I once had a bad compulsive shopping habit.
I don’t call it bad because I ended up with too much stuff, a chronically empty bank account, and a full credit card. I call it bad because I ended up with an empty and unfulfilling life, cluttered up by ephemera. I was putting my effort into acquiring instead of growing, defining myself by what I had (or didn’t have). And the worst part? I stopped thinking about what I wanted to give, learn, and accomplish.
If I hadn’t been accidentally rescued by a household appliance, I might still be stuck in the habit.
Perhaps you feel like you are shopping more than you should; if so, maybe my story can help you.
My Compulsive Shopping M.O.
There was the phase when I collected fancy cowboy boots. The highlight? Some vintage Capezio stunners with shiny gold butterfly inlays I found on eBay.
There was the phase when I took a shine to sterling silver necklaces from Tiffany & Co.
There was the phase when I searched endlessly for “the perfect” pair of jeans. I tried designer ones, thrift store ones, and everything in between. I never did find the perfect pair, but I did amass quite a collection. All of which I later got rid of in a garage sale because they no longer fit.
The Quest for “The Perfect” Thing
In my compulsive shopping heyday, I often found myself saying, “I finally found ‘the perfect’ [name of thing]!” This is a phrase I now watch out for. It’s a warning sign that I am trying to find a hit of happiness at the bottom of a shopping bag.
There was always just one more thing to cross off my must-have list – then I’d be happy. But the list somehow never ended.
My Reasons for Compulsive Shopping
Sometimes I’d shop because I was lonely, unhappy in the relationship I was in, and didn’t want to go straight home after work. So I’d just pop by the mall to see what was on the clearance rack at J. Crew.
Sometimes I’d shop because I felt like something was missing in my life. And sometimes I’d shop because my apartment was a mess and I didn’t want to be there.
How I Stumbled Upon My Compulsive Shopping Cure
Meeting and marrying my husband helped, but didn’t cure, my habit. I’d still stop by the mall a little too often, guiltily hoping friends and family wouldn’t notice the telltale background music and bustling mall sounds when they’d call me. I started to notice that every time my best friend called, I was at the mall.
The unlikely purchase that helped to cure my compulsive shopping was a completely necessary but un-sexy item I purchased when we got married as part of the process of setting up our household together. It was a vacuum cleaner. A decent one, not one of those will-break-as-soon-as-the-one-year-warranty-is-up types you’d find at Target, but a respectable one that was actually pleasant to use.
How did a vacuum cleaner change my life – or at least, serve as a catalyst for the process? Here’s the best I can explain it.
My Formative Compulsive Shopping Years
When I was a teenager, my parents were in the process of splitting up, but it took them several years to work that out. So we all lived in survival mode for quite a while. One of things nobody really thought about was housekeeping. Home was just not a happy place, and nobody had the energy to worry about cleaning on top of everything else.
Our happiest times with our mom always involved going shopping.
My mom is an amazingly talented shopper. She can find a bargain anywhere. She once found a set of hand-painted Dresden teacups and saucers at a rummage sale and paid $12 for them. I later sold them for her on eBay for $350. She has an amazing eye for bargains and she loves beautiful things. Her home is full of the coolest, and sometimes the most outlandish, stuff. Antique crystal chandeliers, a taxidermied peacock, that sort of thing. She’s a very stylish girl.
From my mom I learned the skill of shopping patiently, even relentlessly, until you find incredible bargains. But as a young adult with a grown-up paycheck and few responsibilities, I found shiny new objects too tempting to resist.
So What Does Compulsive Shopping Have to Do with Cleaning?
When no one is focused on keeping the house clean, no one gets to enjoy the lovely feeling of having a clean house. And because the air at home was stormy, and shopping was our escape, I was accidentally raised to believe the goal is to buy the things needed for a pleasant life, not to actually enjoy that life.
After I got my decent vacuum cleaner, it occurred to me one day that I actually didn’t mind cleaning. Before long, I began to feel that home is a wonderful place to be when it is clean. And eventually I realized that most people clean house to KEEP it clean, not when it’s finally become such a mess that it can no longer be tolerated, as I used to (apologies to roommies I’ve had along the way!). I simply stopped feeling like I wanted to escape my messy home and go shopping all the time. I was cured.
The Bigger Picture
When I stopped filling up my free time with compulsive shopping, I suddenly remembered how much I love to learn. It was like waking up from a daze. I got my curiosity about life back. I started reading voraciously. I took a pottery class. And then another pottery class. A Jazzercise class. And then a couple of Reiki classes.
Before long, to my own amazement, I no longer cared about fashion as something I wanted to keep up with. What a relief! Now I am free to disdain cropped flares as the unflattering trend they truly are. Better yet, my attention is freed up for bigger and better things.
Personal Growth Instead of Wardrobe Growth
We are meant to grow continuously throughout our lives. This does not mean that our wardrobes or our shoe collections are meant to grow continuously throughout our lives. If you allow your own life to be defined by what you’re buying, rather than by what you’re giving or what you’re learning, the unfortunate consequence is that you will find your life becoming shallower. I know this to be a fact, because it happened to me.
You might even start looking at yourself and other people based on what they have, not who they are. Here again, I know this because I did it for a while. I finally woke up and realized I’d been stunting my own growth and starving myself for meaningful connection and development.
You’ve Got a Bigger Mission
As Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “What you think about expands.” This does not mean that you should try to only think perfect thoughts every second. But putting your focus on things that you actually want to expand – dreams, ambitions, relationships, quality of life – is more likely to bring you happiness than the quick fix of a new pair of shoes. Plus, it won’t cost you a dime!
If compulsive shopping is something you struggle with, your reasons may be very different than mine. I hope some of these thoughts about it might help to spark your own wakeup, because the world needs your talents and gifts. You are here because you have something to offer.
And I can’t resist quoting my sister’s sister-in-law, Kat, who recently Instagrammed a page from Persepolis. The page shows an Iranian Muslim woman who is forced to vigilantly question her own appearance (“Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place?”) until she no longer thinks to wonder where her freedom of thought and speech have gone. Kat added her own fabulous commentary: “So very applicable to women the world over. Does my butt look big? Do my crows feet crinkle up too much when I smile? Can we resolve to stop worrying about superficial approval and start focusing on kicking ass instead?”