With Compulsive Shoppers, There’s More Than Meets the Eye

Couple Out Shopping“How does my relationship with money correlate with my spending addiction?” a woman asked me recently when she phoned for a consultation. It was a fair and good question, one I had yet to be asked by a person in my care. Usually when people seek consultation or therapy for compulsive shopping, they just want to stop over-spending. This goal is a difficult one to achieve because it takes more time, effort, thought, and consideration than meets the eye. Exploring one’s relationship with money may very well parallel his or her relationship to spending.

Money is both real and tangible, as well as psychologically charged. By this I mean money is a necessity for survival, and at the same time we have strong emotional and psychological attributions to money. How we spend our money is directly related to our emotional and psychological attributions to money even if we logically think differently about money.

For instance, one person in my care believed that working hard and diligently, with passion and integrity, for her money was very important. At the same time, when she felt empty and alone, desolate and troubled, she would binge shop and in essence ignore her values associated with the hard work she had performed to earn her money. After her binge shopping sprees, she would feel horrible, regretful, and extremely ashamed. She hoarded her material possessions and even hid them from family and friends. In considering the idea of returning some of her purchases, she also felt too embarrassed and too attached to the items she had bought.

She clearly described herself as caught in a never-ending cycle of binge shopping that became a coping mechanism. She tried many self-help books which suggested she gain access to more money, adjust her spending, and reduce her debt. This plan seemed “right,” but not realistic based on her resistance to the second and third suggestions. If she acquired more money, she believed she would continue to spend every dime. She sought help from me to work through her psychological resistance toward spending and reducing her debt.

It became clear as we worked together that addressing her stress and worry regarding money barely touched the surface and that it was necessary to explore the emotional process that fed her compulsive spending. These efforts brought to the surface insight: that how she managed money and spending was similar to how she fed herself food, engaged with family members, and interacted with coworkers and friends. Her boundaries in every area of her life bounced from one extreme to the other, and finding her gray area was our ideal therapy intention. Her potential gray area would be based on her values and her capacity to have integrity. This was not constant, and on any given day, at any moment, could be fed by her compulsive thinking and lead to a regression.

We discovered that this was part of her therapeutic process and that expecting or obtaining ultimate change would be a process as well. Much like weaning a baby from a bottle, she was going to be weaned from her ingrained process of over-shopping, over-feeding, and over-engaging, and weaned onto new processes that led to less anxiety and stress, and hopefully more contentment and satisfaction in living her life.

In particular, her process of weaning included asking herself a few questions at certain times. Question No. 1: what do you really, really, really want? Her answer obviously changed throughout the course of her therapy (and life) depending on what she wanted. At one point, her answer was a new pair of shoes.

The follow-up question after determining what she wanted—in this case, a new pair of shoes: she was to ask herself, how is getting a new pair of shoes central to my becoming a good version of myself? The importance of this question is that it is purely relative and personal to her. Her values may drive her to answer this question in various ways, and the purpose, therapeutically, is for her to take full responsibility for her wants and needs, desires, and cravings and the actions she may take to fulfill them. Her needs and wants, desires, and cravings are not for anyone else to determine. This is a very challenging process to incorporate for someone like this person because it requires a deeper sense of integrity and insight, responsibility, and containment.

The third question: what are these new shoes actually for? There could be a million different answers to this question, but no matter the answer, it would promote a sense of clarity in the particular moment, thus creating a groundwork for her gray area. For instance, perhaps this time she needs a pair of shoes because the ones she had fell apart and she cannot go barefoot. However, the next time she really wants a pair of shoes, perhaps she would answer that it is to fill a void or relieve her of boredom. Her answers will lead her and hopefully, with consistency and stability in her psychological growth, help her to make choices that will meet her needs and wants, cravings, and desires more appropriately.

