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Compulsive Spending / Shopping

Have you ever found yourself in a shopping mall, searching, with a slightly pounding heart, for something? Something to wear tonight, tomorrow or for that next important meeting or, is it something yet to be thought of, but you know you must need something, or at least you feel like you need something. Maybe you just want something new, what is the difference, right? You are just going to get it and then whatever is really going on will go away, maybe not even something tragic or problematic is happening, but your mind and emotional system has been wired so that you go shopping and when you get a new object that will in turn, whether you acknowledge this or not, will also assist you in getting rid of something, or help you “deal” with your feelings. People who have found compulsive shopping to be an avenue of destruction have incorporated compulsive spending as an emotional regulation system. Compulsive spending is the thread or the glue that holds the emotional regulation system together when a person would typically “fall apart” or fragment.

Shopping Addiction Test

Some important questions to explore in determining maladaptive compulsive spending are:

Key: almost always, once in awhile, infrequently or not at all

1. Do you buy things you want even if you know at that moment you do not have the money to pay for it?
2. Is it difficult for you to save money?
3. When you have some extra cash that you could save, instead, you think of other things you would like to buy?
4. Do you cheer yourself up or give yourself a reward by “going shopping”?
5. Does more than a third of your income go to pay credit card bills, not including rent or a mortgage payment?
6. Have you had to move credit lines because you typically don’t have the money to pay off your credit line?
7. Do you pay the minimum balance on your credit card most of the time?

8. Are you inclined to keep buying more of your favorite things - clothes, makeup, cd’s, books, computer software, electronic gadgets - even thought you do not have a specific need for them?

9. When and if you have to say “NO” to yourself, or control yourself from buying something you really want, do you feel intensely deprived, angry or upset?


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If you feel like you answered always and once in a while to at least four of these questions, you may have overspending tendencies. If the last questions provoked an always or once in a while response, compulsive spending/shopping should be considered as a real concern. That question seems to be the most potent indicator of a serious problem.

~ Provided by Angela R. Wurtzel, angelawurtzelmft.com


Therapy for Shopping Addiction

Therapy for compulsive shopping from a psychodynamic/hunger disease perspective addresses both the symptom of compulsive shopping, a behavior that has gone awry and spiraled out of control, and the depressionshameanxiety and relationship difficulties that may also be present. Only curing a person of the compulsive shopping will not satiate the deeper hunger. By treating the actual hunger disease, behaviors and feelings will be more understood and a person will feel more in control of their livelihood for long periods of time.

In an emotionally validating environment that begins from the moment the first contact is made, compulsive shopping therapy can eventually explore the deeper deprivation and attachment failures that help fuel compulsive spending. In an attuned therapeutic setting the process of compulsive shopping therapy includes both an assessment and understanding of the behaviors that appear out of control.  By comprehending the gravity of the problem along with compassionate curiosity a client with compulsive spending problems will have the opportunity to explore him or herself more fully and beyond what lies at the surface of the presenting problem. Without judgment and definition, therapy for compulsive shopping can effectively address shame and defenses that typically keep a person locked into a cycle of spending and self deprecation. This needs to be done carefully and slowly. 

It is essential to validate both the destructive and the useful sides of compulsive shopping and by doing so help the patient discover how the hunger disease serves the self. Clearly the curtailment of compulsive shopping is a desired wish and outcome for the therapy process, and it should be done thoughtfully, reminiscent of weaning a baby from a bottle to a cup, done with guidance, support and understanding. Otherwise, if the source of food (e.g. Bottle or spending) is just ripped away, it creates too much disturbance in the emotional life of the person and emotional regulatory systems, to whatever degree they exist, will be overwhelmed and possibly shut down. There is no rush because the goal is to develop an ability to sustain and maintain. The ultimate goal is to incorporate more adaptive skills over time and lead more balanced and less self destructive lifestyles.

