Is it Retail Therapy or is it Compulsive Shopping?

D.R. McElroy

How I’m dealing with compulsive shopping disorder. 6 min read from Canva, with permission

In my mind, this is how I look when I’m shopping: I’m chic, sophisticated, put-together and glamorous. My chauffeur is waiting at the curb to take my bags as I step into the backseat of my Bentley. People look upon me with admiration and envy.

Of course, this isn’t the reality.

I’m a compulsive shopper. A different kind of addict. I use my many addictions — to food, to shopping, to face masks— as a way to deal with my emotional pain and volatility.

What is compulsive shopping?

Like any addiction, compulsive shopping (also known as compulsive buying disorder [CBD] or oniomania (from the Greek words meaning “for sale” and “insanity”)) involves biological processes that trigger the release of hormones that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain.

Research has proven that shopping — or more specifically, buying —boosts the same pleasure centers of the brain that cocaine does. Unfortunately, window shopping doesn’t have the same effect; there has to be an actual purchase to trigger the release of dopamine in the brain and satisfy the craving.

*I currently have 90+ lipsticks that have been used once…or never. Half of those are red.*

But here’s the rub: owning the stuff does nothing for me. It’s only the act of buying itself that gives me the jolt of satisfaction and the release from my negative emotions at the time. Once I actually own the thing, I could care less about it. I currently have 90+ lipsticks that have been used once…or never. Half of those are red.

I avoid becoming a hoarder by giving away boxes full of unopened cosmetics and skincare (which seems to be my greatest shopping weakness) to groups of women at support groups and shelters. Seems like a noble act, but I do it so that I have room to buy more stuff. Otherwise, I’d just let it pile up and up.

Compulsive buying is frequently a solitary pastime. For me, it’s a guilty pleasure that I conceal from my partner and friends, and even from my therapist when I’m really on a tear. The idea of doing something “forbidden” adds to the pleasure I get from it.

*I avoid becoming a hoarder by giving away boxes full of unopened cosmetics and skincare…*

80 percent of CBD suffers are female (though men love to buy shoes, tools, and electronics), and CBD is often comorbid (that is, it occurs in conjunction with) a number of mood and substance abuse disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and impulse control issues.

While American consumerism is certainly a contributor to overbuying, compulsive shopping rises to the level of a disorder when it causes severe financial difficulties or disrupts peace of mind. Many times I’ve felt guilt and remorse following a shopping spree — which tends to cause more shopping to relieve those feelings.

*[I spent] over $2000 in the month of December alone — just on cosmetics, skincare, and houseplants (I currently have 51).*

I managed to stave off compulsive buying for an entire year, but allowed myself to be taken in by Black Friday hype this past November and wound up spending over $2000 in the month of December alone — just on cosmetics, skincare, and houseplants (I currently have 51).

I am still struggling to stop the spending again, but I have managed to decrease the dollar value spent by over 85 percent this month. Here’s how I did it.

Steps to stop compulsive buying.

  1. Don’t go into stores. This one seems obvious, but sometimes we need to have the obvious pointed out to us. Personally, I can not enter any store without buying something, no matter how trivial. At first, I thought limiting myself to such insignificant doodads as a lip balm or a pair of earrings would help; instead, it only seems to feed the urge. My addiction is serious enough that my partner does all of the shopping, while I do my part by cooking and cleaning up afterward.

  1. Eliminate online shopping. This one is HUGE for me; I do most of my damage by far when shopping online. There are always “add-ons” and “freebies” and “BOGOs” that I find irresistible. But eliminating online buying is hard, and I’ve found it takes several additional steps, including the following…
  2. Delete shopping apps. Yes, even (maybe especially!) Amazon. These apps make it way too easy to drop in and buy something, particularly since they store your credit card info so you don’t even have to get up off the sofa and fetch the card. I’ve placed as many as 10 separate orders in a single day due to these. You won’t even miss them once they’re gone. [Note: be aware that many shopping sites continue to store your information and keep your account open even after you delete the app. Take the additional step of going into the site itself and deleting your entire account, or you’ll continue to get emails from the site.]
  3. Unsubscribe from promotional emails. I’m completely hopeless when I get an email from a shopping site telling me that they’re having a sale. Here’s a secret: they’re always having a sale! Every week or so you’ll get another email with another just-for-you come-on, which is only available for a limited time! I finally figured out that it’s literally NEVER my “last chance” to buy something. Just scroll to the bottom of the email and hit unsubscribe. You’ll reduce temptation and clear a lot of crap from your inbox.
  4. Cut up credit cards. This is a drastic step, but it might be necessary. Paying cash means no online shopping of any kind. Also, it’s much easier to be aware of just how much you’re spending when you hand over real money instead of a card — even a debit card. It’s way too easy to “forget” that we’ve already put 6 lipsticks in our bag when the concept of our bank balance is in the cloud, so to speak. (Have you ever noticed Ulta Beauty’s shopping bags are semi-opaque and self-closing? This makes it hard to see what you’ve already got in there!)

Taking these steps will go a long way towards decreasing needless spending, but they’re not a cure-all. Medication to help mood disorders or impulse control problems can also help, as can counseling. Even talking with a friend when you feel like buying something is helpful. Find someone who is nonjudgmental, or you might end up feeling so bad about yourself that you wind up buying something anyway in order to feel better.

While movies like Confessions of a Shopaholic make compulsive buying disorder seem silly and hilarious, it causes real harm and distress to those suffering from it. Advertising companies know every trick to making their products seem necessary and irresistible.

Many of these tricks utilize susceptibilities in the human brain to manipulate us into buying more and more, and it’s extremely difficult to guard against these practices. I’ve found avoidance to be the most successful and easiest tactic to practice.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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