It’s not surprising that so many of us are addicted—whether it’s to shopping, gaming, social media, drinking, drug-use or anything in between.
When there are powerfully pleasurable things in the world, and powerfully negative experiences, anxieties, and pressures, it’s only logical that we take advantage of easy bursts of available pleasure. Unfortunately, modern pleasures are all too pleasurable, and without care, self-medication can quickly get out of hand.
Whether your consumption takes the form of addiction or disorder, compulsion or impulse, habit or custom, it is something most of us can benefit from adjusting. This is not to say we should dial back our desires, but that we should fulfill them consciously, and, in the context of material consumption—in moderation.
In this post I will list strategies I’ve employed when I’ve badly wanted something that made me feel worse when I had it. My want revolves around food. No source of joy should become a burden or crutch; once so, the stress of leaning too firmly on it can plant you in a mucky quagmire with no plan for extraction—because the first tool you turn toward to elevate yourself from it is the thing that got you there.
The binge cycle
Bliss: Feelings of euphoria can take over as you begin your activity. It is a powerful feeling, as if this consumption is better than anything else. However, the bliss is short-lived.
Guilt, self-loathing, regret: Quickly, you may begin feeling repulsed by your actions and want to stop, realizing it is no longer joyful. However, stopping may feel nearly impossible because the urge (and hope) for eventual satisfaction is so strong: yet satisfaction may be hard to attain, if ever. You may feel shameful for yet again engaging in this behavior, weak for your “enslavement” to it, and guilty for going against certain values; e.g. if you care about the environment but just bought five pairs of jeans you don’t need, that internal conflict can be extremely demoralizing.
These negative feelings become associated with the activity and drive you to loath it, especially right after it’s over—and for some addictions, “purging” that activity/substance is common, which can enhance its allure next time. You may have negative associations with certain products or places as a result of a binge.
Isolation: Throughout your addiction you may feel alienated from others who don’t struggle with this activity like you do. You might further distance yourself, declining to take part in social activities, or conceal your amount of consumption, “sneaking” in a fix. If your behavior has impacted those close to you, your health, or your bank account, feelings of shame and isolation can escalate.
Obsessing and craving: You may be consumed with thoughts about your activity—both with thirst as you think about your next fix, and with shame at your single-mindedness. If you hear or read phrases associated with your activity, you might feel your brain light up in excitement, sometimes unconsciously. Such reminders of the activity, other emotional triggers, and the negative feelings of regret, inadequacy, and isolation that result from engaging in your activity may drive you to crave its pleasure; it becomes the one thing that can soothe you. This rivalry of disgust and obsessive dependence keeps you feeling trapped, while the intensity of a craving often overpowers rational thinking.
Ritual behaviors: As you prepare to engage in the activity again, you might notice patterns emerge: you may start scouring the internet for shopping ideas or stocking up on alcohol several days before a binge. When you begin a ritual behavior, it’s like the act of pushing a ball downhill—it’s the beginning of a compulsive cycle that builds powerful momentum. When engaging in ritual behaviors, you are committing, sometimes unconsciously, to engage (or “use”), while often feeling a strong sense of conflict.
Self-medication/using: You might enter the activity with the intention of only indulging a tiny bit to taste that feeling of euphoria, but quickly your agency seems to dissolve.
This toxic cycle makes the urge to use, binge, and splurge incredibly alluring, but there are things you can do to soften that pull.
Fight the urge to splurge
Reduce your exposure. Unsubscribe to emails from retail companies, limit your social media time, and avoid hanging around shopping-dense areas if you don’t need to. If you have to buy a specific item, go to a specialty shop; avoid shopping malls. If someone else can pick up that item, ask them to do it instead—you don’t need the temptation of other products and their seductive advertising.
Know your triggers. Once you’ve identified what you are vulnerable to, you can make a plan for either avoiding these things or increasing friction around attaining them. If every time you order Chinese food, you end up ordering 5 different dishes and wasting half of what’s already in your fridge, you can plan to order before you get hungry, treat yourself only when you’ve emptied your fridge (or frozen what’s in your fridge), or when you’re around friends to share it with.