Our work together involved her whole life and understanding her limitations in being able to emotionally regulate herself. She had discovered that compulsive shopping regulated her emotions. In therapy, she realized that all of her emotions needed regulation—not just negative or unpleasant emotions, but pleasant and acceptable ones, too. Her development of different regulatory skills while she was weaning herself from compulsive shopping helped her become more aware of herself in relationship to people, money, and work. She became diligent at setting boundaries for herself and clear about what she needs versus what she wants.

Neither, she concluded, is right or wrong, and sometimes she would fill her needs and sometimes she would fill her wants. Her awareness about her inner life grew dramatically and influenced her emotional states as well. She reported feeling less anxious and stressed and more secure and stable in her life.

When we decided to review our process together, she stated, “As a therapist, you provided me with guidelines to follow should I wish to do so. The guidelines were never set in stone and would change as I grew and resisted. The most important aspect of having guidelines is that they were tailored for me and my specific psychological needs. They helped me succeed and accomplish what I set out to do in therapy. I still shop and fill my cravings and my desires, with awareness and without shame.”

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  • ruby

    ruby

    September 30th, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    I have this problem and I don’t know what to do because I literally know that my husband would kill me if he ever found out! I tryo to dig my own way back out of the debt that I acculate but it never seems to be enough and then there I am opening another account somewhere and doing even more damage. I know that my actiions are not right and that I am hurting our lives by doing it and I guess that there is a hole there that I am trying to fill… but I am being honest when I say that I don’t know what that is or how to fix it. Where do I even turn for help?

  • Daphine

    Daphine

    September 30th, 2014 at 2:37 PM

    You know that there has to be something much deeper at the root of this problem than just spending money and buying things.
    This is not about having new clothes or items for the home. There is something that I would think that is missing in this person’s life that they are trying to make up for through compulsive shopping and buying things.
    If there is enough of a problem that you are hiding the purchases and not being honest and forthright about the finances then there are huge issues in the relationship, either with another person or with yourself, that you can’t hide anymore. You have to find a time and decide to be honest about the issue once and for all, because if you don’t face it then it can’t be fixed.

  • Sidney Jo

    Sidney Jo

    October 1st, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    I grew up with practically nothing so at times it has been a real struggle for me to control my own spending habits since I have my own money and can buy what I want. I mean, I still have to have a budget but I do pretty well and can have access to a lot more now than I did when growing up. The tendency is there though to over compensate for the things that I always wanted when I was young and disnce I could have them now, there is a part of me that just wants to go hog wild and get it all even though I know that I don’t need all of that. But you have to understand that there is still this desire to make up for what I never had and I am always trying to put the reins on that a bit.

  • Faith

    Faith

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    This almost seems like it could be classified as an addiction, much like other abuse issues are. Do t=you think that this is it? Or are these people who are just being irresponsible? Believe me, I understand, I have a husband who is out of town most of the time and sometimes you just want something to make the loneliness feel better and you go do a little shopping. But you have to kno when to rein it in and not go too overboard because “things” will not replace the person or the something that is missing from your life. I don’t want to simplify the issue, but that’s a big part of it in a nutshell.

  • wade r

    wade r

    October 1st, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    there may be more than what meets the eye but it does not take away the fact that someone could be running up thousands in debt with no clear cut idea of how they are ever going to pay that back… and they could be ruining your good credit in the process. look, i am all about getitng help for whatever problems you could be having, but please don’t drag me down and into it. might sound harsh but there are some things that are beyond hard to repair and your credit is one of those things. i understand that it could be a whole lot worse, but i would just ebg someone in my life if they were doing this to please, let’s get some help instead of continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. last time i checked that could be the definition of insanity!

  • paisley

    paisley

    October 2nd, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    How about finding something else to do when you get that urge to shop and spend? Like get involved in a fitness class or reading club, anythhing that could take your mind off of that compulsion and give you something healthy to engage in instead.

