Are you a compulsive shopper?

Natalie’s wardrobe is about to rupture. It’s so tightly packed that squeezing more clothes onto the rack requires red-faced strength and determination. The shelf above the clothing rack carries assorted wearable items, many of them still in their original shopping bags. Pricetags hang out all over the place like bunting flags.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Natalie, an HR executive on a good salary, waits for the time when she’ll be able to afford to move out of her parents’ home. Natalie is a compulsive buyer and she’s not alone.

Are you one?

Although most of the research points to compulsive buying being primarily a women’s problem, one study showed that in the US general population, 6 per cent of women and 5.5 per cent of men are compulsive buyers. “Females with compulsive buying problems show up for treatment; males don’t, but they have the same problems,” says Professor Michael Kyrios, clinical psychologist at Swinburne University in Melbourne. “A lot of the research is done in malls,” he says. “They need to go down to the car shops and electronic shops and computer shops. That’s where the men are.”

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re on the brink of being a compulsive buyer, or if you’re already there, there are some warning signs. “People who are compulsive buyers are preoccupied with buying and one of the most easily recognisable problems is credit card debt. If you’re not keeping on top of your credit cards, and a lot of compulsive buyers have three or more cards, then you’re overspending. End of story,” says Kyrios.

“If you’re lying or hiding the truth from your husband, your wife, your children, then you’ve stepped over. And if you’re preferring to buy that perfect Versace shirt on sale versus putting dinner on the table or putting money into the mortgage, you know you’re probably verging on it.

“Doing it once is no big deal, and this is the irony: when you’re depressed, one of the strategies you use and what people often suggest is that you do something nice for yourself to affirm how important you are. And I think compulsive buying is a sort of varied theme on that, but it’s uncontrolled. If you’re doing it 10 times and doing it consistently, you’re putting yourself into a position where you’re financially and socially compromised.”

Not so funny in real life

People who consistently go on spending sprees are among the most troubled. “We often see it with a range of other disorders,” says Kyrios. “We see it in bipolar disorder, particularly during manic episodes, and it’s very often a way of coping with depression.” So, although compulsive buying is repeatedly viewed as a “soft addiction”, and “shopaholic” women are commonly portrayed as a source of humour in fiction and media, in real life it’s not so funny.

In real life, a shopping compulsion often incorporates behaviours that are associated with serious addictions. “Immediately before the buying incident, there’s an increase in tension and sometimes it can be a physiological tension,” says Kyrios. “After the buying event, there’s a reduction in that tension and then a sense of euphoria. Following that phase, there are feelings of guilt and remorse, which lead to a sense of depression, loss and hopelessness. And if loss and hopelessness and depression trigger the buying, then that triggers further buying episodes. It’s like you’re on a treadmill and you can’t get off.

“We did a study where we compared gamblers with compulsive buyers, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and healthy controls. And we found that the buyers and gamblers were very similar to each other in terms of their psychological profile: they were excitement seeking, approval seeking and they were unable to tolerate negative feelings. Those two groups were quite different from the obsessive-compulsive group. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder showed more harm avoidance and all three groups were obviously quite different from the healthy controls.”

Mary Lee is a hypnotherapist who specialises in treating all types of compulsions and addictions. “Compulsive buying is an addiction the same as gambling or smoking or anything else,” she says. “When you go shopping you get a rush of endorphins and it feels great. Then there’s the coming down. Sometimes the problem can go back to your childhood — a time when you learned behaviour that was seen as normal and acceptable. It sounds funny, but it may just be that you’ve grown up experiencing the world as one in which you should be able to go out and buy whatever you want whenever you want.”

A compulsive buying problem can, however, develop at any time in your life when you’re feeling fearful of something. “You’re not born compulsive anything,” says Lee. “Fear of things not going right or things being out of your control, they are all things you learn as you get older. Whether it’s as a child or as you get into your early 20s or 30s, when you’re told you can or can’t do things, you find ways to cope. Some of those ways are just not really good resources to have.”

“Some of the typical histories that we hear about might have the buying episodes triggered by illness, job loss or relationship breakdown,” says Kyrios, “but often the question we ask is, ‘Were there vulnerability factors prior to this environmental event that have put people at risk of developing compulsive buying?’

“You could be feeling uncomfortable about losing an opportunity if you see an item that’s absolutely perfect and needing to control or quash that discomfort,” says Kyrios. “So you get an underlying vulnerability which, in the context of having lost people, feeling socially alienated, losing your job, feeling you’re unimportant, having an illness or feeling depressed for any reason — these things tend, when you put them together, to lead to a compulsive buying episode, which can then become reinforcing.”

Not all about being materialistic

Compulsive buyers can also develop an attachment and engagement to particular things or people. “What happens will very much depend on what’s been going on in your life,” says Kyrios. “You might be feeling pretty bad about yourself and, if you’re not attached socially, you might find yourself going back to the place where you’ve been shopping because the sales people are sort of like friends and you kind of attach to them as well.

