What is a Shopaholic?

Posted by Jill Chivers in My Story

Greetings and welcome to blog #97 on an overcast and drizzly Sunday morning.  Over the weekend, I was interviewed by the sublime Phil Smith from ABC Brisbane.  This interview came out of the on-air conversation I had with Richard Aedy on Tuesday on the “Life Matters” show (which you can listen to by clicking here).  I love these conversations and they help me to crystalise how I feel and what I think about the challenge.  Sure, it’s a very public way to work out some of those thoughts, but what the hey – it keeps the conversation genuinely fresh.

One of the questions that Richard asked me on Tuesday was “why did you consider your shopping habits to be unhealthy?”  It was the first time I’d been asked this question in quite that way, although I had been asked what a shopaholic is before (by the lovely ladies from Good Times Utah). 

So, what it is that makes for an unhealthy relationship to shopping and what qualifies someone as a “shopaholic”?  I knew what it was for me (although it’s an onion – there are many layers and I’m still peeling them back) but I’m also interested in what it is in general.

First let me say that labels of any sort are often unhelpful.  They can unnnecessarily restrict and limit a person – they limit in terms of their perceptions of themselves and the choices they feel they have.  I’m even told that being consistently told you are “brilliant” and “beautiful” can have a detrimental effect on someone’s sense of their own identity, although that feels like an experiment I’d like to try out for myself.  Maybe for just a week.

How this discussion can help is as the first step of owning where you’re at.   We know that awareness precedes choice.  So to make better, more life- and wallet-affirming choices about your shopping, you need to start with awareness.  I know – this sounds like something kinda unpleasant.  Like having blood taken or lunch with elderly relatives whose dentures don’t quite fit right anymore.

It’s actually very simple.  And once you hit your stride, it’s very freeing.  Very.  Freeing.  And it’s so much easier than hanging on to where you are, in the clutches of a shopping compulsion, deceptively beautiful although it may be.

So, you have a go.  You just get started.  And you see where it takes you.  That’s it.  Told ya it was simple.

So, this is how it goes.

Awareness starts with responding to as many questions like the following that ding your bell.  Some of them won’t even register and you can let those ones go.  Others you’ll read and they’ll cause the squirm factor.  You know the squirm factor? 

The squirm factor is when something inside you just knows it applies to you.  Sometimes you get a nice little inter-organ argument going – your gut is saying “Yeah baby!  That’s us!  We do that!” and your head goes “No, no, no” (it’s Amy Winehouse at this point).  Tip:  listen to your gut.  It has less to lose and rarely, if ever, distorts the truth.  It may distort your lower intestine – but never the truth.

So, here are just a sample of the questions you can ask yourself, if you suspect that your relationship to shopping is in need of an overhaul.  Just a sampling, mind.  You can make up your own questions, too.

Bring-A-Big-Light-To Questions:  Do you think about shopping every day?  Do you shop for yourself every day or every week?  Do you understand why you shop – what drives it, what triggers it, and what consequences it has (could you write those things down or cogently describe them to someone else)?  Do you ever feel bad (guilty, ashamed, fearful) after a shopping trip?  Do you ever feel weirdly ‘up’ after a shopping trip (triumphant, exultant, complete)?  Does shopping fill a lot of your time, thoughts and creative energy?  Does shopping take a large portion of your disposable income? Is your relationship to shopping one of your most important? Do you have significant credit card debt, racked up on clothing, shoes and accessories purchases? Are you on a first name basis with the sales people of your favourite stores, you shop there so much?   Do you have the phone numbers of your favourite stores on speed dial? Is the thought of not going shopping for any period of time (a month, 6 months, a year) cause you to feel light-headed, heavy-hearted or short-of-breath with the sheer mortification of it?  Who’s the boss – shopping or you?

Holding the biggest light you can up to these questions is an act of courage and empowerment. 

We all do the best we can with the light we have to see by, sure.  So bring a big light to these questions.  Don’t bring a birthday candle to those questions – you wont be able to see very far with that. 

Instead, bring a floodlight that could illuminate a stadium, or at least the neighbourhood baseball diamond, yeah?  You’ll get much better mileage from those questions if you have a bigger light by which to see your answers by. 

And here’s the really good part (and this is intended to be encouraging):  answering those questions honestly won’t kill you.  You may experience momentary discomfort, sure.  But the only long-term detrimental effect is going to be if you continue to ignore the answers to those questions.  Promise.  Been there, done that (am actually still doing it), still alive today.