  • Lea

    Lea

    October 3rd, 2014 at 1:46 PM

    I don’t ever want to feel like I am only working hard to feed my compulsion…

    I want to have something to show for all of the hard work that I do and not just things that make me feel ultimately guilty and unsatisfied

  • Jamie

    Jamie

    October 4th, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    With any compulsion or addiction I think that you will find that there are some very unresolved issues far beneath the surface that have to be worked out before the healing will ever begin. I say that from experience as an addict myself, and you have to know that for as much trouble as you think that we are causing on that you can see, the hurt that you don’t see in us is even worse. Please keep this in mind of you ever have a loved one who is suffering because believe me, this is not what we want, but we find that we have gottne ourselves into and mostly it never feels like there is any real way out.

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    #1
    I have this problem and I don’t know what to do because I literally know that my husband would kill me if he ever found out! I tryo to dig my own way back out of the debt that I acculate but it never seems to be enough and then there I am opening another account somewhere and doing even more damage. I know that my actiions are not right and that I am hurting our lives by doing it and I guess that there is a hole there that I am trying to fill… but I am being honest when I say that I don’t know what that is or how to fix it. Where do I even turn for help?

    Dear Ruby,

    Thank you for your comment. You accurately describe a repetitious process of spending, accumulating debt, wiping it away only to create the same situation over again. Undoing this process and developing the insight needed to interrupt the repetition is therapy. Often at the root of the problem is a limited capacity to regulate one’s emotional states. Perhaps finding a therapist who understands the process of emotional regulation and attunement could be helpful to you.

    In a future blog post I will address repetitious cycles and emotional regulation as you have definitely brought up an important part of the compulsive process.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    #2
    You know that there has to be something much deeper at the root of this problem than just spending money and buying things.
    This is not about having new clothes or items for the home. There is something that I would think that is missing in this person’s life that they are trying to make up for through compulsive shopping and buying things.
    If there is enough of a problem that you are hiding the purchases and not being honest and forthright about the finances then there are huge issues in the relationship, either with another person or with yourself, that you can’t hide anymore. You have to find a time and decide to be honest about the issue once and for all, because if you don’t face it then it can’t be fixed.

    Dear Daphne,

    Thank you for your comment. The purpose of compulsive shopping certainly is a deeper psychological concern that needs to be addressed. To the compulsive shopper, it is out of their awareness that what they are doing is more than meets the eye. The wanting, the hunger and the shame are mostly unconscious and often before the unconscious processes can be addressed empathy, understanding and some weaning from the compulsive behavior needs to occur. I mentioned above the idea of limited emotional regulation which is typically at the core of compulsive shopping and developing more adaptable emotional regulation skills is a must before deeper psychodynamic work can take hold and be sustained.

    In a future blog I will address these ideas as well as the feelings of shame that overwhelm a person and keep them from being able to admit to loved ones their process addictions.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    I grew up with practically nothing so at times it has been a real struggle for me to control my own spending habits since I have my own money and can buy what I want. I mean, I still have to have a budget but I do pretty well and can have access to a lot more now than I did when growing up. The tendency is there though to over compensate for the things that I always wanted when I was young and disnce I could have them now, there is a part of me that just wants to go hog wild and get it all even though I know that I don’t need all of that. But you have to understand that there is still this desire to make up for what I never had and I am always trying to put the reins on that a bit.

    Dear Sidney Jo,

    Thank you for your comment. You seem to have developed insight and understanding about your wanting and desire. I appreciate that you shared your process because it is YOUR process and is meaningful. Everyone has a story and the story helps us understand ourselves and what we do. Our childhood certainly impacts our lives and how we decide to live as well as how we feel.

