I’m not a psychological expert on compulsive shopping behavior — I’m a personal one.
For several years, I hid my compulsive purchases from my spouse. I sought the immediate satisfaction of hitting the “Buy” button. I snuck boxes in the house and made secretive trips to pick up stones from a local vendor. When the orders arrived, I usually experienced guilt and stashed them away out of sight.
I was using online shopping for several reasons. In January 2020, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (OCD). On December 5, 2020, I had an aha moment — I was compulsively shopping!
It turns out there are documented comorbidities, such as compulsive shopping and depression or compulsive shopping and anxiety — OCD is another one.
Some of the reasons I found myself clicking “purchase” time and time again included feeling lonely and avoiding digging into my own state of mental health. I was also living with a scarcity mindset from growing up in an unstable financial environment.
I’d hoard food in the pantry after buying way too much at the grocery store. I was attempting to feel in control of something. Ads often feature people as seen in the image above — a badass woman who looks to have all her shit together. I wanted to feel like that woman looks.
I was seeking the dopamine high of clicking the purchase button and fulfilling the impulse for compulsive behavior.
There were several problems with this — I was spending more money than we had. Compulsively shopping isn’t a cure for anything, including loneliness, a scarcity mindset, or compulsions.
Interestingly, there is a difference between impulsive and compulsive behavior. A 1994 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded “Compulsive buying is a definable clinical syndrome that can result in significant psychosocial impairment and which displays features of both obsessive-compulsive disorder and the impulse control disorders.”
What is Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD)?
Dr. Shahram Heshmat of Psychology Today defines Compulsive Behavior as “the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences” and explains compulsive buyers lack impulse control and continue buying despite negative consequences, such as financial hardship or relationship problems. 6% of the US population have a buying compulsion (Compulsive Buying Disorder or CBD) and 80% of that number is comprised of women. Strangely, compulsive buying disorder is not listed in the DSM5 although it often co-occurs with other mental health disorders.
“Although it’s not officially described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it has been suggested that compulsive shopping disorder, also known as compulsive buying disorder, is either a type of impulse control disorder, a behavioral addiction or possibly even related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” — Very Well Mind
According to Dr. Heshmat, there are five indicators that you may have this compulsion, which we’ll now explore.
You may purchase items you don’t need. You may purchase items you can’t afford. You may hide your purchases and forget you bought them — you may not even open them when they arrive. You may spend a lot of time researching and window shopping before buying. You know your behavior is negative but you are unable to control it. Compulsive buyers are more likely to become hoarders later in life if they continue buying and don’t declutter what they’ve purchased.
Dopamine hit or buyer’s high
You get a high from window shopping, whether online or in a store. The rush is often associated with deciding whether or not to buy what you are looking at. The high can be twofold — from the shopping itself and from the buying of the item. Receiving the goods is not part of the high. The behavior becomes addictive.
Shopping to fill the void or avoid other emotions
“Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void, like loneliness, lack of control, or lack of self-esteem.” — Dr. Heshmat
You may seek shopping to tamp down a negative mood such as loneliness, depression, or anger. It only works for a little while and gives way to anxiety and/or guilt over the purchase.
You feel guilt after making impulsive purchases. In order to make the guilty feeling go away, you may buy something else (see Nº 3) and the cycle of compulsion continues. You see problems occurring because of your shopping — at home, work, school, or elsewhere — and don’t stop, yet feel guilty about it.
You buy what you can’t afford
CBD is “CBD is only prevalent in developed countries where there is a system of credit and a consumer culture.” — Dr. Heshmat. When you pay with cash it signals that you are parting with “real” money. There’s something about using a credit or debit card that does not send this signal to your brain, leading to a disconnect, and allowing you to make purchases that you wouldn’t so easily make with paper cash in hand.
What to Do When You Think You’re Dealing With CBD
Dr. Heshmat recommends reviewing your shopping history to pinpoint when your compulsive shopping habit began. Then, make a list of triggers that lead you to impulsive buying. They could be loneliness, boredom, a fight with a loved one, grief, depression — an array of negative emotions. Practicing some cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful, in which you remind yourself that buying an item does not lead to the outcome you are seeking. It also helps to manage credit cards, or getting rid of them if necessary. Paying with cash will signal your brain you are parting with “real” money and may be helpful as well.
A 2012 study, “Shopping addiction,” authored by Vijaya Murali, Rajashree Ray and Mohammed Shaffiullha appears in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment by published online by Cambridge University Press in 2018. The authors assert CBD is not in the DSM-5 because pharmaceutical companies could take advantage of the disorder and there is some argument over whether a “moral” problem should become “medicalized.” Because it’s a disorder that can bring a patient to a psychiatrist, they consider it from a clinical perspective.
Their research suggested medication, particularly SSRIs, could be helpful, but there isn’t yet evidence to prove this claim. Psychotherapy, including CBT and cue intervention, can be helpful. They quote a study in which self-help is emphasized with the following four steps:
“1. Admit you are a compulsive shopper. 2. Cut up the credit cards, and get rid of the checkbook — sources of easy credit fuel the problem. 3. Shop only with a friend or relative; embarrassment will curb the tendency to overspend. 4. Find meaningful ways to spend your time, other than shopping.” — Kuzma & Black (2006)
You can also try joining a self-help group, as listed on the verywellmind website.
How I Went Beyond My Shopping Addiction
You may have a compulsive shopping disorder if you’re buying items you don’t need, seeking a temporary high through shopping, making purchases to avoid negative feelings, hiding your purchases and feeling guilty after buying, and purchasing outside of your means. While CBD isn’t technically listed in the DSM-5, it is widely acknowledged as a compulsive and/or impulsive behavior associated with other mental health disorders.
In January 2020, I began a new medication for OCD. Anecdotally, I believe it has helped me cope with the symptoms of OCD, including buying compulsions. When under more stress than usual, my compulsive behaviors begin to emerge. It’s helpful when friends and family kindly point out my behavior to me so that I can take notice and self-monitor.
As with any other addiction, the first step is admitting you have a problem. My husband and mother both pointed out my compulsivity with shopping repeatedly. Eventually, I listened. I was able to stop my spending and dig into the roots of my behavior.
I now spend my time writing, reading books, gardening, and chatting with friends. I’ll work a crossword puzzle or play a word game if I’m feeling compelled to do something with a few little brain buzzes. So far, so good.
Once you’ve accepted you have a problem, you can begin strategizing how to cope with your Compulsive Buying Disorder. I wish you and your loved ones the best on your journeys too.
A previous version appears in Age of Empathy.