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How to Control Excessive Shopping

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Can shopping become addictive? I’ve worked with people from vastly different backgrounds who have become shopaholics — from sudden wealth recipients who’ve come into millions of dollars to the unemployed and destitute who cannot control their shopping addiction. Most recently Dr. Drew and I recently taped an episode on the Ricki Lake Show where we spoke to a young woman who was a self-diagnosed shopaholic. Her shopping addiction can provide valuable lessons for the rest of us.

To effectively conquer a shopping addiction, here is what you need to do:

  1. Identify the shopping trigger. What’s the trigger? What precedes the urge to shop? Boredom? Guilt? Shame? Anger? Is it a particular type of thought? Keep a written journal or electronic (email yourself, record a note, etc.) and document what leads to the shopping.
  2. Discover the need shopping fills. Excessive shopping doesn’t serve a functional purpose (i.e., you don’t NEED yet another purse), it serves a psychological purpose–it fills an unfilled or under-filled need. For the non-shopaholic, it looks like the behavior of shopaholics as “crazy” or irrational. It’s not. The shopaholic is entirely rational. They shop for a reason. It fulfills a need to such a high and satisfying level that they keep doing it. No matter what you do, if you don’t find an alternative and healthier way to fill this need the shopping won’t stop. So, the first step is to identify what that need is. Does the shopping provide pleasure or does it help you avoid pain? In other words, do you shop to feel something you don’t feel anywhere else throughout the day (i.e., a rush, excitement, variety, stimulation, being in control, feeling naughty) or do you shop to avoid feeling something negative (i.e., anxiety, loneliness, fear)? Determine what part of the shopping provides the reward. Is it going out with friends (social)? Is it being around others (community)? Is it searching for things? Is it feeling significant? Does the shopping create relationship conflict so you get attention or a sense of connection (albeit negative)? It takes an open mind and guts to analyze yourself like this, but it provides the answer.
  3. Replace shopping with something healthier. The shopaholic needs to find a healthier alternative to filling the need. Brainstorm how you could fill this need in other ways. Often you’ll find that someone with one addiction will trade it for another addiction. This is not a positive long-term solution. The goal is to trade in a negative and destructive addiction for one that is positive and healthy, or at the very least neutral. Sometimes it’s just not enough to replace shopping with a healthier habit. In this case, figure out what’s more important than shopping. What do you value more in life? Your children? Spouse? Security? Prestige? Whatever it is, you must link how continuing to shop will destroy what you value most. If you value the love from your family and friends, it’s easy to see how if you keep borrowing and spending that you will ruin these relationships.
  4. Change your environment. The environment plays a huge role in our behavior. If you keep a bowl of jellybeans on your desk, it’s clear what you will snack out throughout the day. Use the environment to your advantage. It makes no sense for the alcoholic to “test” their willpower by having a snack at their local bar, and it makes no sense for the shopaholic to be in shopping malls. Create “no fly zones”—places you cannot go such as malls, stores, etc. You want to remove any ambiguity in your rules. If you don’t, then in the heat of the moment, the shopaholic will rationalize a way to shop. Make a list of the places you can and cannot go. Eliminate any TV watching (at least in the beginning), magazines, newspapers, etc. You basically want to remove any cues from the environment to shop.
  5. Get support. Kicking an addiction is hard to do alone. Get some help from friends, family, or strangers. Debtors Anonymous (http://www.debtorsanonymous.org) is a great resource and they have groups in cities across the country.

Get the help you need to get back on track…