This specialized approach to compulsive spending pays careful attention to the personal history and story of each specific person. This therapy is not one size fits all, but rather carefully attuned and moves with the pace of the patient’s abilities, coping skills and regulatory system. It is important to remember that if the person could stop the behavior with ease he or she would and that resistance is more than a conscious choice but a real psychological defense meant to protect while at the same time unintentionally hurts. 


Compulsive spending psychotherapy explores the deeper deprivation and emotional groundwork that lies below all the stuff and things a person may indulge in by shopping and spending. The process of compulsive spending therapy includes both an assessment and understanding of the behaviors that appear out of control and perhaps causing family discord, financial debt and emotional instability. By acknowledging and beginning to comprehend the gravity and individuality of the problem, the course of therapy will lead to an incorporation of more adaptive skills to lead more balanced and less self destructive lifestyles.

The process of this treatment approach is comprehensive and psychodynamic and helps people come to understand themselves more fully and deeply as well as give light to how compulsive spending is so persistent and repetitious in a person’s path. It reveals the intricacies of the attachment process which for every person begins at birth, is essential for survival and brain development, and is an instinctual drive, not a choice, to be attached.  Therapy for compulsive spending illuminates the individual’s physiological and psychological blueprint of how feeding oneself was to take place through the course of a lifetime and the areas of the blueprint that have gone amiss and how to make and sustain alterations in the original plan.

~ Provided by Angela R. Wurtzelangelawurtzelmft.com


How Therapy for Compulsive Shopping Works

This specialized approach emphasizes the individual nature, history and truth of each person, as it unfolds in the therapy room. The stance of the therapist is one of compassion and curiosity, understanding and empathy, truth over justification and openness to challenge any judgement. In maintaining this stance, a therapist can help a person tell the story of his or her hunger disease albeit sad, painful, difficult and surprising at times, the truth is there whether the words are spoken or not. One of the main tenets of this treatment philosophy is to draw out words rather than action from the compulsive spender so that the urges to spend become less powerful and the mind is more in control. A person suffering from a hunger disease such as compulsive spending experiences anxiety because he or she wants something but cannot allow themselves to really know what it is. This knowing would perhaps be too painful to tolerate and hence the compulsion to spend becomes the method of soothing, a frantic race to kill off  the thought develops within the person and acquiring objects of desire with a “magical” credit card, makes the soothing process easy. Then, once the object(s) is consumed or purchased, relief overcomes while at the same time negative thoughts toward the self ensue for doing something so “stupid.” A repetitious cycle is created in part because the acquisition provides a transient satisfaction, not a long term satiation, and it fuels the compulsion to buy increasingly. The wanting and anticipation of getting the new purse, shoes or race car contains the most pleasure and is done repeatedly. Some people buy the same thing over and over, sometimes knowingly and other times not. Another example of repetitious behavior is of someone buying 20 pieces of the same fruit at each grocery store visit whether she needs them or not. She discovered that the act of buying 20 apples created a feeling of safety, soothing and containment over her anxiety that she might not have enough if “something” happened.

Compulsive spending becomes increasingly severe over time indicative of an addiction. When a compulsive spender develops credit card debt, and one card has reached it’s limit, another one is sought, and used to it’s maximum and so on until the damage is so severe that serious debt is what leads a person to seek some form of assistance or at least hit rock bottom, and then, get help or start the cycle once again. Psychotherapy aimed at understanding that the “habit” is not an intellectual problem, but an emotional problem, in the sense that the emotional regulatory system has gone awry and spending is what keeps their system held together. They know better, they don’t feel better.


Hunger Diseases by Raymond Bettegay

In his latest book, In The Realm Of The Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate discusses many aspects of addictions, including compulsive spending, which he coins as a behavioral disorder. In the book, Hungers and Compulsions, compulsive shopping is considered an action disorder. Both of these terms indicate the use of the body and the mind in a way that is "disorderly" and skips over real thought and most importantly, feeling. An impulse occurs and the body acts so as not to feel or be in touch with one’s emotional life. At the core of many compulsions and addictions lays the untouched and guarded emotional life.


