Understanding the endless pit of wanting that resides in many people who compulsively shop is an arduous and insightful process. Not only does this process take time and patience, it involves a persistent willingness to acknowledge, speak of, and integrate the impulses and behaviors of compulsive shopping.
At its core, compulsive shopping is a creative cure for an unconscious well of emptiness. By “unconscious,” I mean out of awareness in an emotional and psychological sense. The psychological unrest that is the driving force of compulsive shopping is the most important facet to understand and grapple with. While understanding how to curtail compulsive shopping behavior is also imperative, this comes to fruition with the psychological insight.
Without the emotional regulation required to contain compulsive shopping impulses, behavior is unlikely to change on a sustained basis. It is comparative to someone who wishes to lose weight “knowing” what to do yet having limited psychological resources to say no to themselves in moments of emotional hunger. When people who struggle with compulsive shopping begin to look at their patterns, they may begin to see that much of what is bought during a compulsive shopping spree typically goes into the back of the closet because the need was much less than the want of the object.
Learning to emotionally regulate impulses related to compulsive shopping can be likened to the process of weaning an infant from a bottle to a sippy cup, then to the next developmental stage, and so on. During these transitional stages, the infant may experience a great deal of frustration, and the caregivers are needed and expected to hold these emotional reactions for the infant and assist the infant in feeling soothed and contained. This is a delicate and necessary process for the infant to integrate because the infant then learns that his or her feelings of frustration can be tolerated and managed not only by others but, eventually, by himself or herself. When this pattern of weaning and transition is successfully integrated, the infant has a greater likelihood of becoming more emotionally regulated on his her own as an adult.
Many people who shop compulsively may have experienced truncated transitional processes in their development, and rather than feeling secure with their capacity to regulate and contain, they seek external objects to satiate their emotional appetites. At first, the newly acquired objects may fulfill the function needed for emotional regulation, but then the effect wears off and another compulsive shopping episode is needed to establish psychological harmony.
Many people who shop compulsively may have experienced truncated transitional processes in their development, and rather than feeling secure with their capacity to regulate and contain, they seek external objects to satiate their emotional appetites.
The emotional regulatory system exists in all human beings, in our brains. It is not specific to one feeling or emotion; it regulates all emotions, and when it is fractured in some way, it is faulty in regulating all emotional affects. So, when trying to understand the personal processes of emotional regulation, it is necessary to understand the personal practice of facing emotionally charged situations, which really just means how one feels throughout each day.
Each person has his or her own way of processing experiences and feelings, albeit unconsciously to some extent. By putting language to the story of one’s experiences, there is an opportunity to understand the more finite patterns of emotional regulation in everyday life. Then, awareness of one’s patterns can come to life and into consciousness, and small, even minute changes can be made toward weaning off of compulsive shopping and incorporating new emotional regulation skills that reside within oneself.
It is true that we can rewire our brains to become more adept at emotional regulation. However, it takes time and practice. We wish we could just flip a switch in our brains, as we would a light, but if it were that quick and easy, we would be doing it already.
There may never be enough, and having everything one wants may still not be satisfying. Through the process of developing more fortified emotional regulation skills, managing these feelings of deprivation and wanting become more tolerable.
The absence of feeling and emotion is not the goal with emotional regulation. The guiding principle of emotional regulation is to experience one’s emotional responses, manage them internally and fully, and allow these experiences to build the foundation of a stronger sense of self. The appetite for buying might never go away, but it might feel less intense, which would then lead to fewer episodes of compulsive shopping and a greater sense of awareness and tolerance.
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