addiction, it certainly never threatened my life the way my eating disorders did.
I found that as my eating disorders improved, my compulsive shopping intensified and became my primary addiction. Clearly, I hadn’t fully addressed the underlying issues that led me to both starve myself and shop too much, so I continued to need a form of escapist behavior to deal with the stresses of life.
Both issues are destructive and embarrassing for me, but at this point it’s easier to share my eating disordered past with others. Of course it’s easier because it’s mostly in the past tense, whereas the shopping problem continues to persist in the here and now.
To Feel More in Control
There are many things in life we cannot control, no matter how hard we try to manage all aspects of our existence. As a self-professed “control freak,” I often have a difficult time accepting that I cannot orchestrate everything in my life. Not knowing how something will turn out can be extremely anxiety producing for all of us, but especially for the control freaks among us.
When I find myself ruminating over the areas of my life that feel chaotic, I frequently find my mind wandering to thoughts of shopping. Without even realizing that I made an actual choice to do so, I may end up browsing an online store or getting in my car to go to the mall. Once inside what I see as the “safe” world of shopping, my anxiety decreases. I take in all of the beautiful sights and immerse myself completely in what there is to see, try on, and buy.
I may not be able to control everything – or even all that much – in my life, but I can control when and where I shop, as well as what I buy. That may be my internal reasoning, but of course we know that’s not really true. As a shopaholic, I often lose control and end up buying far too much, as well as items I just don’t need. So I’m not really more in control when I shop, but the retail world is definitely less scary than the “real world.” When shopping, one isn’t dealing with life or death issues or major uncertainty that could have lasting implications. Shopping is often much more fun than other areas of life, so it’s hard to avoid the mall or the ecommerce sites and face the difficulties in life.
To Find Meaning in Your Life or To Deny Death
As I’ve written about previously, I struggle with knowing and fulfilling my life purpose. I’ve had a number of careers and at age 47, I’m still trying to discover what I want to “be” when I grow up. As I get older and exhaust more possibilities, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll ever find the ever-elusive “it.” This makes me very anxious, as does my lack of deep and meaningful connections with others. Although I don’t feel that my life has no meaning, it doesn’t have as much meaning as I’d like it to have. I thought I’d be in a very different place at this point of my life, but I often feel like a rudderless ship or a tree blowing about in the wind.
To add insult to injury, I’ve struggled with some very difficult health issues in recent years that have led me to wonder if perhaps my days are numbered. Even if I will be around for many years to come, I lack the energy and vitality I once had. I often feel tired and weary and afraid that perhaps I will always feel this way – or worse. I am very afraid of death and when I feel terrible physically, that fear intensifies.
Shopping takes my mind off my fears, so it’s incredibly appealing to me. If I’ve had a few rough days or weeks, I look forward to shopping as soon as possible so I can immerse myself in that experience and shut out my fears and anxieties. When I’m surrounded by so many new and beautiful things, I actually feel more new and beautiful, too. I feel more hopeful that I can feel like a young and vibrant woman once again. I get a shot of energy when I shop that I just don’t feel in most other situations. The only other experience that comes close is going to the movies, as I am then able to lose myself in the story and characters.
But when the movie ends or I leave the store with my (often too many) purchases, the reality of my life, uncertainties, and illnesses comes rushing back to me. I did not find lasting meaning through shopping, nor did I deny death through surrounding myself with newness. I am the same person with the same problems, but I might also add the new problem of overspending to the mix. I didn’t fix anything by shopping, but the allure of escaping reality for even a few hours keeps drawing me back for more.
The Many Faces of Overshopping
As you can see, there are many reasons why I overshop. Some of them are very similar and even overlap each other, but there’s no shortage of compelling drivers for my compulsive shopping behavior. I share my stories with all of you in the hope that you’ll perhaps feel less alone. I’m sure that as you read my narrative above, many of you were able to see yourselves in what I wrote. You may have thought that only you felt that way, but now you know at least one other person who shares your struggle and pain. In truth, I’m convinced that many of us walk a similar path. We are not alone!
- Why do you overshop?
- Do the 11 reasons presented by Dr. Benson resonate for you?
- Do you see yourself in some of what I shared?
I invite you to take some time to ponder the suggested reasons for overshopping and even spend a block of time journaling about what you uncover. If you feel comfortable sharing any of your insights with me and my readers, please do so. We can all benefit from each other’s insights and experiences. If you’re not up to sharing, that’s okay, too. Either way, I hope you’ve gained a better understanding of the roots of your overshopping. Awareness is a powerful first step toward recovery.