The marvelous April Lane Benson in her book To Buy Or Not To Buy gives 11 reasons why we overshop.  I encourage you to get a copy of Ms Benson’s book and read these for yourself.  For now, let me summarise the shopping as coping mechanism reasons that Ms Benson gives.  Ms Benson encourages us to ask ourselves if any of these apply to us. Me.  You.  Yeah, that “us”.

It’s tempting to say NO to many of these.  To brush them off and dismiss them as Not Applicable. When I first skimmed them, that was true for me.  But then I remembered the day I was royally pissed off at something that had happened at home, this was about oh, two years ago.  I jumped in the car and took myself off to the Plaza for the day.  I came home with a handful of things, and told myself that it had been a very nice day and I was in a better place by the time I got home. 

All very Women’s Weekly on the surface, right?   But what was it that took me to the Plaza in the first place?  Why was that my first instinct?  Hmmmm. Perhaps Reason #5 might be applicable?

So, whip out that floodlight,  think back to the last few times you shopped for something other than pantry or fridge items.  Was it for any one of these 11 reasons?  

  1. overshop to feel better about yourself or more secure
  2. overshop to avoid dealing with something important
  3. use shopping as a weapon, to express anger, or seek revenge
  4. overshop to hold onto love
  5. overshop to soothe yourself or repair your mood
  6. overshop to project an image of wealth and power
  7. overshop to fit into an appearance-obsessed society
  8. overshop in response to stress, loss or trauma
  9. overshop because it’s the lesser evil
  10. overshop to feel more in control
  11. overshop to find meaning in your life or to deny despair

This is as comprehensive a list of reasons why we overshop and therefore a quasi definition of over-spenders and shopaholics as you’ll find.  Naturally, the book provides a lot more detail about each of these possible reasons you may be overshopping.  But you got the hang of it just by reading those brief descriptions, right?  Sure you did. And possibly one or two of them gave you the squirm factor.  If that happened, think of that as a  Good Thing.  Because it is.  You can’t go anywhere without passing Go, and owning up to where you are right now is Go.

Before we leave this post, I’d like to share with you my own definition of a shopaholic.  Or sans label, a person whose relationship to shopping isn’t as healthy as it could be.

This definition is one I’ve been working on for a few months now.  Here’s what I’ve come up with.  Someone who’s relationship to shopping isn’t healthy when they:

  • are compelled to shop.  Shopping drives them, and fills their thoughts frequently.  They’re thinking about the next thing they could be buying, daydreaming about the lovely thing they saw yesterday and plotting ways to purchase it and make it mine, all mine!
  • can’t imagine a life (a day, a week) without shopping.  The thought of a “year without clothes shopping” strikes terror into their heart.  Which is also a thumping big clue that this may be precisely the thing they should be considering!
  • don’t understand why they shop so much.  The compulsion to shop is unconscious and they couldn’t point to the reasons that they shop the way they do. They may not even realise that something ‘lies beneath’ their shopping, and they sure don’t know what it is!
  • have trouble when they actually go shopping.  They are often in auto-pilot when they’re shopping, their brain switched to the neutral position.  This is easy to do as many shopping centres are designed to induce exactly this kind of response (something we’ve talked about here a few times before – here and here). They shop in either a dazed, frenzied or confused state.

The University of Stanford did a study and estimated that 17 million Americans are shopaholics.  April Lane Benson expands on those numbers, when factoring in what we know about internet shopping (which is not as much as we’d like to know) and says it may be more like 28 million.  My own extensive research, usually conducted in less than laboratory conditions over lunch and cocktails everywhere, suggests about 10% of women have a compulsive relationship to shopping.  Those are the women we welcome with open arms here.

And many many more than 10% find shopping daunting, frustrating and confusing.  These are the women who simply do not know how to create a truly working wardrobe.  They wish they did.  Which is why we’re going to be launching our Create A Wonderful Working Wardrobe product in early 2011.

But for today, brush off that torch, inhale some confidence, and ask yourself some of those questions above.  You’re worth it.  You are worth a full and rich life where your emotional experience comes from the people and places around you, not a ‘high buy’ from a shopping mall.  You are worth a healthy and commanding relationship with money, not one loaded with credit card debt.  You are worth all that life offers.  And it isn’t to be found in a shopping mall. Right?

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