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Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday Blues

I am wondering how people are feeling about spending money this holiday season? I am thinking that people may be using the recession as an opportunity to self impose control over their impulses to spend money on things, for people, that is not necessary. For instance, I spent the weekend at UNIQUE LA, a design and art show, trying to sell jewelry for a friend, By Mai, and in 48 hours with over 10, 000 potential customers, we sold 4 pieces of jewelry! I was so depressed as a vendor. I felt demoralized, as if I had been rejected by 9,9996 people. Each piece of jewelry is handmade, one of a kind, and I could not even sell 5! Don't get me wrong, the pieces are lovely and many people, over and over, at least 5, 558, stopped by the booth, oohing and aaahing, at the pieces, beautifully displayed on handmade wood painted in white and pearl. I couldn't even get these stubborn, contained shoppers to try some on and then view themselves adorned in the jewels. For once, I was trying to get someone not to be in control of their impulses, and just buy! I had to get validated, though, and make sure that the product I was pushing was not the issue, and sure enough, I was right. Other vendors, who for a living, knock out pieces of art, clothing, you name it, schlep it to this show with the hope of selling out, and not to my dismay, many were disappointed, left with tons of merchandise to take home, vowing never to do this again. My heart went out to them, because, for me, this was not my livelihood, pushing jewels, but for them, it is and I felt their pain and to some degree, horror, of putting so much into their work and leaving with it and very little money. 

It was interesting being on that side of things and being in that experience. I, too, wanted to make money off of these shoppers, thousands of them, being herded through the penthouse of the california mart. I saw them as vehicles to get what I needed, a sale, and as the first day ended, with no sales whatsoever, I had to step it up the next day and push sales. I made 4, and 3 of them were from one person, so you do the math! I am good, too! Really, I understand the psychology of spending, and I love to shop, too! But, these shoppers were determined to hold their ground and spend only within budget. On some level, I was impressed, but mostly, I was frustrated with their control and would have done almost anything to get them to loosen their grip! 

But, do you feel like you need a little more control than the shoppers I encountered this weekend? Are you feeling like this holiday season could sneak up right under you and pull a fast one? If so, and reading my blog doesn't have enough staying power for you, then you may want to think about an online tele-course being offered by April Benson, author of Stopping Overshopping. She is a therapist in New York and her course, Getting Caught Up in the Holiday Hype and Losing Hope, is starting soon! 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Am I a Compulsive Shopper????

I am often asked, "is compulsive shopping a real disorder?" I usually answer with a question, "do you think it is a real problem?" I hate it when my questions are answered with a question, but really, I don't have an answer, exactly. I treat compulsive shopping in my psychotherapy private practice. I help people deal with the underlying hunger associated with over shopping, over eating, under eating, self mutilation, and so on, because, in their lives, doing these behaviors over and over again, although they can be deemed "normal" if done on a regular basis, for them, is destructive and helpful at the same time. How is over shopping helpful? It is helpful because it probably provides some type of containment, or regulation, of emotional states. Emotional regulation is an internal process that "should" occur in each person and develops from birth on ward. A mother teaches emotional regulation through such processes as gazing, cooing, wrapping a blanky around a crying baby, feeding, and holding, for example. These processes are usually done well enough and in some situations, they are not and the baby/child/teen/adult, has to develop other means to emotionally regulate and for many it is through the process of feeding, starving, buying, returning, bingeing, purging, cutting and healing. So, yes, compulsive shopping, is a real, troubling, effective disorder. It works and it doesn't work. Compulsive shopping regulates in the moment and also leads to financial complications, relationship discord and emotional turmoil. Do you think you are a compulsive shopper? I have found the seven criteria to determine if you are from Lee Eisenberg : 

1. You buy things even though you can’t afford them.
2. You believe others would be horrified if they found out about your spending habits.
3. You write checks even though you know there’s not enough in the bank to cover them.
4. If you have any money left at the end of a pay period, you feel compelled to spend it.
5. You make only the minimum payments on your credit-card statements (if you make any at all).
6. You feel anxious or nervous on days you don’t go shopping.
7. You buy things to make yourself feel better.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What a Budget Really Is

Most of the time I talk with people about the psychological issues surrounding compulsive spending and tend to stay away from the practical issues of budgeting since I am not a financial planner or an accountant. However, I have come to notice in my practice that a 3 is a "fluid" thing to most people. 