In his book, Hunger Diseases, Raymond Bettegay defines hunger diseases as the emotional problems a person has based on a lack of self-esteem, so much they are driven to possess and consume people and or things in an addictive manner. However, no matter how much they get, it does not feel like enough. The hunger is insatiable and it is thought that these problems derive from childhood when the child’s hunger for closeness, warmth, and stimuli were either inadequately met or inordinately gratified, triggering a recurrent experience of insatiable hunger, a hole or emptiness, that must be filled with a constant supply of something.


Unconsciously creating a system to feed oneself is perseverance in an emotional world that seems scary, unstable and uncertain. In trying to overcome compulsive spending, it is imperative to understand that the system that has been developed is working on some level to create a homeostasis that provides sustenance and if ripped away  prematurely leads to ongoing struggles, more severe episodes of acting out and an incomplete comprehension of the original blueprint. By examining the original blueprint in psychotherapy, suggestions and alterations can be made in time without discarding the operating system at work for so long. For instance, when transitioning a baby from a bottle, the baby is not expected to find a cup and know how to use it without both a weaning process and guidance in utilizing the new feeding tool. The same framework is essential in the therapy process as patient reactions and needs are paid attention to and responded to with insight and care. This approach provides for individual growth and discovery. Feelings are felt, not pushed away or gotten rid of, and thoughts are allowed into the mind, sometimes expressed or simply observed, and actions are determined by the patient based on new skills.

~ Provided by Angela R. Wurtzel, angelawurtzelmft.com


Neurobiology and Compulsive Shopping

The medical model as applied to compulsive spending makes most sense if it is based on brain development and the correlation with addiction. Currently, research and clinical experience both indicate that there is no addiction center in the brain and no specific circuits strictly for an addictive purpose. However, the brain systems involved in addiction are among the key organizers and motivators of human emotional life and behavior resulting in addiction having a powerful hold over people. Gabor Mate designates the three major networks of the brain involved in addictive processes: the opioid apparatus, the brains natural narcotic, the dopamine system, the manager of incentive motivation functions, and the self regulation system. 


The less effective an opioid system is to provide love, pleasure and pain relief, the more driven a person will be to seek joy or relief through compulsions perceived as rewarding, such as spending money for a new dress or makeup. The dopamine system is  triggered during the origination and development of addictive behaviors, such as compulsive spending. The dopamine system is the main strengthener of compulsive spending behavioral patterns because desire, wanting and craving are all incentive feelings, managed by dopamine, while opioids are more responsible for the pleasure-rewards aspect of compulsive spending. Both the opioid circuits and dopamine pathways are important components of the emotional part of the brain. Emotions exist for a very basic purpose, according to Mate, to initiate and maintain activities necessary for survival. So, in essence, they regulate two drives that are essential to human beings: attachment and aversion.


When the emotional brain is satisfactorily developed then it is a dependable guide to life and facilitates self protection. The emotional brain also makes possible love, compassion, and healthy social interaction (Mate, 2010). However, when handicapped, the emotional brain can produce unwanted behaviors, compulsive spending being one possibility.


The self regulation system, technically known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), regulates how a person processes and reacts to emotions. In compulsive spenders, the OFC emotionally overvalues an object of desire or the act of spending, making it the main concern for the compulsive shopper, and sadly, the only concern. The OFC also undervalues other objectives, like making rent, providing for oneself and family members. By becoming triggered even at the thought of a new purse or sunglasses, the OFC encourages craving and neglects its job of impulse control (Mate, 2010).

~ Provided by Angela R. Wurtzel, angelawurtzelmft.com


Resources Related to Compulsive Spending / Shopping:


Stopping Overshopping

Women's Earning Institute

Financial Recovery Institute


InCharge Education Foundation

Shopping Addiction Yahoo Group - An online group for people with shopping addiction


If there is something important you'd like us to consider adding to this page, please feel free to suggest your ideas.


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Last updated: 04-03-2014


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