Retail Therapy is a Ruse

A few weeks ago, the following quote was posted by one of my Facebook “friends”:

Retail therapy works every time.”

I had to resist the strong temptation to fire back with, “No, it doesn’t!”  Although I didn’t want to get into a lengthy debate on Facebook, I do want to write about the concept of “retail therapy” here on the blog. I have some strong feelings about this term and its implications.  In today’s post, I share my thoughts on “retail therapy,” how I don’t believe it’s really helpful at all, and what I believe might work every time.

Retail therapy is a ruse

So you shopped til you dropped – did it really help anything?

Like Nails on a Chalkboard…

Every time I see or hear the term “retail therapy,” it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.  I truly hate the term, for several reasons:

  1. It suggests that shopping can actually serve as a form of therapy.
  2. It minimizes the reality that many people actually struggle with overshopping as a serious problem.
  3. It perpetuates the tendency that most people in society have to numb their pain rather than deal with it.

Other “Cutesy” Sayings about Shopping

I know not everyone who uses the phrase “retail therapy” is trying to make the above statements or would even agree with them.   Yet that doesn’t stop the visceral reaction I have whenever I hear or read the term.  It simply makes my blood boil!   Of course, it’s only one of the “cutesy” sayings that have proliferated in reference to shopping.  Here are a few more:

  • “Shopping is cheaper than therapy.”
  • “When in doubt, go shopping.”
  • “I am not a shopaholic.  I am helping the economy.”
  • “Whoever said money doesn’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”
  • “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
  • “Keep calm and go shopping.”

I could go on and on.  There are so many similar sayings.  Just type “shopping quotes” in Google and you’ll see hundreds of them, often accompanied by cute graphics and snappy photos.

The “Smiled Upon Addiction”

It doesn’t surprise me that so many people make light of the very real problem of compulsive buying.  After all, Dr. April Benson (author of “To Buy or Not to Buy”) often refers to compulsive shopping as the “smiled upon addiction.”  It isn’t taken seriously by many people and is viewed as a less serious addiction than such problems as alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, and compulsive gambling.

“When I Shop, The World Gets Better…”

As I scrolled through the sea of quotes about shopping, one in particular caught my eye for its sheer raw honesty:

When I shop, the world gets better, and the world is better. But then it’s not, and I need to do it again.”  – Rebecca Bloomwood

Rebecca Bloomwood is the main character in the “Shopaholic” book series by Sophie Kinsella.  While I haven’t read the books, I did see the 2009 film adaptation, “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” starring Isla Fisher.  It was this film that really opened my eyes to the depths of my own shopping addiction.  The movie is supposed to be a comedy, yet several scenes brought me to tears, as I recognized so much of myself in the experiences and struggles of Rebecca Bloomwood.

The Dark Side of “Retail Therapy”

The quote above exemplifies the dark side of “retail therapy.”  We go shopping to feel better about what’s wrong in our lives or to escape our negative feelings.  While we are shopping, we do feel better, as we are completely immersed in the shopping experience instead of dealing with the problems in our lives.

So “retail therapy” does work, in theory, but only for a very short period of time.  After we leave the mall or click “buy now” on our computers, our reality comes rushing back to us.  What’s worse, we may also feel a rush of guilt for overspending, leading us to feel even worse that we did before we shopped.

Why We Continue the Ruse

If “retail therapy” doesn’t work and is indeed actually a ruse, why do we continue doing it?  I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I continue shopping because even though I only feel better for a little while, it’s still better than feeling bad all or most of the time.  That little hit of emotional high, be it for ten minutes or three hours, can be mighty addictive, even when we intellectually know the high will be followed by a dip in our mood.

Most of what human beings do is motivated by two desires:

  • To gain pleasure
  • To avoid pain

Shopping serves both purposes, as we feel good while we’re shopping and avoid painful negative feelings during the shopping process.  So the behavior of shopping is reinforced on both levels, making it much more difficult to stop.  Of course, we often do feel pain when we open our credit card statements or peer into our overloaded closets, and that pain is frequently too much for us to bear, especially when it’s piled on top of the all of the other pains in our lives.  We don’t know how to cope, so we rush back into the behavior we know will make us feel better – shopping.

