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Retail Therapy: How Compulsive Shopping Helps Soothe

Woman carrying many shopping bags

The idea of compulsive shopping being a “real” disorder is becoming more palatable recently. People are looking at their economic situations and trying to understand the dynamics behind credit card debt and overspending. At the same time, people are “coming out” as compulsive shoppers, like Avis Cardella, author of the book Spent, which depicts her life-long addiction to shopping and spending. As compulsive spending is taken more seriously, understanding its soothing purposes will be an important aspect of aiding those who struggle with so-called “retail therapy.”

Compulsive spending is a “hunger disease.” Understanding and knowing what the appetite is like for those trying to feed a hunger disease can lead to adequate and sufficient satiation, so to speak. Most people sustain a nagging hunger pang somewhere deep inside—the depth, severity, and frequency of the hunger pangs surface depending on personal history, struggles, and dynamics. For some, compulsive shopping is the right food for the hunger. The therapeutic aspect of compulsive spending wears differently for each person.

“What I Have in My Closet Means I Matter”
Emmy, a 32-year-old professional woman, attends regular therapy to address issues that interfere with her interpersonal relationships. Emmy has longstanding friendships, but, deep inside, she feels overwhelming hate for people in her life that have what she feels she deserves. This could be anything. She feels hate, envy, and an overwhelming amount of entitlement for these “things” that others have but Emmy does not. Emmy is quite open about her shopping rituals, where she will buy several of the same items, for instance, Joe’s Jeans, and hoard them. Rarely does she wear them: Emmy knows that she has them, and that is what matters. In her mind, having these items makes her something more than someone else. For Emmy, this is essential to being able to feel stable and alright in her fragile and vulnerable inner world.

Managing Anxiety through Online Shopping
Virginia, a 42-year-old married and self-employed woman, has been suffering anxiety attacks since her mother died two months ago. She had been in therapy for the past 8 years to address her personal growth and professional development, as well as to deepen her marital relationship. Virginia had overcome earlier bouts of overshopping by paying off her debt, stopping the use of credit cards, developing a budget, and making more money. She has been stable for over five years.

In the past few months she reports going online and shopping to minimize the intensity of her panic attacks. Although she has been able to attend regular therapy and other grief-related support groups, she still found her anxiety to be debilitating and terrifying. When she started shopping more consistently again, she became aware of the calming and soothing effect shopping provided for her. Virginia says that since she is not buying high-priced items or using her credit card to cover her purchases she is not out of control, but rather more aware of her tendencies to shop more frequently to quell her anxiousness.

The Soothing Nature of Nordstrom
Samantha, a 38-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl, is married and recently settled in the United States from France. She is educated, capable, and responsible. Samantha’s mother died when Samantha was a child, and because of the nature of her death Samantha has suffered complicated grief, loss, and trauma throughout most of her life. When Samantha entered therapy to address her compulsive shopping, she had no idea it was related to her trauma and loss.

She reports ongoing thoughts and memories related to her mother’s death and her own childhood and upbringing that overwhelm her. She wishes not to have these types of thoughts and goes shopping to distract herself. She’ll start to think that parts of herself are not good enough, that she’s not well put together, and that shopping for new things will lead to an improvement. Once she finds herself shopping and ruminating over negative thoughts about herself, she is no longer thinking about her mother and the associated memories. Samantha uses shopping to stop painful and troubling thoughts and memories.

Each of these cases describe situations and experiences that have led a person to use compulsive shopping as a means to soothe. In the next blog I will discuss the therapeutic interventions in helping clients like Emmy, Virginia, and Samantha.

© Copyright 2010 by Angela R. Wurtzel, MA, MFT, therapist in Santa Barbara, California. All Rights Reserved.

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  • melwin July 2nd, 2010 at 4:24 PM #1

    this kind of retail therapy is preferred by women more than men and this may well have to do with gender-based preferences.men like sports and games and women prefer retail therapy to unwind.

  • Olivia July 3rd, 2010 at 9:07 AM #2

    Ok so retail therapy always works for me but is this really the best route to be encouraging? Some people have a really hard time controlling that kind of spending and can get into BIG trouble with that. Don’t you think that over spending is just another addiction that is really masking other things that are going on in someone’s life? And shouldn’t they be willing to look at that and try to resolve those issues instead of just going out and getting carried away at the mall?

  • madeleine July 4th, 2010 at 5:45 AM #3

    I love to shop and it does always make me feel better. . . until I begin the cycle of regret over how much money I spent. I am telling you that this is an addiction just like any other and to know that there are other people out there who suffer from it like I do is a real eye opener. I have wanted to get help for this for a long time now but have bene so scared that someone would laugh at me or tell me to just hand over my credit cards. It is not that easy. there are always more credit cards to be had just in the same way there is always gonna be an open bar for the alcoholic or another dealer for the druggie to score. It is shameful how much financial stress this addiction puts on me and my family but I have to admit that I have a very hard time controlling it.

  • Kaye H July 5th, 2010 at 10:33 AM #4

    it feeds my hunger that’s for sure!

  • BARTON July 5th, 2010 at 3:39 PM #5

    I think retail ‘therapy’ is over-hyped. It does nothing therapeutic to anyone except the sellers who are laughing all the way to the bank. It may provide temporary distraction to some people, but will only make them feel bad about having blown money in the long run.

  • Christine July 6th, 2010 at 4:38 AM #6

    dangerous precedent to set here by making this kind of recommendation. Addiction to shopping can be very serious- just ask the families who have faced money ruins because of it. I am sure that they would be a little weirded out that this is something that is actually being recommended for some as treatment.

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