This is a really embarrassing thing for me bring up. I like to think of myself as down-to-earth and not materialistic. I don’t like consumerism as a phenomenon, I don’t like to produce waste, and I want to use my privilege to help others, not to buy shit and be wealthy. So I’ve always been really ashamed of this habit and never really been able to talk about it.
I’m a compulsive shopper. Not the “spend $1000 on one purse” variety, not the “I just bought 50 pounds of cement over the Internet for no reason” variety. Shopping addictions can be very real and devastating and I’ll put some info at the end of this article for getting help if you have a severe problem. My own habit is not severe. It’s manageable, kind of. But there must be people like me who do this on a less exaggerated level and who feel it interrupts their daily life.
It probably developed when I was a kid and my mother — who grew up on “You feel sad? Have some cake” parenting — was raising me the same way. When my mom and I felt sad, we went to Macy’s.
Any store — but especially a clothing shop — is a world of possibilities. It’s a place where different skins exist, different lives, different versions of yourself, and you can buy them and take them home. I’m a high-powered business woman. I’m a hippie. I’m a nerd. Just look at my shoes. When you’re sick of this life, you just buy another one.
Obviously this is the fantasy, but not the reality. The reality is that, what most people my age have in their saving accounts, I have in credit card debt. The reality is that even when I am running errands, I can’t just buy the one thing I went into the store for, it becomes a long process of decision making.
Trash bags for example : the store has 100 litre and 30 litre and 10 litre trash bags. They also have biodegradable ones, and extra strength ones, and on and on, but I just go for the regular ones because otherwise the choice is overwhelming. Do I need 100 litre or 30 litre ? Probably just 30, I live alone and my trash bags don’t fill up that easily. But what if I have to throw away something really big ? (Like what?? A body? I am rolling my eyes at myself here) better get the 100 litre. But I can’t use 100 litre for everything. I’ll get the thirty litre and then the 100 litre just in case I need them. And the 10 litre for the bathroom (even though I already have countless tiny bags from all my shopping that I normally use for my bathroom trash). Then, just for good measure , I grab mascara and two kinds of nail polish and disposable wipes as well, just as I’m walking up to the register. They looked pretty. I want to feel pretty and clean. I need them.
When I’m at the register , I am always really anxious and embarrassed. Even when I am just buying the things I need, even when it’s just one thing I’m impulsively buying, I hate this moment. I’m trying to madly budget in my head to figure out if I’ve already bought too much this month. I can’t remember. The cashier is ringing it up and I’m watching the total. I want to run away, to say never mind and take it all back. But the cashier will look at me like I’m crazy. Plus, I need it. Right? I definitely need it. Once they put it in the sack, I’ll just run home and hide in my apartment with my new things. It’s just this once and then I won’t do this again. The total goes up and up. I want the cashier to ask me “Are you sure?” But instead they ask me “Cash or credit?” “Credit.” I mumble, as I hand over my card and all my dignity.
Sometimes I get super chatty at this moment, to try and distract myself from what I’m doing. “How’s your day going?” I ask the cashier super cheerfully. I pretend I am a Real Adult with a Real Job. No one knows the difference. This is my fantasy moment, I get to pretend. “Oh, I just love this,” sometimes the salesperson says this and I know it’s totally rehearsed to make me feel good about my purchase and about the store and not back out of buying it, and I respond, exactly as they want me to “Omigod, I know, it’s so cute. And what a good deal.” I play the game with them to bide my time. I need to get out of here.
The advantage to this habit is that I’m basically a girl scout. You need a bandaid? I have ten different kinds, for all your differently shaped body parts, plus ones with “frozen” characters in case you are a child or really like the color purple (me). You need makeup ? Well I don’t wear much of it and don’t know how to put most of it on, but I have a bag full of everything you could possibly need to decorate your face.
It isn’t sustainable though. I don’t have a job and when I do get one, the first few years of paychecks will go to paying off my various debts. When I do talk about it, I’ve gotten shaming speeches, especially from one of my exes, who made me feel so bad about my way of spending money that I started to fight with my mom, who she said was the source of it all. In all fairness, I should probably destroy my credit card. But I haven’t been able to yet. What if I get sick and need to pay hospital bills? Disaster could strike at any moment ! I feel like a child who can’t give up their blanket. My parents don’t know exactly how much my balance is. I try to pay it off slowly but it always seems like I go one step forward and two steps back. “I’m American,” I tell myself. “We live in a world of debt.”
But for a while I’ve wanted this to stop, so I’ve worked out a system. At least for the “I’m sad and just window shopping” variety of compulsive shopping. I find myself in a train station or on a street with a lot of shops. It’s after school, I’m supposed to go home and do my work. This is when I am really likely to go into a shop. Any shop. I’m just going to look, not touch. I know that’s not true. I go into a store full of clothes. Sometimes , if it’s really big, I just go for one section : shirts . Or I know I am looking for a certain style. In small shops, I have to look through every single item (sometimes I have to do this in large shops too and it takes forever). As I go, I start picking out the things that call to me. I lay them over my arm, and as I go, the pile gets heavier and heavier. I feel the weight against my arms. I feel how heavy it is, see how much space it would take up in my closet —
At this point a sales person usually intervenes, which drives me nuts and spikes my anxiety. I hate it when people watch me shop. I hate it so much that just that alone, the salesperson following me around, can be enough to make my heart start pounding and I have to leave the shop before I even begin looking. “Can I get you a dressing room ?” they say to me and my now-giant pile. “No thank you.” They look at me like I’m crazy. The pile is obviously very cumbersome and there is sweat poking out over my brow. “Are you sure??” After a small battle with the innocent shop worker who is just trying to help but who is interrupting my process, I win my aching arm back.
