Retail 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.
- Bromberg, P.M. (1994). “Speak! That I May See You”: Some Reflections on Dissociation, Reality, and Psychoanalytic Listening. Psychoanal. Dial., 4:517-547
- D. W. Winnicott. (1973). The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Middlesex.
- 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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