Essays & Confessions/Shopping Smart

How I Overcame The Compulsive Habit That Was Wrecking My Mental Health (& Very Nearly My Bank Account)

By | Thursday, January 17, 2019

I love to shop — I always have. I love to take myself on solo shopping dates to the mall on quiet weekend afternoons. I love to explore the unchartered territories of overseas department stores when traveling. I love vintage shops, tiny artisanal labor-of-love stores, and Christmas markets. I am not above dusty, pokey hold-all stores in one-horse towns. I love them all.

My personal financial situation has waxed and waned over the years, but I have always managed to find money to go shopping. David Sedaris wrote of my tribe: “Shopping has nothing to do with money. If you have it, you go to stores and galleries, and if you don’t, you haunt flea markets and Goodwill. Never, though, do you not do it.” In my opinion, never was a truer word written.

I don’t have a lot of time to wander around bricks-and-mortar shops, so I browse online, which is almost as enjoyable. Sometimes even more enjoyable, since you don’t have to wear pants and you can drink wine while you do it. But sometime during the past year, my online shopping avocation stopped being fun. It became a problem.

It happened gradually. So gradually, in fact, that I didn’t see it coming. A typical day began at 7 AM, with me, bleary-eyed and bathed in the blue light of Daily Deals! notifications in the Promotions folder of my inbox, mindlessly scrolling through images of air-beds, low-carb cookbooks, protein powders, laptop bags, and other random stuff I didn’t need, or even particularly want, but felt compelled to check anyway just in case I stumbled across that once-in-a-lifetime deal. I never did. By lunchtime, after having been at work for several hours, I would reward myself with another scroll through Promotions, which would by that point be filled with drops from my favorite e-tailers offering me 30% off sunglasses, sneakers, skincare, airplane tickers — all tantalizing enough for me to spend a good hour scrolling through them instead of taking a proper lunch break.

Finally, at home, I would settle in for the evening, one eye on the TV screen, the other aimed at my laptop. By this point in the day, I thought of my browsing as more “targeted.” I would scour websites I had bookmarked earlier in the day or ones recommended to me by the omniscient Instagram shopping gods. (How did they know I was subconsciously yearning for artisanal moonstone jewelry? How?) In truth, there was nothing “targeted” about my evenings spent ping-ponging between Chrome tabs, comparing, deliberating, and ultimately buying nothing before passing out in an unrestful sleep with my laptop on the floor beside the bed.

I did this most days until the culmination of unpleasant events forced me to come to terms with the fact that my shopping behavior was borderline compulsive. Compulsive behaviors, of which there are many — shopping, eating, exercising, talking — are actions we do repetitively without getting any actual pleasure out of them. You see, I wasn’t buying much. What little I bought, I often returned. But I persisted at searching, comparing and thinking about all the items I would hypothetically be buying because they took my mind off other darker and scarier thoughts. Compulsive behaviors are life rafts in a sea of uncertainty, and I was clinging to mine as life swept me along.

Identifying my behavior as a problem was the first step to making a change. Articles like this one helped me put it in perspective, but compulsive shopping still isn’t fully understood, and the fast-changing way of how we are being advertised to online further complicates matters. Plus, most articles I read talked about the “pre-buy high, post-buy slump, and the resultant debt cycle,” which I didn’t identify with. I was stuck in an impotent pre-buy semi-high stage. What I did understand was that my online shopping behavior was my way of using something that once gave comfort and enjoyment as a way to deal with underlying anxiety — anxiety related to other areas in my life. Addressing that anxiety was key. These are the steps I took to help myself.

1. Find support

When I finally came to terms with how unhealthy my online shopping behavior had become, I was embarrassed. Actually, I am still embarrassed to think about how vacuous my existence had become. It’s not the kind of thing you want to shout from the rooftops, but speaking to someone who won’t judge you helps. It could be a therapist or a friend. I asked my husband for support. My announcement that I spent most of my non-working, waking hours with my face compulsively scrolling through items I would never purchase wasn’t exactly breaking news to him, but bless him anyway for letting me find my own way out of the maze of mini cooler bags, X-box games, etc. He listened as I worked out what was making me so anxious and then quietly cheered me on as I took small steps to change my life for better.

2. Meditation and mindfulness

Browsing online had become an exit strategy from my own mind — so my mind and I needed to relearn how to co-exist peacefully with each other. This is still very much a work in progress, as I am by no means a meditation pro. But years of on-and-off yoga practice have taught me some useful breathing techniques, and these together with a guided meditation app (I used Calm) have helped put basic mindfulness and meditation foundations in place. I found my DIY meditation attempts helpful, and so I signed up for meditation and breathing classes with a teacher.

3. Visualize new behaviors

Behaviors begin with thoughts, and our thoughts very often follow patterns which get triggered by what’s happening outside our heads. So, my morning alarm would trigger a thought to check that day’s early e-tailer emails, which I would inevitably do…ad infinitum. I had that thought most mornings, so it had become a pattern in thinking (and behavior). What helped me was to visualize myself doing something else when triggered. I visualized myself spending the day’s first 15 minutes honing my meditation skills instead of checking my phone. Then I would do it. It’s difficult and a process, but it worked.

4. Remove temptation as much as possible

I was never going to quit online shopping altogether, but I did need to pare it down drastically, and my online haunts were absolutely crawling with temptation. I unsubscribed from many of my e-tailer emails and took a break from Facebook and Instagram. Compulsive consumption and social media work in tandem with each other. Ad blockers also help.

5. Be kind to yourself

I now allocate a specific amount of time to browsing online and enjoy it. Similar to the way I take myself on a shopping date to the mall if I have time. But the temptation to slip into the compulsive checking, rechecking and comparing is still there, and I have to be awake enough to see it coming and ward if off. Like last weekend, when I realized I had clocked into my third hour of deliberating between three eye creams. I stopped. I took a deep breath. I closed the 15+ open tabs on my browser. I bought the eye cream I had used before and was happy with. And it was fine.

Svetlana lives in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa, and works as a communication manager at a non-profit. She loves food, books, nature…and shopping.

Image via Unsplash

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