At this point maybe it’s time to start the reversal process. I go around the store with the pile, making sure there’s nothing I’ve missed that might catch my eye when I’m walking out. Then, I start to put the clothes back. I don’t put them back right away. I examine them, carefully, one by one. I imagine how stupid they will look on me in the dressing room (I know, poor self image, but hey. It works). If I conceded to the dressing room thing, I put them on and find all the little things that bother me. It’s a little scratchy. This one part sticks out and makes me look fat. Etc. etc. This is harder to do though, usually I love putting on the clothes and it drives the impulse to buy them.
So I try to imagine buying them, where would I wear them ? Maybe I can imagine one or two events. I imagine myself wearing the clothes to that event and having a great time and meeting people who find me interesting. Then I imagine wearing them to the event and having an awful time and not talking to anyone and going home alone and sad in this stupid red dress — okay now I hate the dress.
I imagine myself going to the same event in something really ordinary that I have in my closet — I usually pick this one comfy black dress that I wear all the time and that looks really good on me. I picture myself going to the imaginary party in this outfit, talking to people who like me for me and not for my clothes, I imagine laughing and having a good time. I can also imagine myself sad in the same outfit. But I’m not as sad as I am in the red dress because I don’t also feel guilty about the purchase. And I still hate the red dress on the hanger because it was definitely the cause of my sad imaginary metro ride home. Okay. I can put it back now.
I do this with every article, going around the store and putting them back where I found them. I usually leave the store admittedly feeling still pretty sad. Sometimes the sad just wins and I slink up to the register with these two articles of clothing feeling defeated. But if not, if I win over my urges, I go to leave the shop, and before going I stand at the entrance of the store and survey all the clothes. I picture the store not as a realm of possibilities, but as a product. Look at all this shit they’re trying to sell me. All the clothes are cut the same way, it’s so annoying. They don’t have any options for larger women. They probably don’t have ethical production practices (this can be hard to do if the store is really cute and ethical, but I try to find something I don’t like and exaggerate it). Then I leave.
Sometimes I dream about the clothes I didn’t buy. They sometimes haunt me. If I really can’t stop thinking about it for a few days, I might go back. I might tell myself this is reason enough to buy it. But I almost always end up feeling guilty about my purchases, especially my impulsive ones. If I feel really guilty plus I never wear them, I end up donating them. If it’s something else I can’t donate, I might throw it away, which is bad for the environment. So I try to remember this when I’m trying to decide if I really do need a new pair of shoes or if I’m just obsessing over them because I’m sad or anxious. And I do other things to distract myself from the obsessions. I blog, for example.
But shopping happens on the internet as well. This is where it gets really disruptive actually. Because it’s so convenient and easy to hide. During one week of school, I couldn’t concentrate in class or get any work done because I was obsessively pouring over websites and fashion blogs, compiling shopping carts and then trashing the items, making lists of things I needed and didn’t need, making lists of shops I needed to visit. Some people in my class sitting next to me noticed and I felt like they were rolling their eyes at me. What an awful student. Comes to class and spends the whole time looking at dresses online. Didn’t finish her part of the group project, I know what she was doing instead. But then I notice, yeah some other people are on Facebook in class. So I click away. I spent one afternoon when I had a ton of work to do in this awful mall in the center of town deciding that I hated a bunch of shops but that I neeeeeded to buy this one pair of 100€ overalls (I petted them for a long time, then walked back and forth in front of the shop sexing the overalls with my eyes for an hour and then dreamed about them for a week). I’m glad I didn’t buy them. But I also still think of them. I also took two giant bags of clothes to the charity drive because of how guilty I felt, not necessarily for the amount of money I had spent — I had talked myself out of a lot of purchases and didn’t actually spend much money — but for the time I had wasted and the work I hadn’t done. That’s the thing, it’s not always about how much money I’ve spent. I have a compulsion to shop , but I can also talk myself out of the compulsion via my self hatred . At the end of one of these weeks I had a million tabs open to shopping carts with things I wasn’t going to buy (but I couldn’t force myself to close the tabs) and a million emails from online stores urging me to complete the checkout process.
“What happened Sara ?”
I looked through my list of items and none of them made me feel happier.
“Did something go wrong ?”
“Can we suggest another item ?”
Do you sell alternative realities ? Happiness ? Peace ? Love ? Do you have a cure for loneliness ? Can I get it in black ?
“Can we offer you a lower shipping rate ?”
How about this : when I die I’ll have my coffin shipped to your wearhouse and you can just put all my shit in it so I can take it with me to the afterlife. My creditors will foot the bill.
If you’re my friend irl you’ve probably never seen me do this, because I usually do it alone. Both because it is something I do when I’m sad and because it takes so long and because I’m ashamed of it. Also because I have slowly tempered this habit and now only have bursts of it when I am feeling really bad about myself. But if we have ever gone shopping together, when you decide it’s time to leave the store, know that there are like a thousand voices I am ignoring that are telling me “Go back! You haven’t seen all the clothes!” And if we go for coffee after or something and I seem distracted it’s because I’m trying to tell those voices to just shut up.
On the other hand, I haven’t found a method that helps the “running errands” type of compulsive shopping, because I don’t have the time to do the whole process when I’m running errands. I have actually done the reversal process so much with clothes that I can now do it a lot quicker than I used to but still, errands for me mean impulsive purchasing.
BTW here is a very informative article on Psychology Today about compulsive shopping. I think I’m going to start linking to these kinds of articles in my posts, to make up for the fact that I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t give a professional opinion or advice. If you do this too and need help curbing your habit, this article explains all the reasons behind this addiction, and gives some advice for stopping it. In my experience, the more I know about why I do something, the easier it is for me to distance myself from it and try to stop.
And , as promised , info for help getting over shopping addictions
Edit : read Part 2 here