For years, shopping was my go-to activity for when things weren’t going well in my life. If I had any sort of bad feelings, I did my best to banish them by heading out to the shops, browsing online stores, or perusing fashion blogs and forums. I distracted myself from feeling anxiety, worry, fear, sadness, and a whole host of other distressing emotions by means of what many people call “retail therapy.”
I convinced myself that my tactics worked because I did feel better, at least for a while. But now that I’ve been on my recovering shopaholic journey for almost two years, I feel quite differently. I now know there are many, many things in life that shopping can’t fix and only one thing it can. If you head out to fill a legitimate wardrobe gap, you may be able to fix that problem via shopping. Of course, there’s a fair amount of luck involved in even such directed shopping, but it is possible to fix a defined closet need. However, that’s the limit to what shopping can do in terms of the problems in our lives.
Shopping as a Coping Mechanism
In today’s post, I outline six common life challenges many people try to address through shopping, and share some personal examples of how I’ve unsuccessfully tried to solve my problems at the mall or in online stores. I’m opening up to you about these things because I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to my fruitless searching. As hindsight is 20/20, I realize the error of my ways, but I don’t choose to beat myself up for using shopping as a sort of cure-all for all too many years.
We often develop compulsive behaviors as coping mechanisms to deal with challenging situations. Such behaviors may not be the most productive and successful ways of addressing life challenges, but they do serve a purpose for a time. When we’re ready to face our demons head on and do so fearlessly, we will be able to shed our maladaptive coping mechanisms and develop more appropriate and successful ones.
I’m sure the six challenges I’m about to describe are not the only problems shopaholics have tried to address – or escape – through shopping. Truth be told, I could probably come up with at least a few more if I pondered the topic for another day or two. But my hope is that my examples will resonate with many of you and pave the way for introspection and growth. I would love for you to share your own personal examples in the comments section if you’d like to do so.
I share this difficult feeling first, as it’s been at the forefront of my consciousness of late. It’s abundantly clear to me that I have precious few people in whom to confide. This has been the case for quite some time, but I’ve avoided having to address it. I didn’t want to face my loneliness, as it feels so vast and unsolvable. I’ve tried a lot of the suggested paths for developing friendships, but I’ve seemed to either attract “emotional vampires” who have sucked me dry or very aloof people who can only find time for me once or twice per year.
I am very lucky to have a happy marriage and deep, meaningful communication with my husband, but sometimes I crave female companionship. Lacking friends to meet for coffee or lunch on a regular basis, I turned to the stores. I developed connections with sales associates and engaged in witty repartee with fellow shoppers. Sure, none of these interactions or bonds were very deep, but they did serve an emotional need. Now that I’m shopping far less, I’m more acutely aware of my loneliness, yet I also realize that the shopping never fixed it. It only provided me with brief respites, but the fundamental problem remained untouched.
Many of us shop in an attempt to feel better about ourselves. We think that if we can finally find the right clothes, we will feel more confident. We believe that if we strike the right note with our personal style, we’ll finally believe we’re good enough. But the problem is that the target is always moving. What’s considered fashionable changes so rapidly that it’s almost impossible to keep up. If we struggle with low self-esteem, we’re likely to frequently compare ourselves to others and wind up lacking.
I’ve long had serious insecurities about my appearance and I’ve never felt like I was pretty enough or slim enough. These insecurities contributed to both my long-term struggle with eating disorders and my compulsive shopping problem. Yet no matter how thin I got or how many clothes I purchased, the low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy remained. Dieting and shopping couldn’t fix my feelings of “brokenness.” Those feelings cannot be repaired from the outside in; they must be addressed from the inside out. I’m still working on that process, but it’s crystal clear to me now that shopping will never be able to fix low self-esteem.
Many of us are unsure of where we’re going in life. We may be unclear about our professional direction, our personal relationships, our financial stability, or many other life situations. While some people thrive on adventure and never knowing what’s next, uncertainty isn’t fun for most of us and can lead to intense anxiety. It can send us scrambling to grasp on to something, anything that is tangible and secure.
Shopping can fulfill this need, if only temporarily, as it is possible to feel a sense of certainty about the buying process. We can set out with a list or even just a general intent of finding something beautiful or stylish, and we can achieve that purpose. This gives us a brief feeling of relief from our uncertainty about life and calms our internal maelstrom for a while.
As I’ve written about previously, I lack certainty about many aspects of my life. I am very unclear about my career path, and my health has been on shaky ground for quite some time. I have a very cloudy vision of my future and would not be able to answer the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. Heck, I would even have trouble outlining where I envision myself in just one year’s time. But I could venture out to the mall and be pretty darned certain I’d find things I’d want to wear, and often at a “good deal” to boot. All my shopping didn’t fix one bloody thing about my life, but it did quell my anxiety for a time.
Many women who overshop are in bad relationships. Some overspend as a way to retaliate against a distant, unfaithful, or emotionally abusive spouse. Others just feel like they can’t fix their difficult relationship but also don’t want to or are unable to leave. Shopping becomes a way to tolerate the intolerable and something to look forward to in the midst of it all.
