Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play
And every demon wants his pound of flesh
But I like to keep some things to myself
I like to keep my issues drawn
It’s always darkest before the dawn
-Florence & The Machine, “Shake it Off”
On the outer surface, compulsive shopping takes the form of acquiring objects with or without the means do to so. The next layer, what the shopper experiences in the moment just before a purchase, is a quickened heart rate, flushed adrenaline face, maybe balmy hands, and a sense of hopefulness. To some, shopping is hopeful, because it implies a sense of hope for the future: wearing of the new, trendy outfit, using the coveted gadget, or enjoying a warm candlelit evening amongst new decor. These imaginings fill the shopper’s mind endlessly and repeatedly. They serve the purpose of providing distraction perhaps from psychic pain that would potentially lie under this layer of attention.
Beneath this thick defense, we are all the same to some degree. We have painful pasts, tragic traumas, heartbreaks and losses, frustrations and humiliations. Some of us become adept at managing these experiences, particularly the emotional aspects of life’s adversities. However, many of us are not quite as skilled as a result of a combination of factors that intersect at emotional regulation, the innate ability to soothe oneself. The process of shopping becomes the emotional regulator as opposed to inner strength. We joke about “retail therapy,” but I would attest that it is coined “therapy” because it provides a therapeutic element, not necessarily an ideal form of therapy, but a real method that serves as a tool to manage what is at the core of us all—hunger.
I read a poem by Luke Reid, “The Strongman,” the other day, and the opening stanzas read:
Leanness, he thinks, must be the story of horizon’s greed,
It tells of hunger.
She can’t get full.
These lines, to me, encompass the everlasting hunger we all experience, physically and emotionally, whether we will it away, repress it through restrictive means, or gorge ourselves with overabundance. It will not leave us; we seemingly cannot get full enough, but we can manage it effectively by emotionally regulating. Emotional regulation skills don’t always come swiftly or naturally. This is why over-shopping is so appealing and serves a purpose. It is immediate, considering our access to continual browsing online; we are never without temptation and pseudo-satisfaction. Our habits around shopping, and food, for that matter, mature with time and experience. We learn, we grow, we shift, we change, and sometimes we stay exactly the same, and perhaps that is sufficient. There are even some parts of our habits that we should not alter. In my approach to treating compulsive shopping, I tend to challenge all-or-nothing thinking, which is the kind of thinking patterns that lead us to destructive processes in the first place.
How we change has a lot to do with how we do things. This has been a topic of discussion in several therapy sessions this week; for instance, when one of my patients realized that she is not addicted to food but that she is addicted to eating, it was a significant insight. It brought to mind my experiences working with methadone clients who had heroin addictions during the early 1990s. My understanding of the purpose of methadone was to alleviate the physical withdrawal of heroin enough so that the pull to use heroin again would be lessened, because the methadone would interact with the pain receptors in the brain, so that severe withdrawal would be contained. The thinking was that this would be enough to cure the addiction, but that was not the case. Many reported to me how, more than anything, they were missing the process of getting the heroin: calling their dealer, sneaking around to get their dope, finding a place to shoot up, wrapping the tourniquet around their arm, and injecting. This describes the process of using drugs, and the longing for these rituals is what would sometimes pull former addicts back into using.
I could easily translate this process for those addicted to shopping: searching online for the perfect dress, sheepishly purchasing the item, hiding the bills from oneself, let alone another person, unwrapping and trying on the dress when it arrives, and then stashing it away. The thought and energy used for over-shopping is what would need to be addressed in the treatment of compulsive shopping, as individuals begin to interrupt this cycle. I would liken this process to weaning, as opposed to going cold turkey, so that shopping would still be a viable activity but not one that ruins and destroys a life.
Changing the process of how we do things, for instance, how we emotionally regulate, is the therapeutic task at hand. This approach differs from simply attempting to stop shopping altogether. Learning new ways to emotionally regulate is a lesson that comes during the process of therapy and in the telling of your story and finding your words. Clearly, there are behavioral changes that need to occur as well, but even these interventions are personal and specific to each individual and how the behaviors relate to a person’s story. Interventions that seem to be the most successful are those that are spontaneously realized in a therapy session when an attuned listener is able to meet the patient at the right time with the right words, almost as if they came upon the discovery together.
And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back. So shake him off.
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