The Vicious Circle of Overshopping

While this vicious circle defies logic, it’s what we know.  It’s familiar, so we keep doing it.  Even as I wrote on this blog how much I hate my full closet and crave a minimalist wardrobe and quality over quantity, I bought 21 new pieces during the month of August.  Sure, I gave away more than I brought in, but it still felt like two steps forward, one step back.

Clearly, I’m not a stupid person.  I know about cause and effect and I realize that if I keep buying more and more, I will continue to have an overly large and unmanageable wardrobe.  Yet shopping has been my primary coping mechanism for years.  When I feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, scared, drained, lonely, etc., my first thought is to go shopping.  Although I hate the term “retail therapy,” I still persist in trying to do it, even though it doesn’t work!

If Not Retail Therapy, Then What Does Work?

If shopping (or eating or drinking or drugs or whatever) doesn’t work to help us overcome our difficulties in life, then what does work?   There are no easy answers here.  In fact, the answer is one most of us don’t want to hear.  We have to do the real work in our lives, and that work is often difficult, painful, and scary.

We have to look at what’s really bothering us, because I’m relatively certain your real problem is not that you don’t have enough clothes, shoes or accessories in your closet (it’s not mine, either).  I’m fairly sure your biggest problem in life is not that you don’t have the latest trends in the newest “it” colors of the season.  What’s really eating us is usually far deeper – and far scarier – than issues of a sartorial nature.

In my life, my real problems are that my health sucks, my career is in limbo, and I’m incredibly lonely and devoid of many deep connections in my life.  My family relationships feel shallow and empty, I’ve lost touch with most of my friends, and I have little idea how to cultivate new friendships that will fulfill me.   I continue to struggle with insecurity and body image issues, as well as anxiety about my health and safety in an uncertain world.

Craving a Short Respite from Reality

When I consider all of those things for even a few moments, my head starts to spin and I feel like I just might lose my mind. It’s no surprise I want to hit the shops for an oasis of beauty and sanity, if even for a short respite from reality.  If I do so, will I feel better for a while?  Sure, I will. Will it solve any of my problems even a teeny tiny bit?  Of course not!

The problems of my life – or any of our lives – can’t be solved overnight.  We didn’t get to where we are overnight, so we won’t be able to dig ourselves out of the mire overnight, either.  It takes daily diligence and taking slow but sure “baby steps” to make progress in cultivating the types of lives we truly want to live.

There will be setbacks and things will feel overwhelmingly scary at times.  But what’s the alternative?  To escape through shopping and other similar “numbing” activities, only to have reality come crashing back upon us shortly thereafter?  We all know that’s not the answer…

Getting Off the “Retail Therapy” Train

I want to get off the “retail therapy” train because I understand it for the ruse it truly is.  It’s not really any type of therapy; it’s merely an escape and a temporary diversion.  I want to face the issues in my life head on and put shopping into its rightful place in my life, a means to an end when there is a true need to purchase new items.

“Retail therapy” does not work every time – never has, never will.  There is no easy road. The only way out is through, and sometimes we might get a bit windblown and dirty in the process.  But what’s on the other side is better than anything we can buy in a store.  It’s true freedom, acceptance, and joy.   I’m in. How about you?

12 thoughts on “Retail Therapy is a Ruse

  1. When this post landed in my in box I thought it said Therapy is a Ruse. I was thinking uh-oh, that can’t be good 🙂 I know that I can’t engage in retail therapy-nor can I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. Over shopping was just the latest in a long line of addictions for me. I am trying really hard to deal with the real reasons for all of these addictive behaviors. Otherwise I know I’ll just come up with a new one. I have exhausted so many options that I shutter to think what I would come up with next. Excessive hamster adopting? All those wheels squeaking! I think the key to my success is focus. When I am doing what I am supposed to do: such as things that need to be done, things I want to do, tending to my social life, my spiritual life, and remembering what I learned about compulsive shopping I do well. When I stop doing those things packages are speeding their way to me. It’s very simple, but sometimes so hard to do.