I try to listen carefully, what is really being said and what is not being said. I really hear, " I keep everything in my head and rationalize my spending based on what I am thinking about in terms of money and basically, I don't have a budget and I don't want one." What is not being said, concretely, is "I know how much money I make and I base my spending on how much I can afford!" Most of the time I talk with people who do not know how much money they actually have to spend on bills, rent, food, clothes, movies, trips, business expenses and medical needs. What they do know is what they want to spend and sometimes, but not always, what they need to spend. 

This is where a real budget comes in handy. A budget starts with income, whether it be from a job, a trust fund, or babysitting. To some degree, this number should be static, that is, it is the same amount every month. This is the money a person has to spend and live off of, to pay rent, bills, repairs, food, clothing, children, etc. It is important to know how much money you make per month because then you know how much money you have to literally spend. I notice that when I talk to people with compulsive spending problems that they don't necessarily buy outrageous items, they buy too much stuff for the amount of money that they make and when they run out they use their credit cards.

Expenses is the other side of the budget. A person has fixed expenses, things that need to be paid every month and usually cost the same each month, like rent or a mortgage, health insurance, car insurance, cell phone bill, credit card payments and car payments. Other items that are considered expenses are food, clothing, dry cleaning, gasoline, computer expenses, entertainment, gym memberships, and dining out. These are not necessarily fixed, but a person can make them fixed by determining how much money they have available after all of the true fixed expenses are paid in full. Some things on a person's original list, like a gym membership, may not be on the budget because it can not be afforded. This is how you live within your means and really follow a budget instead of a budget following you. 

It might take some time to develop a working budget and get into the groove of following a budget, per se, but taking the time to become more aware of how you do things is the most important aspect of this process.  

Monday, August 24, 2009

Shopping Bulimia

Recently, I was presented a question "If I shop and then return everything I buy, am I a shopping bulimic?" 

First of all, the question implies some level of insight because the person must understand bulimia, especially the process of taking in and then due to severe negative attacks on the self, the process of getting rid of. Bulimia has been defined in relationship to food, but because the process of hunger runs deep in the psyche; and compulsive spending and returning or better yet, purging everything, could be coined shopping bulimia. 

So, the next question is, "If I am, what should I do? I really like shopping and then returning everything. It gives me the thrill and the relief without doing real damage to my credit rating or bank account. It is just like being able to eat everything with out gaining a pound!" Of course, this part of the question is more troubling than the first because it demonstrates the addictive compulsion while at the same time a frivolous, self destructive attitude. 

Bulimia nervosa is a serious, life threatening eating disorder and most people who engage in bulimia realize at some point that they are not doing it to lose or maintain weight, but, rather, to relieve deep emotional pain. I would suggest that compulsive spending and returning appeases a similar deep seeded emotional discomfort. I would even go insofar as exploring the emotional regulatory effect that compulsive spending and returning provides. 

People with eating disorders and associated compulsions report being unable to tolerate and experience feelings and make sense of their emotional world. In fact, what has essentially happened is that the eating disorder or compulsive spending becomes the very thing that soothes them and helps them feel in control of their emotional life. This is very important in being able to help and understand someone struggling with a form of what I call a hunger disease. In this case, compulsive spending. When I can help someone see the emotional purpose behind what they are doing to themselves then an opening for therapeutic growth usually occurs. But, therapy does not stop with understanding, it continues on with building the bridges between sessions and the real world and neural connections between the intellectual and emotional parts of the brain through the process of talking and experiencing emotions.

