“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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