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How to manage addictive shopping this Christmas

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 13 November 2014
234 15480

The Christmas Coca-Cola advert's had its first broadcast of the year, and we've all had a teary-eyed moment about the latest festive offering from John Lewis, featuring the adorable Monty the penguin. In our ad-driven world, this can mean only one thing: Christmas shopping season is upon us once more!

The thought of Christmas shopping elicits a whole host of different emotions from different people, ranging between excitement and anxious dread. However you feel about it, frenzied shopping is normal for many people at Christmas. If you're prone to indulging in so-called 'retail therapy', it can be the ideal time to get your fix - however, it can also make it harder to notice when your shopping is becoming a problem, and easier to slip into debt.

Despite its nickname, 'retail therapy' is not a recommended form of therapy, whatever emotional difficulties you're dealing with. While shopping may make you feel better for a while, shopping as therapy can become a habit that causes more problems than it solves, leaving you with debt and anxiety long after that 'fix' wears off.

Registered Psychotherapist Adrienne Baker is the author of 'Serious Shopping: essays in psychotherapy and consumerism' and says there are a number of reasons why people turn to shopping to deal with personal issues, and the glitz and sparkle of Christmas can mask problematic spending.

"From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is an attempt to fill an inner emptiness," she explains. "It's mainly women who will 'use' shopping in this way, partly because shopping is seen as 'women's work', or a natural role for women to undertake."

From a psychoanalytic perspective, shopping is an attempt to fill an inner emptiness.

When it becomes a self-medicating habit, she says, this kind of shopping becomes dysfunctional. "Buying clothes, jewellery or cosmetics is an attempt to present yourself to the world as more attractive, as more worthy of respect and recognition. It is a plea for love, often from a woman with a fragile sense of self." She adds: "Men, too, buy excessively but a much smaller proportion [of men], and they tend to buy 'things' - gadgets, CDs, DVDs, computers and everything electronic."

Of course, these problems are not exclusive to the festive period, but Christmas can be an especially difficult time to keep a handle on emotional shopping. You may find yourself "vastly over-spending, and often hoping that the gifts being bought will buy the longed-for emotional responses," Adrienne warns. "When the shopping becomes a preoccupation, the idea of using shopping as a 'solution' actually becomes the problem. One woman told me: 'Even as I handed over the credit card, I knew the magic couldn't work'," she adds.

The idea of using shopping as a 'solution' actually becomes the problem.

The consequences of addictive shopping may appear obvious - the financial difficulties, the strain on relationships, the sense of futility, remorse and guilt and, as Adrienne adds, "often despair at the realisation that you need more and more of the 'fix' and it still doesn't work." However, as with drug and alcohol addictions, gambling and eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia), it may initially be difficult to spot the warning signs of addictive shopping until that 'fix' wears off, and the aftermath can be devastating.

At Christmas time in particular, Adrienne believes that "the credit card companies, the stores with all their extra allure and, most of all, the media with their beguiling advertising, are the culprits." However, if you are concerned about keeping your excessive shopping under control over the Christmas period, there is help at hand.

Adrienne's biggest concern is that many people wait until it is too late before seeking help, saying that often "it is only when someone feels overwhelmed by the clutter and the secrecy, or when relationships begin to break down, or when someone is declared bankrupt, that she or he may seek help to deal with the addictive behaviour."

Whatever stage you're at, Adrienne advises that therapy such as Psychotherapy can help to understand the feelings behind your addictive shopping. Debt advice is also available through the Citizen's Advice Bureau or the government's Money Advice Service.

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 13 November 2014