“It’s not shopping, it’s retail therapy.”
“I shop, therefore I am.”
“When I die, bury me at the mall, so my wife will come to visit me.”
Despite all the jokes like this, for too many people shopping is anything but a joking matter. This was the message of our March 27 teleclass with Dr. April Benson. She is a nationally known psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder.
According to Dr. Benson, research shows that six to ten percent of Americans are compulsive shoppers. These are people who are indeed trying to do “retail therapy.” Shopping is their response to stress, a way to try to avoid or to soothe emotional pain. It serves the same function that alcohol does for alcoholics, work does for workaholics, or gambling does for compulsive gamblers. And, like those other substances or activities, the attempted “cure” is as bad as or worse than the “disease” that prompts it.
I was especially interested in several points Dr. Benson made during our interview:
1. Compulsive shopping, like workaholism, is condoned and even encouraged by our society. Our economy is based on creating more desire to buy discretionary items.
2. Compulsive shopping isn’t necessarily a problem only for those who spend more than they can afford. Certainly, overspending is one serious aspect of this problem for many people. But even those who have enough money for the things they buy can suffer from compulsive shopping. So can those who shop but don’t necessarily buy. This is because the cost of compulsive shopping isn’t necessarily measured only in money. There are also significant costs in terms of time, energy, and the consequences of failing to address emotional issues or life problems.
3. While compulsive shopping is perceived more as a woman’s issue, recent research shows that it affects both men and women equally.
4. Research indicates that compulsive shopping is increasing among younger people. Dr. Benson believes this is due in part to the easy availability of credit. She also attributes it to society’s increasing barrage of “buy, buy, buy” messages.
5. One factor Dr. Benson sees as part of the problem of compulsive shopping is that the Joneses have become richer. As she describes it, “keeping up with the Joneses” used to mean emulating the people next door, down the block, or across town. Now the media constantly shows us the lifestyles of wealthy and famous people. The standard for what we think we ought to have has become higher and higher. From personal trainers to extravagant weddings to exclusive preschools, luxuries and lifestyles once reserved for the wealthy are now seen as normal expectations within the reach of middle-class families.
For people who are concerned that they might be compulsive shoppers, Dr. Benson suggests looking at three factors:
1. Whether you use shopping and buying as a “quick fix” for emotional distress.
2. Whether you have tried to stop shopping and couldn’t.
3. Whether you are especially susceptible to advertising messages.
Dr. Benson’s treatment program helps people look at the past to identify the sources of the problem, identify triggers that cause them to shop, and take a clear look at the consequences of compulsive shopping and what it is really costing them. She also helps clients determine what needs they are really trying to meet through shopping, and then explores healthier ways to meet those needs.
She is completing a self-help book, To Buy or Not to Buy?: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, which will be published in December 2008 by Trumpeter Books. For more information, check out Dr. Benson’s website at www.stoppingovershopping.com.