    In a future blog post I will address how our stories help us understand our compulsive shopping, wanting and hunger.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    #4
    This almost seems like it could be classified as an addiction, much like other abuse issues are. Do t=you think that this is it? Or are these people who are just being irresponsible? Believe me, I understand, I have a husband who is out of town most of the time and sometimes you just want something to make the loneliness feel better and you go do a little shopping. But you have to kno when to rein it in and not go too overboard because “things” will not replace the person or the something that is missing from your life. I don’t want to simplify the issue, but that’s a big part of it in a nutshell

    Dear Faith,

    Thank you for your comment. Some would agree that overshopping can be treated therapeutically as an addiction. The compulsive nature of compulsive shopping is the key to understanding the urges for each individual. Above, I talked about the importance of stories, whether they be from childhood or current day, as you wrote about your husband being away and feeling lonely. The emotional state of loneliness is very difficult for some people to tolerate depending upon their capacity to emotional regulate.

    In a future blog I will address the emotional state of loneliness and how it relates to emptiness and hunger.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    #5
    there may be more than what meets the eye but it does not take away the fact that someone could be running up thousands in debt with no clear cut idea of how they are ever going to pay that back… and they could be ruining your good credit in the process. look, i am all about getitng help for whatever problems you could be having, but please don’t drag me down and into it. might sound harsh but there are some things that are beyond hard to repair and your credit is one of those things. i understand that it could be a whole lot worse, but i would just ebg someone in my life if they were doing this to please, let’s get some help instead of continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. last time i checked that could be the definition of insanity!

    Dear Wade,

    Thank you for your comment. You also address the concept of repetitious cycles and that they bring about the same result, usually with the hope of a different one! On the surface, compulsive shopping looks like a practical issue and there are serious implications and consequences. The psychological help that one could receive would focus on understanding the underlying need to repeat a process over and over again while getting the same surface results, however, the emotional regulation that comes with this repetition is unconscious and usually what is being sought. This is out of one’s conscious awareness. That is why it looks like someone just wants shoes but really, really, really wants something more.

    In a future blog I will attempt to address the repetitious cycle and the unconscious motivations via compulsive shopping.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    How about finding something else to do when you get that urge to shop and spend? Like get involved in a fitness class or reading club, anythhing that could take your mind off of that compulsion and give you something healthy to engage in instead.

    Dear Paisley,

    Thank you for your comment. You bring up the idea of finding something else to do that could potentially distract a person from compulsive shopping. This may very well work as long as the new activity provides the same emotional regulatory function as the compulsive shopping.

    I will discuss in a future blog the personal and individual nature of emotional regulation.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:43 AM

    #7
    I don’t ever want to feel like I am only working hard to feed my compulsion…I want to have something to show for all of the hard work that I do and not just things that make me feel ultimately guilty and unsatisfied

    Dear Lea,

    Thank you for your comment. Shopping and having things does not necessarily mean someone is a compulsive shopper and only feeding a compulsion so if you do like nice things and have things to show for all of your hard work it doesn’t mean you are compulsive. If you feel guilty and unsatisfied with what you have then there is more potentially going on that does not let you feel satisfied.

    In a future blog I will address the underlying shame and guilt associated with feeding one’s hunger.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

  • Angela R. Wurtzel

    Angela R. Wurtzel

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:46 AM

    #8
    With any compulsion or addiction I think that you will find that there are some very unresolved issues far beneath the surface that have to be worked out before the healing will ever begin. I say that from experience as an addict myself, and you have to know that for as much trouble as you think that we are causing on that you can see, the hurt that you don’t see in us is even worse. Please keep this in mind of you ever have a loved one who is suffering because believe me, this is not what we want, but we find that we have gottne ourselves into and mostly it never feels like there is any real way out.

    Dear Jamie,

    Thank you for your comment. Your thoughts about the underlying pain and suffering that someone with an addiction or compulsive shopping may be experiencing is paramount is being able to understand the process. Often, it is the person themselves that have difficulty recognizing and acknowledging their pain and suffering and when this begins, healing can occur.

    In a future blog, I will address the underlying feelings associated with hunger diseases and compulsive shopping.

    Warmly,

    Angela R. Wurtzel

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