The Journey Inward: Psychotherapy for Treating Compulsive Shopping

200446295-001Retail therapy. Shopaholic. Overspending. Debtors Anonymous. Call it what you will—our need to categorize people and their resulting habits and behaviors leads us to simplistic yet realistic language for what I consider more deeply rooted psychic pain.

I work psychologically with people who typically present with what I call a “hunger disease” and this category includes the behavior of compulsive shopping. I approach each person individually and attempt to get to know their personal story and how it relates to their symptom of compulsive shopping.

More often than not, we end up talking less and less about shopping and spending and more and more about life experiences that offer up emotional reactions and feelings that tend to be difficult, if not impossible, to digest without some action, such as shopping, to move it along and far, far away.

In her paper titled The Psychic Economy of Addiction, Judith McDougall writes that one significant piece of the psychic economy of underlying addictive acts is the goal of dispelling, as rapidly as possible, all feeling of anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, or any other affective state that is liable to give rise to psychic pain and tension.

Shopping addiction can be seen as a very creative, accessible, and nonjudgmental addictive solution to psychic pain. The world we live in craves relief from psychic pain. I am curious why this is for each person I work with and it takes an investigative approach to understand what may have gone awry early on in life that led to the need for a creative, addictive solution.

I say this because our nurturance in infancy and childhood is the basis for affect regulation. According to Donald Winnicott, there is only the “good-enough” mother, and so some failures in attunement and mentalization must have occurred. This can lead to both frustration tolerance and frustration intolerance, depending on the environment and personality of the child.

When a person presents for therapy with a serious shopping addiction, it is my guess that a need for soothing pain goes beyond what the person internally has the capacity for and so an external solution—shopping, for instance—fills that need quite well.

During the course of psychotherapy, a deepening journey inward allows for understanding the disruptions in early life and how to mindfully establish a more stable affect regulatory system as an adult. This process is long, perhaps, and the focus of the process is the therapeutic relationship.

It is within the safe frame and boundaries of a clear, yet fluid, relationship that a person can unfold at his or her pace and develop words and language for an inner life that may very well been kept very tightly wound up and unconscious. I borrow from Philip Bromberg (1994) his emphasis on the use of the interpersonal experience between a therapist and whomever he or she is working with, to symbolize and contain previously unattainable aspects of the self. He states, “It is in the process of ‘knowing’ one’s patient through a direct relatedness…that those aspects of self which cannot ‘speak’ will ever find a voice.”

I believe that for compulsive shopping to be less of the solution for psychic pain, it is important for me as a therapist to help a person bring those parts, those voices, all of them, into the therapy room. It is when we ignore them and become angry with those parts that they grow stronger; when we incorporate them, we become whole.


  1. Bromberg, P.M. (1994). “Speak! That I May See You”: Some Reflections on Dissociation, Reality, and Psychoanalytic Listening. Psychoanal. Dial., 4:517-547
  2. D. W. Winnicott. (1973). The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Middlesex.
  3. McDougall, Judith. (2001). “The Psychic Economy of Addiction” in Hungers and Compulsions: The Psychodynamic Treatment of Eating Disorders and Addictions. Book-Mart Press, Inc.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Peter H

    January 2nd, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    While in NPL therapy by Linda Evans I found out that I also got rid of my shopping addiction. Thank you Linda Evans from Sas van Gent in the Netherlands for relieving my soul once again from one of the many addiction I having in my life.

  • kim p

    January 2nd, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Do you also help the person deal with the debt that they have most likely incurred as a result of all of the shopping?

  • Porter

    January 3rd, 2014 at 4:04 AM

    WITh shopping and so many other addictions I would suspect that there is a hole there in one’s life that one is attempting to fill with something, and in the shoppers case it happens to be goods and buying. This is what makes them feel complete and whole, if only for a while, until they realize that this too only adds to the ever growing emptiness that continues to grow within them. Buying more things and aquiring more things is never going to fill that void of something that is missing any more that another drink or another hit but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to stop trying.

  • Jennifer

    January 3rd, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    I wonder how something like this turns into shopping and spending addiction, like why not drugs and alcohol, why seek that solace in buyinh things you could never afford? Why is that the attraction for some and not others?
    I think that for me it would be very easy to give into this kind of temptation and behavior because this is something that I always saw my own mom engaged in, shopping recklessly and hiding purchases from my father, running to the mailbox to get the bills before he could. So maybe thi, like other addictions, is all about learned behavior from their past and how it starts to manifest in you when you grow up.

  • Karen

    April 18th, 2017 at 3:17 AM

    Jennifer? I was reading your post and it reminded me of growing up; then… I saw the name? Is this Jennifer A?

  • Karen

    April 18th, 2017 at 3:20 AM

    Jennifer, seriously, I know this is an old post but if you get this, I think you’re my sister?? AND a Kathy post sounded like our mother-

  • drake

    January 4th, 2014 at 8:51 AM

    You think that you can only ruin your life with substance abuse? My first wife dragged up through the dregs of financial ruin because of her addiction to shopping, and I am scared that she could pass on these tendencies to our kids but she doesn’t see the need to get help so what am I to do now other than to be the best role model for them financially that I can be and hope that they choose that which I show them? But because of her, we lost pretty much everything that we had worked so hard for, and she still hasn’t been able to own any responsibility for it, saying that if I would have been there more then she wouldn’t have had to seek that kind of solace elsewhere. Ok, yeah, it’s all my fault all over again. I try to be aympathetic and all but when you have been through this and have been personally touched by it it is hard to feel maybe as much of the sympathy that you would like to or maybe you should.

  • Minnie

    January 6th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    It is important to remember that this isn’t something that can be taken care of by just taking away access to money or credit cards too.

    When it is a problem like shopping addiction, the trouble runs so much deeper than that, and like any addict, he or she will find a way to satisfy that need if those underlying problems are not first addressed and taken care of.

  • Kathy

    January 15th, 2017 at 2:22 AM

    Guilt first then the euphoric feeling from shopping then the anxiety from what you just did. Lack of self control then shame. Ya I know all about it. What I don’t know is where to get the help or solution needed

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