Before you head out to the mall this holiday season, remember to think before you buy. The act of shopping can create powerful feelings very similar to those experienced in other potentially addictive behaviors like gambling, taking drugs, drinking alcohol – even work or exercise. Although these behaviors are all very different, the underlying dynamics can be very similar.
A simple way to think about it is that any potentially addictive behavior provides distraction from unpleasant, painful, or otherwise difficult or overwhelming emotions. It gives the person something else to feel instead of troublesome emotions like sadness, dread, hurt, guilt or emotional pain.
When the feeling that shopping provides becomes a means of distracting oneself from painful emotions, it becomes less and less about the items purchased and more about the feeling the act of shopping creates, and the feelings it allows the shopper to avoid.
The problem with this is that just like alcohol, you can develop a tolerance to it; once you start you may need more and more to get the same level of distraction. The distracting effects become less effective and don’t last as long, and the person is prompted to engage in the behavior more and more to get the same effect. This kind of shopping can happen only occasionally when someone is feeling particularly down, vulnerable or stressed, or it can happen repeatedly and create devastating negative consequences.
Avoiding this behavior starts with identifying that an issue exists. If you are looking at a pile of clothes with tags still on them in your closet, that may give you enough reason to pay closer attention. It can also be helpful to ask loved ones their opinions about your shopping habits.
If negative consequences (e.g. deep financial debt due to shopping) are obvious and severe, it’s best to seek professional support. If you notice that there might be a bit of an issue, but clear negative consequences aren’t apparent to you or those closest to you, it’s likely something you can try addressing yourself.
Here are some specific tips to avoid emotional shopping:
Commit to planning shopping excursions at least a few days in advance. Never engage in spur of the moment purchases, no matter how tempting or how great a sale.
Shop with a friend
Share with a friend your goal of avoiding emotional purchases and go shopping together.
Avoid shopping-only excursions
Stop for a coffee, a meal, a trip to an art gallery or some other non-shopping related activity during your planned shopping excursions. It’s easier to get wrapped up in the distracting feelings created by emotional shopping when you’re on an hours-long shopping excusion.
Fix slip ups
If you slip up and make some emotional purchases, return them. Create a log of dates and items purchased and a reasonable rule regarding how long a new item can sit in your closet without being worn and take stock a few times month. If you exceed your time limit, bring the item back. This can keep you connected with your goal of avoiding emotional shopping and reduce negative emotions like guilt and remorse that make it more likely that you’ll engage in the behavior again.