When Mental Illness Causes a Shopping Addiction

June 26, 2017

        Though addiction runs in my family, I never worried too much about it catching up to me. I don’t have the desire to drink when I’m upset and am actually turned off by alcohol when I’m not in a good mood. I’ve never had the desire to smoke or do drugs. I was able to give up sugar and binge-eating fairly easily. I hate casinos and find gambling to be boring. I saw all of those things as being the dangerous addictions that can take over your life. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I have an addiction to shopping and it’s fueled by my anxiety and depression.

         I’ve loved clothes and changing up my style ever since I was little. I was shy and how I dressed was my way of expressing myself and discovering my personality. My dresser and closets were always overflowing but no one pointed this out as being a concern. I was just seen as a typical girl. I’ve been an impulse buyer for as long as I can remember. I get anxiety if I walk into a mall and have to limit myself or not buy anything at all. I fall in love with items instantly and more than half of the time, I end up not loving it once it’s home with me or I rarely use or wear it.

        Due to my current financial struggles, I decided to research how to be both frugal and minimalist. As I researched those lifestyles, I was drawn to the idea of living with less and being intentional about my purchases. I looked around my apartment and suddenly saw all of my decor as clutter. When I got dressed, I noticed how many clothes I haven’t worn in years but never got rid of “just in case.” I started my minimalist journey by selling items I knew for sure I didn’t use or want anymore. I came up with a plan to minimize my wardrobe by selecting outfits I love and feel good in and only keeping those. If I feel good in those outfits, why worry about wearing them often? I found getting rid of my belongings to be surprisingly easy and I loved the feeling of having a calmer living space to help balance out my anxious mind. I used to be the person who had to have every inch of space on my walls covered but I was able to allow for a large amount of blank space on my walls and enjoy the way it looked to have only what I loved in intentional places.

        After doing all of this organizing I went to Target to pick up toiletries. As I walked past the clothes, I found myself thinking thoughts like “just one more top to finish my wardrobe.” As I walked past the home decor I found myself thinking, “just one more decoration to make my place feel right.” Now that I was learning about living with less, I was suddenly very aware of these thoughts. I was feeling intense anxiety being surrounded by all of these items and my urge to buy something didn’t have much to do with whether that item had a purpose or if I legitimately loved it. I just had this intense desire to impulsively buy these items under the belief that everything in my life will finally be perfect if I buy that one last thing. I often bought quirky items like Lego rings and a Lisa Frank backpack to provide myself with a temporary feeling of excitement. I’d post my items on social media for extra validation.

        This is what I’ve been doing to myself my entire life. I always thought that if I bought that one outfit, the guy I liked would finally notice me and I would finally feel good about myself. If I bought that foundation even though I already have one, I would finally be prettier. If I bought that decoration for my apartment, my place will finally feel like home. For most of my life I have felt like I’m not in control and shopping gave me that sense of control over my life. It was also almost like self-soothing. Whenever I was depressed, sad, or anxious I would fill the void I felt with meaningless objects to provide a temporary high. Eventually that high would fade and I would be left feeling low, perhaps even worse than before if I spent too much money. I’ve had a lot of abusive guys compare me to other girls and these comparisons made me obsessively buy clothes to look like the girls I was being compared to and try to make myself more beautiful for other people. I didn’t see my shopping problem as an addiction because I thought I was experiencing normal behavior of someone who likes to shop. People always joke about not being able to walk into Target without buying everything that’s not on their list. However, I came to the conclusion that this was a serious problem for me when I considered whether it was having a harmful impact on my life.

        My shopping addiction has been causing me to struggle with finances more than necessary. I cringe thinking about how much money I could have in my savings if I hadn’t gotten so out of control and didn’t get such a high off of swiping my debit card. Even as I sold my stuff, I would look around for new stuff to buy and there have been a few occasions where I’ve replaced the stuff I sold with new items because I didn’t fight the impulse. The amount of items I was accumulating were also causing me extra stress. The more items I owned, the more time it took to clean, organize, and maintain everything. I didn’t think before purchasing and displayed objects in random and meaningless places. No matter how hard I scrubbed the apartment, it never felt clean when there was so much stuff everywhere and this caused me to constantly feel on edge. Now that I’m leaving room for empty space in my apartment, I’ve learned that a cluttered home really does lead to a cluttered mind. I also had to acknowledge the guilt I secretly felt every time I went shopping. Like any addict who knows what they’re doing is bad for them but can’t bring themselves to stop, I would feel anxiety upon seeing the total at the checkout but let that temporary high I felt disguised the shame. I was shopping impulsively as a way to make myself feel better and dull the pain I’ve been feeling. The trauma I’ve experienced through the past few years has been intense and it’s not something anyone wants to have to feel all at once. The promise that everything would get better if I bought that one item has strangely kept me alive on many occasions.

        One of my biggest flaws is that I don’t think highly of myself. I tend to say “why bother?” at the idea of bettering myself or trying something new because I function under the assumption that I’m not going to change and that I’m a failure. It’s not a stubbornness. I admit to being wrong easily and like the idea of bettering myself. I tend to see myself as being incapable and my low self-esteem causes me to think that I won’t succeed. I’ve had to decide whether I want to be happy and have a chance at a better life to begin overcoming those thoughts. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, I have a plan for how to work on this addiction and end this negative behavior for good. Before I purchase anything, I force myself to ask several questions about my needs and uses for that item. For the majority of the items, I decide I don’t need it and the length of time spent asking and answering questions allows for that initial impulsive feeling to fade. I take note of how much better I feel when I don’t give in and allow that feeling to be my reward. I have created a list of things I genuinely need one day when I can afford it and what items need to be replaced by something of a higher quality eventually. These lists help me to avoid impulsive shopping as I already am aware of what I do need and already have a plan for how much money I need to have before I allow myself to do that. One downside to minimizing is realizing that you’ve collected so many mediocre items when you should have invested in one high-quality item you love. Or you don’t develop your personal style until you’ve learned how to make purchases with intention and suddenly hate most of your furniture and want to replace it with the theme you now love. Sometimes I get the urge to replace the items I still have and I have to be good about reminding myself that I don’t have the money to do that and that I need to beat the addiction first so that the purchases don’t cause me to relapse.

        Beating a shopping addiction has been difficult because I can’t avoid spending money. I have to go shopping for food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies on a regular basis. I have to buy gifts for people’s weddings and birthdays. I avoid spending money when I don’t absolutely have to but those moments when I do have to give me the urge to go on a shopping spree. It’s a daily battle but I’ve become much better at talking myself out of an impulsive purchase and talking myself through the anxiety that comes with saying no.

        Addictions can come in many different forms. An addiction, no matter how insignificant you think it is, needs to be addressed if it’s causing you emotional and/or financial stress and has a negative effect on your daily life and relationships. Many of us living with severe anxiety seek out a source of comfort and something to numb our pain. It’s okay to need this but it’s important to evaluate how helpful and healthy your habits are. Instead of shopping, I’m learning how to seek out comfort in reading (I use a library card now instead of buying books), exercising, and writing. There are healthy ways to cope with emotional pain and it may take time to replace harmful habits with beneficial habits but it’s possible with the right game plan and love and patience for yourself.

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