    • I like your sense of humor, Tonya! Like you, I’ve struggled with a long line of addictions over the course of my life. I agree that focus is very important in terms of dealing with these types of behaviors. I do better, too, when I’m doing the things that need to be done in my life. Otherwise, I’m more prone to escaping through shopping and other types of self-destructive behaviors. You’re right that it’s simple, but simple and easy are too completely different animals!

  2. I don’t buy retail therapy either. It seems to me that going cold turkey (no shopping for an extended period of time — 4-6 months, maybe — to modify behavior) one of the best ways to tackle over-shopping. That, and finding alternative avenues for socializing, finding self worth, etc., such as volunteering. I finally understand why, Debbie, you have continued to shop while writing this blog about reducing the size of your wardrobe (I’ve been stumped by this). I still recommend cutting down (or out) the amount of $$ you spend each month so you don’t give yourself permission to shop because it’s a budgeted expenditure.

    • I’ve tried cold turkey a number of times, Dottie, as well as cutting down my budget and other behavioral types of interventions. I continued to be a shopaholic because I didn’t deal with the underlying issues. I’m now doing that, along with some behavioral changes, and I’m gradually getting better. There is no “one size fits all” approach. We can suggest things to other people, but in the end, we all have to find our own paths.

  3. This statement resonated with me so much I felt like crying: “My family relationships feel shallow and empty, I’ve lost touch with most of my friends, and I have little idea how to cultivate new friendships that will fulfill me. I continue to struggle with insecurity and body image issues, as well as anxiety about my health and safety in an uncertain world.”

    I’m not a mall shopper, but I use on-line shopping in much the same way. It makes me feel better for a moment when I open that package, but it is fleeting. I don’t know what the answer is but it helps just to know that I’m not alone. We’re all struggling.

    • Welcome, Mary. I’m glad my posts and this blog are helping you to feel less alone. There really are no easy answers. As I wrote, the only way out is through. We have to find new ways of meeting our needs and that’s not easy. Sometimes we take comfort in even a very temporary bit of relief from our pain through shopping, but I know there is a way to find more lasting peace and joy. Like you, I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m bound and determined to find them!

  4. I also hate ‘retail therapy’. However, I do believe in psychotherapy and in my opinion you are right now taking major strides in stopping hiding and understanding what is really going on. You’ve been able to take an unflinching look at your life. You have clearly formulated the main problems. That’s already a huge accomplishment.

    I think you are in a great place right now to start thinking about which issues you will be able to tackle with a gradual plan and which ones you will not be able to change. (Acceptance and forgiveness can be an alternative.)

    Don’t get discouraged! When you say two steps forward, one step back – that’s how real therapy often seems to work!

    • Thanks so much for your encouragement, Anna! I also believe in psychotherapy and I’ve had a lot of it, but it’s like peeling an onion and there are many layers. I haven’t had therapy in a number of years and I’m trying to deal with things on my own now. I’m making progress, but I may need outside help at some point. I’m taking it day by day. I think acceptance and forgiveness play a large role in recovery. I will do my best not to get discouraged and just take things one step and one day at a time…

  5. I’ve never really believed in the concept of retail therapy because every time I tried it I always felt worse–usually within minutes of making the purchase, before I even left the store. But I would tell myself that I was committed to at least taking it home and trying it, even though I already knew I wanted to return it. I knew at the moment of purchase that nothing I could buy was a substitute for the feelings I was missing in my life at the time. Money can’t buy love, and that little statement can be analyzed several different ways.

    • You are so right that money can’t buy love, Deby. Clothes, no matter how beautiful they are, cannot take the place for what we really need in our lives. Shopping is not necessary BAD in and of itself, but it’s not the universal panacea I’ve tried to make it. I may not know how to meet all of my needs just yet, but I DO know that shopping won’t do it. Old habits may die hard, but I definitely know that “retail therapy” is not REAL therapy!

    • Thanks so much for sharing this excellent article, Angela! I enjoyed reading it and plan to share it with my readers in my next “useful links” post.

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