Mitigate holiday shopping frenzy. For most adults, the holidays can be an anxiety-filled time. Those who ordinarily have a handle on their consumption can be triggered by holiday spending and addictive behaviors can emerge. There are a few things you can do to mitigate the rush of November and December: Holiday shop throughout the year; introduce Secret Santa/Pink Elephant to your extended family; consider a charity gift exchange; make your gifts!; don’t shop when stressed, anxious, tired, or lonely; strategize to avoid your triggers while shopping; go for quality, not quantity; set a budget; recycle holiday ads and coupons you receive in the mail; focus on pre-holiday fun—listening to holiday music, stringing lights, decorating cookies….
Address negative emotions. Shopping may be keeping you from addressing your mental health in more appropriate ways. Try not to suppress feelings of discomfort or pain, but sit with them. Work through them with a friend, therapist, or in a journal. To help ease the challenge of facing your emotions, surround yourself with a soothing environment (bathtub, music, scented candles) and non-triggering forms of comfort (animal or human cuddles, hot tea, soft blankets, a book). Recover from your self-reflection with something other than shopping that brings you joy (your favorite movie, a nap, a walk, seeing a friend).
Surround yourself with a positive network. Often our interest in things is a result of the people we hang out with. If sustainability, emotional wellbeing, or saving cash is important to you, it may be worth gravitating toward people whose ideas of fulfillment do not revolve around products or appearance.
Declutter. If you’re surrounded by reminders of your overspending, guilt and shame can follow you around the house. Oftentimes purchases are motivated by negative feelings brought on by a previous purchase—so get rid of anything that has a negative association.
Track your spending. Detailed tracking isn’t for everyone. Counting pennies, calories, or instagram likes can become an obsessive act in itself, and many shopping addicts think excessively about money as it is. But if you think tracking is up your alley, give it a try: Download a budgeting app and log every purchase. Like with using cash instead of credit cards, this is a way to make your purchases feel less abstract and build mindfulness around your habits. If tracking doesn’t help you reduce your spending in a way that feels healthy, you can track only the problem purchases, keep a rough list in your head of your daily total, or simply write down the things you buy without noting their price.
Keep track of your savings. Every time you say no to a purchase or buy second hand, keep track of what you saved. Give that pot of money an aim (and a name! “Self Care”/“Solar at Last!”/”Underwater Basket Weaving”) that doesn’t involve purchasing more virgin materials, unless they’re a sustainable investment—something for productivity, passion projects, wellness, or experience.
Understand your behavior. Keep a journal to record your behaviors, their triggers, and the feelings and thoughts associated. Look for patterns that can help you understand when, where, why, and how it happens. Make a list of things you can do to distract yourself when temptation or cravings arise. Make a list of rational phrases you can say to yourself when rational thinking is fuzzy.
Learn more about shopping addiction. Listen to podcasts, read books or blogs, watch documentaries. You will be able to put a name to certain behaviors, and the feeling of alienation will ease; you are not the only one who struggles with it.
Seek out affirming hobbies. Join a club, start hiking, learn a craft. Work toward a goal that has nothing to do with shopping and that satisfies your needs for growth, confidence, and joy.
• Ask 5 Why’s. When you identify a positive goal to strive for, following it with 5 why’s will clarify your underlying motivations and determine what’s holding you back from achieving it. 5 Why’s is a good way to bring forward subconscious conceptions so you can address whether they are accurate, and get to the heart of your consumption so you can move forward more purposefully. For example:
Goal: reduce my reliance on stuff.
- Why? Because needing to life with a lot doesn’t reflect who I am and what I value.
- Why? Because I know I can be more self-sufficient and I used to feel comfortable living with less.
- Why? Because I had a solid support system that made me feel full.
- Why? Because I prioritized friends and family.
- Why? Because I had more time and mental space.
You can keep going with more why’s. It goes real deep real fast.
Ask for help. There’s no shame in it. Telling your friends about your struggles can be a huge weight off your chest. They’ll be more sensitive to your needs if they’re aware of your triggers. Tell them what they can do to be helpful, and let them know what isn’t helpful. Being able to connect with your group, especially if you’ve detached yourself, can be tremendously grounding. You can also talk with a therapist, online forum, or addiction group.
