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Little Shop, Little Shopaholics

“We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops.” – Henny Youngman

In spite of the current US economy, oniomania is higher than ever.

No, oniomania is not an irrational fear of onions…..it is a fancy psych term for compulsive shopping or shopaholism.  Oniomania actually comes from the Greek words for “sale” and “insanity.”   Apparently there were compulsive shoppers in ancient Athens, too.  I can just see the signs: “Clearance sale on togas tomorrow at the Acropolis Agora Flea Market.”

It is estimated that 10%-30% of Americans overspend, with about 6% of those qualifying as oniomaniacs. If you look at shopping on a spectrum, one end represents the “tightwad” savers, who typically purchase only absolute staples. The middle represents shoppers with a balanced, healthy sense of self, who can binge shop every now and then but are basically practical shoppers. Oniomania, however, is at the extreme end of the spectrum, representing shoppers who are beyond overspenders; they are compulsive, chronic, and out of control.

What exactly is overshopping?

The three current criteria in the psychological community are:

  1. An excessive preoccupation with buying
  2. Distress or impairment as a result of the activity
  3. The compulsive buying is not as a result of hypomanic or manic episodes, (as in a bipolar disorder case.)

Consumerism is constantly in our faces. The world is really one big mall now. You can win an eBay auction in your car. You can buy a boat in another state from your Smartphone while you are in a business meeting.  Readily available credit cards and online sites with “One-Click” features to buy instantaneously can make resistance to, and even comprehension of, parting with cash extremely difficult.

As with any human behavior, there is a positive intent. No one deliberately sets out to become an addict of any kind.

Addicts are generally seeking escape from a chaotic inner world, relief from emotional pain, abandonment or loneliness.  For shopping addicts, the “high” comes from a great bargain, or a distinctive item, an addition to a collection, to look successful, or to secure compliments or attention (those sales people are ALWAYS so friendly and flattering!).  Basically, to feel good! This rush or “high,” however, is typically quickly followed by a “crash” of guilt, shame, embarrassment, hiding or lying about the purchases. Without awareness and/or treatment of some sort (professional or a 12-step program), this pattern may intensify and escalate over time, unfortunately to the point of lying, debt, hoarding, humiliation, anger, stress, and even other addictions to self-medicate. This sets up a vicious cycle, and the only way addicts believe that can relieve the stress, anxiety and shame caused by the overspending is to (you got it) go out and spend again.

The seeds for shopaholism many times are planted early in life, with poor parent-child interactions, setting up some people to turn to “things” to fill the void within.  Neglected children, who feel invisible or unimportant, may be vulnerable to seeking comfort in adult “toys” later on in life by overshopping.  Some of these children felt deprived, and seek to overcome that in adulthood by indulging in excess. Additionally, birth order can have an effect. Middle children, or children with numerous siblings, who have had to wear hand-me-downs and share toys, may feel slighted by this.  Having new things later on that are all their own seems mighty appealing.

Further, those who suffer from depression, anxiety and impulse control disorders are particularly vulnerable to compulsive buying, “shopping bulimics” who binge shop and purge.  Narcissists, too, in an endless vain quest for perfection, and those who suffer an identity disorder tend to use purchases to gain approval, attention, and affection.

Advertisers are master hypnotists, if you will, constantly suggesting that we must have this or that item. Much like casinos, marketers seduce us with sensuous ads whether through colorful catalogues, television shopping channels, cybershopping, or in swanky malls that look, sound, feel and smell clean, new and inviting.

Whether your desire to control your spending and shopping is based on credit card debt, relationship distress, or just an overstuffed closet, it can be done.  The first step is recognizing there is a problem. The second step is making a choice to go cold turkey, taper down, or join a 12-step group.  Shopaholics Anonymous, Overspenders Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous are all excellent and ubiquitous. Expect a few obstacles, and maybe some withdrawal symptoms.  There is a pharmaceutical route a shopaholic can take, yet medication itself can become yet another addiction, and is typically simply masking the problem. The most effective method is having your own personal incentive for making this change in your life.

The Five Top Benefits of Kicking The Shopping Habit

  1. There is such a sweet simplicity in scaling down and releasing excess of any kind: weight, stuff, drama, etc.  Give excessive clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair products, shoes, purses, to a battered women’s shelter or to a YWCA. Through this recycling, you will get a healthy rush from giving to others.  I’ve heard it said that we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. So the sheer waste of things that others could really use is selfish.
  2. There will be more space in your home, and less laundry, dry cleaning and repairs.
  3. It feels so empowering when you are free from the burden of guilt and shame of essentially hoarding clothes/jewelry/shoes/stuff.
  4. You will have more money for the things you really need and want, like travel or massages or concert tickets, donating to charity – – life experiences vs. “stuff.”
  5. Knowing you’ve managed this issue, what other goal could you achieve?

As the Ancients Greeks espoused: Moderation is key.  To control your shopping before it reaches oniomanic proportions:

  1. Give yourself a weekly budget of “mad money” for non-essential spending. Log it in an Excel or Quickbooks database, or simply write in your datebook or enter into your Smartphone.
  2. This accountability will ensure consistency and is the best way to create a healthy habit. Have an Accountability Buddy…someone who will hold you to your commitment.
  3. If you slip up, you must pay the equivalent of the slip-up money to a political party you despise.  I would say give it to your favorite charity, yet that might positively reinforce your bad behavior!
  4. Consider cutting up all credit cards but one. When you start paying cash for items, you are much more likely to resist the impulse purchases.
  5. Find healthy alternative behaviors or projects to engage in rather than going to the malls or online sites:  sign up for a class or lessons, or join a team to play your favorite sport, meditate, garden, play with animals or children. Create a bucket list and start taking it on. Get outside to a park, a beach, a mountain, a creek, camping. Nature is the opposite of consumerism. Volunteer in your community so that you are feeding your soul vs. your creditors.

Read more posts by Nancy Irwin here. Nancy is a contributing blogger for JenningsWire.