To Buy or Not To Buy? – it’s a question we ask and answer almost every day, and sometimes multiple times a day. For many people, it doesn’t cause a lot of inner turmoil, but if you are a compulsive buyer, it’s a high stakes question, and an affirmative answer can be devastating. Long trivialized as the “smiled-upon” addiction, thankfully, compulsive buying is coming farther and farther out of the closet, and the release of movies like Confessions of a Shopaholic is bringing the problem into the limelight.
We have reason to believe it’s becoming more prevalent. A study reported in the October 2006 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry suggested that about 5.8% of the U.S. population-more than fifteen million Americans-are compulsive buyers. A more recent study, published in the December, 2008 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the number may be closer to 8.9%, more than 25 million Americans. And now with what may be another economic crisis developing, compulsive shoppers are feeling squeezed. Some are unable to resist prices which have been slashed to the bone in the hope of luring reluctant consumers. Others, fearing for their long term job stability, are using the uncertain economic times and certain interest rate boosts as the incentive they needed to become more mindful about their spending. And between these two poles, there are a multitude of other responses that overshoppers are having to the current economic uncertainties, ranging from denial to absolute panic.
When we think “addiction,” what first comes to mind is most likely alcohol or drugs or eating disorders. Even though we know that shopping, when done to excess, can spin dangerously out of control, shopping is still seen by many as superficial, light fare. Strongly reinforced by society, shopping has become the classic mixed-message behavior. On the one hand, it’s promoted endlessly (and to the ends of the earth) by those who profit from it. On the other hand, it’s regularly the stuff of jokes. Shoppers are portrayed as self-involved, materialistic, and empty. As a result, compulsive shopping may be an even greater source of guilt and shame than alcoholism or drug abuse, which are seen as bona fide disorders, requiring treatment.
So why the mixed-messages? Given the fact that consumption fuels our economy, in order to promote the ceaseless stoking of economic engines, every one of us is targeted as a consumer. We are pushed, prodded, programmed to purchase. Every year, billions of credit card offers go out to America’s three hundred million people – more than thirty offers to every man, woman, and child! Shopping itself has become a leisure and lifestyle activity; malls are the new town centers. We’re immersed, cradle to grave, in “buy messages” that, with greater and greater psychological sophistication, misleadingly associate products we don’t need with feelings we deeply desire.
Just check out the bumper stickers. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping,” trumpets an SUV in front of me. For those who enjoyed high school Latin, there’s “Veni, Vidi, Visa!” A largely female version is “New Shoes Chase the Blues,” while men weigh in with “He Who Has the Most Toys When He Dies, Wins.”
What I’ve learned from more than two decades of knowing, studying, working with, and writing about overshoppers, and from having been one myself, is that to change your behavior, you’ve got to change the way you feel about yourself and the way you go about meeting your authentic needs. It’s about understanding who you are, what you want, and what you really need.
In general, having more things means enjoying life less. Acquiring and maintaining objects can so fill up our lives and environment that there’s little time or space to use what’s been acquired. What we consume ends up consuming us.
April Lane Benson, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist who has specialized in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorder for over two decades. Dr. Benson is the editor of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self (2000) and author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop (2008). Her company, Stopping Overshopping, LLC offers individual and group coaching using an evidence-based program, an interactive text messaging program, and a comprehensive website filled with information and effective strategies. Dr. Benson also trains therapists and frequently appears in the media. To learn more about Dr. April Benson go to ShopaholicNoMore.com.