Unlike other addictive activities, you can’t quit shopping. If you could strike the behavior completely from your life, things would be more simple. But unless you go off the grid (not impossible!), you must learn to manage your impulses while still tasting your forbidden fruit. Here are some strategies to rein in your spending:
Consider the logistics. Before you purchase an item, take a moment to ask yourself some questions: Where will you put it? When will you use it? How will you feel if it isn’t used? How quickly did you grow tired of something similar? Do you own something similar already? After a few months, will you still be excited about it? Will it be in style a few years down the road? Can you afford it? Are you absolutely in love with it?
Bring it down a notch. If you start bringing down the monetary, environmental, or social impact of your spending a little bit at a time, it could help slowly break the destructive cycle. A lowered degree of guilt can lower your need for retail therapy. Start by identifying what would ease the negative feelings associated with your habit: would buying second hand, only purchasing ethical products, or only purchasing from local stores enlist positive or empowering feelings? Guidelines can also be away to narrow your exposure to temptations.
Be aware of decision fatigue. After a full day of decision-making, we are more prone to impulse-buys: avoid shopping in the evening, and if tempted by an item, sleep on it.
Sleep on it. If you find something you like, give yourself 24 hours to mull it over. You may end up being glad you didn’t spend that money.
Put it off for 30 days. For pure “pleasure” purchases or bigger buys, try waiting one month before committing. If you still want it then and can afford it, buy it without guilt.
Leave your credit cards at home. Carry only cash so that spending money feels tangible. If you shop online, ask yourself if you would be willing to pay cash for it.
What if I don’t buy it? Think about the positives that come with not buying, rather than the negatives of buying. Consider that if you don’t buy this particular product, you are allowing someone else to enjoy it. Consider that you are discouraging retailers and manufacturers from creating more resource-intensive products. Plan how you can better use that money instead—on donations, experiences with loved ones, necessary acquisitions.
Learn about the environmental impact of buying. Though you might avoid this for fear of facing your guilt, it is important to know the impacts of your purchases. Having a better understanding of your actions and a concrete motivation to curb them might just be the impetus you need to reign it in.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt). There’s always more money to be made, compared to what you’re making. There’s always a better car to drive, compared to the one you own. You can live a life without satisfaction, or you can love the one you have.
Remember that the grass is always greener. As you are deciding on a purchase, and after you’ve made a purchase, keep in mind how the modern overabundance of choice affects the satisfaction we feel about our decisions. Even if your purchase was a great selection, the tease of unfulfilled potential produced by saying no to other choices can lead us to quickly grow tired of what we have, in pursuit of what else is out there.
Don’t deny yourself everything. Once in a while, allow yourself a fun purchase, but try to do so consciously.
Discover the joys of thrifting. I. Love. Thrifting. If you don’t already love thrifting, you will love thrifting. There’s something so much more rewarding about discovering an item after a thorough chase, and taking it home for a fraction of the price it was originally sold for. You never know the unique discoveries you might make, and you can be confident you won’t cross paths with someone wearing that same piece of clothing. Unlike what many people think, second hand items and clothing are not dirty (just wash it when you take it home if you’re worried) and often they’re barely used. You can be guilt-free when it comes to your wallet and your environmental impact. Just remember to treat that item with care so you can re-donate it later. I. love. Thrifting.
Recognize needs vs wants. Sometimes we’ll rationalize a need for something when we simply want it. Waiting 30 days is a good way to see if your life is barren without it, but otherwise, be aware that your craving brain does not have your best interests at heart. In that moment, it will rationalize that money grows on trees and the environment is greener for it.
If yes, then no. Often when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. Remind yourself what you might be denying your future self by fulfilling that temporary desire (e.g. if I say yes to this pair of pants, I’m saying no to spending that money on a nice meal this week; if I say yes to this jacket I don’t need, I’m saying no to a stress-free closet; if I say yes to indulging in this entire quart of ice cream, I’m saying no to peace of mind, or peace of digestion). Make sure that when you purchase, you are not displacing another priority.
With the introduction of credit and debit cards came an escalation of shopping addiction. Cards were created to take the friction out of buying; like junk food, they were designed to up our consumption. In a cashless economy where online shopping is immensely popular, the ease and instant gratification of buying builds year by year.
Amid this and alluring advertising, and our reptilian love of dopamine, and our age-old instinct to accumulate, and the stress and loneliness of a modern world, we are fortunate if we don’t form an addiction. But if we do, there are absolutely tools for healing, including professional counselors who would love to help.
Please reach out with your thoughts on addictive behavior and compulsive shopping!