I’m not in a bad relationship now, but I’ve definitely had my share over the years. For a number of years, I was in a dysfunctional relationship with a fellow shopaholic. The communication between us was abysmal and we experienced countless ups and downs in our relationship. We didn’t see eye to eye on many, many things, but one thing we did have in common was a love of shopping.
We shopped together pretty much every weekend and usually managed to avoid arguing with each other in the retail environment. I don’t know about him, but I know I fooled myself into thinking our relationship was far more viable than it actually was. Shopping was kind of a relationship “life support” for us, but it didn’t fix the deep, intractable problems we had. All it did was keep us together for more than four years, such that it was that much harder to break up and move on when it became inevitable that was the best course of action.
I’ve often shopped to avoid thinking about the health challenges of a loved one. When someone we love is ill, be it a family member, close friend, or beloved pet, we usually feel helpless to impact the situation. Such powerlessness leads to intense anxiety, a feeling none of us really wants to feel. Shopping can be a way of escaping this difficult feeling, as it can be deeply engaging and provide some relief from stress and worry.
With my own ongoing health challenges, I’ve often been unsure how I’d feel from day to day. On days when I was feeling great, I’d frequently “celebrate” by heading out to the mall. That didn’t solve anything, of course, but I enjoyed being out and about instead of at home feeling sick. Plus, shopping is something we can do anytime. We don’t need to make any special plans and we can do it alone. If we end up feeling sick on a day when we’d intended to shop, we don’t need to cancel or bail out on anyone. The stores will be there the next time we’re up to visiting them, but of course the shopping won’t cure what ails us.
Grief and Loss
Sometimes our sick loved ones don’t get better and sometimes those we care about are taken from us quickly and unexpectedly. We’re then thrown into the especially painful situation of grief and loss. This state is challenging for everyone, but it’s particularly rough for those who lack a strong support network. In the case of the loss of a pet, many people in our lives just don’t understand. Those who have never bonded with an animal on a deep level likely won’t be able to comprehend the pain of those who consider pets to be our best friends. It’s often a double-whammy, the loss of a dear one coupled with the intense disappointment at those who just don’t get it.
After losing a beloved cat a few years ago, I didn’t want to risk compounding my pain through the lack of understanding by those in my life. Instead of reaching out to anyone (not that I really had anyone to reach out to anyway), I threw myself into shopping head-long. My compulsive shopping problem escalated to an even more out of control state. I shopped to try to escape my pain, but it didn’t work. It didn’t fix anything. My cat was still gone and I still missed him terribly. In fact, I still miss him terribly today. Grief is a process and it can’t really be avoided. We may be able to postpone it through avoidance behaviors, but we can’t “fix” it that way. Unfortunately, the only way out is through.
The Only Way Out is Through
That’s really the bottom line. We cannot fix our problems through shopping. Sure, we can escape them temporarily, but they usually fester and worsen through our lack of addressing them. Time passes, we get older, and our issues become more and more stubborn to break through.
In my case, my loneliness has not only worsened, it feels that much harder to solve because I’ve neglected it for so very long. I’m not any more certain of my path in life and I’ve tacked on the accessory guilt of spending far too much money on clothes I didn’t love or really even need. Plus, I wasted untold amounts of time that could have been put to far better use.
We cannot turn back the clock and do it all over again. We have to accept where we are in life, here and now. If we’ve used shopping as a type of cure-all panacea for years or even decades, we have to acknowledge that fact and move on. There are no do-overs in life. We can’t get Superman to fly around the earth and turn back the hands of time.
Shopping Can’t Fix It, but We Often Can
Shopping cannot fix our difficult emotions, our challenging relationships, and our life uncertainties, but that doesn’t mean these things can’t be addressed and improved. However, in order to get to a better place in life, we have to stop avoiding the things that trouble us and start moving through them, no matter how scary and painful it may be. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and we’re worth it.
Shopping only serves to dull the richness of life. I know this all too well, as I’ve browsed, bought, returned, and “shopped until I dropped” more times than I’d care to count. I’ve used shopping to keep myself in the place of being “comfortably numb” for so many years and now I’m pushing 50 and have little idea of what I want my life to mean. I still lack clarity in so many places, but I do know that I don’t want to be remembered solely for my large wardrobe and shopping prowess (which isn’t really all that, as I’ve detailed in some recent posts).
We are more than what we look like and more than what we do – or don’t do – for a living. We are all multi-faceted human beings with a lot to offer and a lot to experience in life. I no longer wish to shop my life away or hide out in shopping malls and e-commerce sites because I don’t want to feel difficult emotions or risk rejection and disappointment. I want to start grabbing life more by the horns. Who wants to join me?
Your Thoughts and Feedback
It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post of this nature, but I want to start to mix more waxing philosophical posts in with my more practical and statistical fare. I feel both types of content are important and I hope you enjoy and receive value from the various types of musings I share.
Now it’s your turn to share your thoughts. What have you tried to fix or avoid facing through shopping? Did it ever really work for you? What has worked better for you? If you’ve managed to move past compulsive shopping on to more productive coping mechanisms, I invite you to offer any tips you have for those of us who are still struggling. I also welcome any questions you have for me, as well as suggestions for future blog posts.