The Nightmare After Black Friday: When Does Shopping Become Compulsive?

Low section of young woman with shopping bags at mallDid you wake up Saturday morning flashing back to Friday and how many times you took your credit card out of your wallet to purchase something? Are you having difficulty remembering all that you bought or recalling the reasons you gave yourself to buy certain items?  Did you wake Saturday morning curious about the hoards of items lying on your closet floor? Or, are you oblivious to what you may have endured Friday, the most anticipated, built up in your mind, shopping day of the year?

Each of these scenarios is common for most of us and also indicative of someone who may struggle with compulsive shopping and the underlying issues. Even though the holidays are approaching and most people are shopping and spending more conservatively, there is always room for splurge, a shopping binge, and a need to fill emptiness.

I use the holiday season merely as a platform to discuss compulsive shopping and the rationalizations, internal coercions, and emotional hunger pangs that typically go hand in hand with the behavior of compulsive shopping. Compulsive spending is not a disease, it is a symptom or process addiction that feeds a person, although maladaptive, to soothe the self.

Soothing oneself is a basic survival instinct and most of us learn how to adaptively soothe our selves, mostly of pain and fear, during early childhood. However, to some extent everyone needs something outside of them selves to regulate emotional states. Feelings make up an emotional state but it is not as simplistic as a certain feeling or just one situation.

When people seek addictive behaviors they most likely are attempting to soothe and regulate an overarching emotional state that is unbearable, unimaginable, and intolerable. Each person has their own emotional threshold and will look outward for relief when their brain needs additional assistance. This is adaptive when the substance and/or process for relief are not abused or addictive. When an addiction develops, which is measurable in some cases, or when abuse is evident, then there is a problem in being able to self regulate.

In no way am I suggesting that compulsive spending is an adaptive means to soothe, however the process of shopping or spending, does provide a sense of relief—that is what hooks a person into shopping and spending repeatedly, even in the light of consequences. Consequences have more of an effect on the thinking aspects of the brain as opposed to the emotional centers of the brain. So, basically “knowing” what is good or bad, right or wrong, does not necessarily determine action because the “feeling” in the body overrides the “knowing” when a person is in need of emotional relief.

Compulsive spending can be addressed psychologically and therapeutically by developing an understanding of the process. There is no “one way” to address, comprehend, or make sense of compulsive spending, however, there are underlying themes that become apparent. Helping a person piece together their story, how they go about shopping and how they experience the process will assist in being able to discover the needs and wants a person experiences. This lays bare the holes that are being filled, and where there is a need to grow tolerance for these holes.

So, use the holidays and all that they offer carefully and with thoughtfulness. If you find yourself seeking refuge in online shopping and other environments that call out for distraction, notice and observe and if you have someone to talk to, bring it to the table to explore. If you are reading this blog and have yet to seek out help for something you may feel fragile and insecure about therapy, consider it and seek out.

© Copyright 2010 by Angela Wurtzel. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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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  • rupert f

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    shopping is soothing for my wife but not so for my credit ;)

    jokes aside,it can really develop into a problem when a person starts to splurge uncontrollably and may sometimes be left with a mountain of credit to repay.

  • P.J.

    November 29th, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    “…the process of shopping or spending, does provide a sense of relief and that is what hooks a person into shopping and spending repeatedly even in the light of consequences.”

    Yes it does. I buy things I can’t afford and even convince myself that I’ll return them and there’s no harm done. I’ll get the buzz from buying and the money back. Except I never get round to the returning them part and am stressed out when I see my cc statement. And when I’m stressed, I shop to soothe myself. It’s a vicious circle and I don’t see me ever getting out from under it.

  • Brooklyn

    November 30th, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    I try to avoid those situations where I know that I will be tempted to use credit instead of cash, and typically that menas times like Black Friday where you just feel like everything is on sale and that you are really missing out on something if you can’t go out and buy too. Yeah sometimes it bums me out to listen to the great deals that others got but I have to worrry about me and my own finances and I am still repairing what damage I have done in the past by shopping compulsively and allowing the whole money arena to get out of control. So no worries for me this year about what I spent because I just did not get out in the craziness!

  • Janey

    November 30th, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    I love, love love to shop. My husband works offshore and I make a day of it twice a month. I spend a fortune and have no financial problem paying for it. Does that make me a compulsive shopper?

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