“Sometimes, the engagement on the internet is greater than when you’re holding things in your hand at a shop because the whole fantasy thing around the product can take over, whereas in the shop you might find that it’s not as big, not as nice, not as blue and so on. The thing about the internet is there are very few restrictions. You know you can do it at night. If you’re doing it at night, you’re possibly sleep deprived; maybe you’ve had some alcohol and there aren’t any social cues, so you’re a little bit less likely to contain your impulses.”

At first glance, it might seem that people at risk of being unable to contain impulses and of developing a compulsive buying disorder are those with materialistic values. “Our view is that materialism is not all that important because materialism is rife across the community. We have materialistic consumers because this is how our society is, but they’re not necessarily compulsive consumers,” says Kyrios.

“We think that a self-ambivalence or a self-discrepancy about who you are and who you think you should be, as well as some specific beliefs about possessions as distinct from a kind of general materialistic view, might have something to do with the problem.” These beliefs could be about a possession boosting your self-worth and lifting you out of depression as well as a feeling of responsibility for possessions.

One UK study showed women of all ages and young men who tended to be compulsive buyers were driven by both materialistic values and ideal self-seeking motivations. The study also concluded, “The buying process seems more negative for compulsive buyers, who end up regretting their purchases because they feel that hoped-for self-image gains are not provided after all.”

In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser says discrepancies in a hoped-for self-image … “also motivate people to engage in behaviours designed to reduce the gap between actual and idea … but if the discrepancy is chronic, or if people feel unable to resolve it, needs for esteem and competence can remain unfulfilled.”

Getting off the treadmill

“One way to solve the problem is to recognise inherent dissatisfaction in the rat race,” says Kasser. “The next time you are feeling somewhat empty or down, you may find that you think to yourself, ‘Maybe if I just had that new …’ or ‘Maybe if I could just make more money …’ These are signs of starting to walk on the treadmill.”

Kyrios helps people to recognise signs of walking the treadmill. “One of the things we do is to help you think about things differently. ‘Do I really need this or do I just want it?’ There are financial counsellors for people who’ve got debts and banks will often refer their debt-ridden clients to financial counsellors. A lot of compulsive buyers end up there, but financial counselling is not the solution to a compulsive-buying problem.”

If you have a compulsive-buying problem, Kyrios says: “Probably the most important thing to do is to develop self-worth. Your worth is not dependent on your social status, on what you wear, on what you own, on how you present to other people. And, as part of a way of defining a healthier self-worth, you develop alternative rewards and fun things to do.

“We help people to ride through urges and preoccupations by suggesting distraction activities,” he says. “If you’re preoccupied with the desire to purchase something, go for a jog. The best way of getting rid of psychological tension is to exercise it off. We teach relaxation, mindfulness and yoga activities as well.”

Using hypnotherapy, Lee also teaches people to become more aware. “… it’s not that you have a lack of awareness; it’s just an awkward state of awareness. There’s a term we use — it’s to ‘disassociate’, where you step back and look at what has happened. It’s almost like watching television — you know you’re not involved in it; the emotion has been removed. You might find yourself saying, ‘Wow, I was doing that, that happened to me, that was rubbish, but guess what? I don’t do that any more,’ because you’re no longer caught up in the experience.”

Taking true control

Lee tells people stories to help them interrupt seemingly uncontrollable patterns. “A pattern is something you do over and over again because you don’t know how to stop it. We put something in to interrupt it. With stories, it’s easier to do that because they contain options, constructions and suggestions. And we do it in a way that’s non-confrontational — that way, we give you back the power. We ask, ‘What do you actually like to do? When you go to the shops, what do you like about that?’ We put in a set of choices and then leave it open to you to fill in more.

“You don’t want to take away shopping and leave a hole because, if you do, you’re either going to go back to shopping or going to pick up a new addiction. So we work with creativity — when you become more creative in what you do, you get more joy out of it. And you will have so many different opportunities to be creative that I won’t be privy to because there are so many things in your mind that you can do.”

In her book To Buy Or Not To Buy, April Lane Benson says, “Each of us has a unique complement of gifts, of natural, signature strengths. If we fail to identify and use these for recovery, we’re apt to be stuck with only ineffective generic solutions to highly individualised problems.”

It’s our need for self-actualisation — for doing what we were born to do, not what we perceive others think we should do — “that drives us to learn, understand and seek meaning; to search for Beauty, balance and form; to work toward personal growth and peak experiences,” says Benson. “Self-actualisation is a form of autonomy, for as much as we need to be connected with others, we need as well to act independently, to be at the helm of our own ship. When that need is stifled, when freedom of self-expression is closed off, a tense, edgy restlessness ensues — and sometimes this leads to over-shopping.”

So, when you’re feeling anxious, restless or bored, avoid heading down to the shops or surfing your favourite internet shopping sites … “because you’ve got to stop the shopping in order to pick up some skills,” says Kyrios. “I think of life as being a balance of all things: you need to have good social relations, you need to have hobbies, you need to have interests, you need to have things that stimulate you and you need to have fun. You have different roles in society. Spread it all out.

“If there is no balance and you’ve got all your eggs in one basket, then you’re at risk, because if you trip over and that basket falls, all the eggs are smashed. Then what are you left with?”

  • References available on request.

Penny Robertshawe is a freelance writer based in Sydney.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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