When Retail Therapy Becomes a Shopping Addiction

Compulsive shopping can be a destructive obsession -- learn the warning signs of this tricky behavioral addiction.

By Jeff Vrabel

It's a cardinal rule of grandparenting: Kids are for spoiling, with not only attention and love, but also fun and gifts. But in extreme cases, that last part, if left unmonitored, can mutate into an addiction. The combined power of the Internet and mobile devices have made it easier than ever to obtain almost anything one desires, which can't help but contribute to a growing problem -- compulsive shopping, which is categorized as a destructive, impulsive behavioral addiction, much like gambling. 

Consider that Americans spent $202 billion online in 2011, according to Forrester Research Inc., and that a recent survey found that 41% of adults have memorized the three- or four-digit security code on their credit cards--a strong indication that they shop online often.

An Approved Addiction 

Shopping addictions aren't always considered as seriously as other addictions, which means people don't always find compassion for a shopping problem — particularly in the case of women. In fact, it's sometimes considered a "smiled-upon addiction," says April Benson, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorders. "Consumption fuels our economy," Benson says. "We never had a president telling us to drink or take drugs, but we did have a president that said we cannot let the terrorists frighten our nation... so go shopping." Debbie Roes, who writes a blog called Recovering Shopaholic that chronicles her own recovery from shopping addictions, says it's culturally "expected" for women to shop. "People joke about it, about 'retail therapy' and things like that," she says, "It's not always taken seriously, and that makes it harder for people to overcome it."

'A Couple Clicks'

Roes says she's spent nearly three decades battling her addiction — moreso since the advent of online shopping. "I've struggled since I was a teenager, and I'm about to turn 47," she says. "It's gotten worse as there have become more opportunities to shop online. Before there would be times when I'd get into debt and go cold turkey, and even a few times where I had to be bailed out. But it's harder and harder to go cold turkey when you can shop with a couple clicks."

A Problem For All Ages

Terrence Shulman, founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding near Detroit, says that some of his patients haved battled this problem as long as they can remember, but some develop it later in life, often following a trauma or loss. "People can have trouble with the aging process, health issues, not working, feeling ignored or estranged from the grandchildren, finding a loss of purpose or meaning," he says. And they're not necessarily out there spoiling themselves. "After stressful events, sometimes people get in trouble for overshopping for children or grandchildren," he says. 

More Than Simple Bankruptcy

As we age, we often have more money to spend, and that can create a perspective problem, Roes says. When speaking of shopping addictions people tend to focus on concrete, measurable problems: debts, foreclosures, divorces and the like. Some shopaholics might not be aware they have a problem, because they're not dealing with any of those issues. But Roes says that while debt is the most visible (and quantitative) of shopping addiction problems, it's hardly the only one. "You can focus on a figure, and say 'I'm $30,000 in debt,' or whatever. But there are subtle signs too. People sometimes say, 'Oh I deserve it, I worked really hard, I have the money.' They may not see the consequences."

Signs That You've Gone Spoiling Overboard

Benson says there are obvious signs when grandparents are overindulging a child: when the kid expects to get whatever he or she wants or when the grandparents aren't honoring the parents' limits. There are more damaging signs as well — forged checks, stolen credit cards — as well as the emotional drain that comes from hiding things. "If you're spending so much energy and time [buying things], you're not spending it on other areas of your life, like relationships," Roes says. "People who have this problem often feel really lonely."

Therapies That Work

Success rates naturally depend on the amount of time and energy that's put into solving the problem. But Benson completed a study, to be published in early 2014, with what she calls "extremely good results." "On average, everyone in the study started out well into the compulsive buying range, and by the time the 12-week group was over, they were solidly in the normal buying range." Which is to say: This is a problem with a fix, as long as you put effort into it. Shulman says another key is to unearth what's driving the behavior in the first place. "You need to understand what is fueling it, whether it's something emotional, or being deprived in your childhood, or filling the void after a loss, or having low self-esteem. If they understand the dynamics, they'll better understand themselves."

A Need For More Resources

One of the problems with compulsive shopping, Benson says, is there aren't as many resources available as there are for other addicts. "Almost none of the residential treatment centers in extreme cases have a really good program for this," she says. "I think there's a rise coming, but, if you'll pardon the pun, it'll be a hard sell. We're all so geared to thinking that happiness is only so far away as the next purchase."

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