So, is this person a shopping bulimic? Perhaps, yes, but I also try to stay away from categorizing people too much because like I told someone today who called me interested in learning emotional regulation skills because she suffers from multiple sclerosis, we all could learn to better emotionally regulate and get our left and right brains to communicate more effectively with each other. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Packing Tips: How to manage packing anxiety

Recently, the process of  "packing" has been a topic of discussion. The process of packing brings up issues for people who struggle with image and compulsive spending is directly related to image. Not that many people would readily admit that "packing" for a trip or a getaway is troubling, but for many, it seems to be. I thought this was interesting and considered as I am about to pack myself, what do I wear? what is the weather going to be like? do I have the right outfits? and, will what I bring fit?

These questions, like several thoughts we have, go unnoticed, unacknowledged and incorporated into behavior, sometimes maladaptive behavior. For instance, my friend has just enough money to take her trip and that is it, but as she considers her "packing" list, she finds herself wondering into Nordstrom to buy new jeans and the drugstore for a few travel size amenities. This is where her image issues affect her wanting and driving her to overspend with justification. Feeling the anxiety of not having the right jeans for her road trip, or having to live without her favorite hair product, is just too overwhelming to feel and relieving the anxiety requires buying something to solve the conflict which truly only exists in the mind of my friend.

Resolving conflicts on this level is very tricky because, for example, my friend, let's call her Tara, would have to realize that there is a conflict at all. Tara most likely realizes that she feels unprepared and troubled by her packing process and that she needs to rectify the situation. She does not sense there is a conflict between her anxiety around her image and her not having enough money to buy something to relieve the anxiety around her image. Tara would best suffice, financially and psychologically, if she just feels the feelings of anxiety around her packing issues and restrains from taking any action, such as buying new jeans, to get rid of the feelings. Most likely, Tara will realize that she can handle her anxiety, that she will survive it and test out new coping skills, which in this case is feeling her feelings, and develop the start of a foundation of security in her self.

Regarding her image, Tara's deeper issue is more related to her sense of self and how she perceives her self. A lot of what she may be projecting onto her packing list and feeling in the process will be more understood if she does not act out and buy new things to resolve her conflict. By buying new things in these kinds of instances, Tara thinks this is the solution where in fact, it is not, it is only a short term remedy. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Oniomania, otherwise known as Compulsive Spending

I thought I would start this blog with reality. Compulsive shopping is a true disorder. The medical term, according to Wikipedia, is Oniomania, the compulsive desire to shop. I italicized desire because desire indicates a feeling not necessarily an action. Feeling and doing are most likely related but not the same thing. So when a person who feels like shopping that doesn't mean, a) that the person will shop or b) that the person has to shop or c)that the person will buy something. It just means the person experiences an overwhelming urge to shop.

I make this distinction because I think in the treatment of compulsive shopping it is imperative to separate feelings from actions. I say this because as I am doing research for this blog I am finding tips on the internet that address compulsive shopping like things to do instead of shop, or things to do to keep yourself from shopping. For instance, go for a walk or take a bath... hmmm, that doesn't sound quite as enticing as say, Marc Jacobs shoes at Nordstrom, or a stroll through Target. My point is two fold. One, the suggestions offer actions to get rid of feelings which is a substitution for the symptom in the first place. And two, the suggestions are intellectual, rather than emotional, and therefore, the suggestions do not work in the long run because emotions typically override intelligence and what one "knows is right". I propose addressing Oniomania from an emotional point of view which would mean attempting to understand the feelings, and eventually tolerate them, rather than get rid of them. And, two, recognizing the resistance to do the right thing. For example, my favorite suggestion to stop compulsive shopping is to develop a budget, which, of course, there would be no compulsive shopping if one was able to follow a budget. From my theoretical perspective, I recommend writing down ten reasons to resist having a budget.

These 10 reasons will offer more insight into why compulsive shopping and not having a budget has a curative, purposeful effect on one's emotional life than any steps taken against the urge and action to compulsively shop. This new understanding can lead to sustained change over time as opposed to a quick fix.