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Compulsive Behaviors

Are Your Shopping Habits Problematic?

What to do when shopping gets out of control.

Do you shop ‘til you drop? Do you find yourself buying things impulsively, feeling good in the moment, and later regretting it...or find yourself clicking the buy now button into the wee hours, when you should be sleeping? If so, you are not alone. Fuelled by fast fashion and flashy lifestyles celebrated on social media by smiling happy people and YouTube influencers unboxing their latest clothing, beauty, or home décor haul, or posing in front of flashy cars and indulging themselves in exotic locales, we are—or at least we appear to be—as the song says, living in a material world.

Wants versus needs

We all need certain things, and to get these things, we need to shop. We need clothing, food, transportation, social interaction, and perhaps other items, like computers, cell phones, tools, books, and other items to carry out our daily tasks and engage in pursuits that bring us joy. Many people find shopping pleasant and enjoyable and have developed a way to separate their wants from their needs. But for some, shopping behaviors can become problematic.

Recognizing a compulsive behavior

Some people turn to alcohol, drugs, or food to relax, soothe, or numb uncomfortable feelings or states of mind, like anxiety, stress, and low moods. Others seek comfort in enjoyable behaviors — like gambling or shopping — to take the edge off a bad day or provide a feel-good moment after a trying, stressful work shift. Just like the habitual use of substances, behaviors that numb unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings can also become problematic, with devastating impacts.

An individual with an addiction is someone who “…uses a substance, or engages in a behavior, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences.” Repeated, compulsive shopping—“excessive preoccupation or poor impulse control with shopping, and adverse consequences, like marital conflict and financial problems"—is not recognized as a clinical addiction but for some, it can result in similar outcomes.

When habitual shopping becomes problematic

Shopping can make us feel good in the moment; it can even make us feel as though we are elevating our status. The Mental Health America article, "Risky Business," identifies several problematic shopping behaviors, including buying things to make you feel better, buying things you cannot afford, and accumulating debt as a result of shopping behaviors.

Problematic shopping takes many forms, from shopping sprees, repeated single extravagant purchases, or uncontrollable solitary online buying. While an occasional impulsive purchase or indulgence is not in itself problematic, impulsively shopping online — a growing concern since the start of the pandemic — virtually around the clock, and anywhere we can use an electronic device, definitely is. People engaging in problematic shopping often hide their purchases from others, and spend time thinking about or planning shopping that should be focused on work or life tasks. Another problematic shopping behavior, known as shopping bulimia, involves shopping, experiencing remorse and regret after the pleasant feelings of the purchase subside, and returning purchases — often for store credit — which only perpetuates the cycle.

If you think you have a problem

While the DSM does not recognize compulsive shopping or shopping bulimia as clinical addictions, these behaviors can leave us broke and detached from the people who care about us, mire us in low self-esteem, and lead us to settle for less in life and limit our potential for fulfillment and happiness.

If you recognize yourself and some of your own behaviors as problematic, congratulations: As a clinical psychologist, I can tell you without exception that awareness is the first step in breaking free of harmful behaviors.

To break away from problematic shopping — as with any habit or pattern that no longer serves you — you must first become aware and acknowledge that you have a problem. You can then choose to change. Start by becoming familiar with the triggers that lead to problem shopping. When you pay attention to the thoughts, moods, and sensations that set off the urge to shop, you begin to build awareness around your uncomfortable, uneasy, or distressing feelings.

With this awareness, self-compassion, and time, you can replace negative shopping behaviors with other activities that bring you a sense of calmness or well-being. If, as can be the case, your compulsive shopping has caused financial problems, you can begin to address these problems head-on. And if your shopping behaviors stem from deeper emotional issues or mental health conditions, you can seek the help of a mental health professional.

Breaking free of compulsive shopping

  • Decide to change. Make a promise to yourself to eliminate a habit or pattern of behavior that no longer serves you.
  • Build awareness about what triggers your urge to shop, and replace problematic shopping with other supportive activities, like walking in nature, reading, meeting with a friend, or meditating.
  • Bring in compassion for yourself as you strive to make changes, and give yourself time to change.
  • Develop healthy boundaries such as shopping only for what you need rather than what you want.
  • Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are struggling to manage trauma, low mood, anxiety, or stress.
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