burning manI enjoy shopping. In small doses. Occasionally, it’s fun to go into stores and see what’s there.

I used to shop a lot more. When I would go into a store, I’d literally get an adrenaline rush: so much stuff to look at…and buy. There was a period when shopping was a kind of entertainment for me. When I was bored, I knew what to do: I could go shopping.

Does this sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. Many of us are shopping to fill the voids in our lives.

For some people, shopping is about getting something you need. Period. It’s not fun for them, they get no rush in looking through racks of stuff they really don’t need.

Lately, hoarding is in the news. You see shows featuring people whose houses are piled high with so much stuff they can barely walk from one room to the next. We feel sorry for these poor folks: how did they get this way?

Shopping and hoarding are points on a continuum: they’re both about getting and keeping stuff. The idea is that there is comfort in having lots of stuff. For some people, buying it is the best part. For others, keeping it is what makes them feel good. Shopping and hoarding aren’t so very different when you dig beneath the surface.

I know quite a few people who have even hired professional organizers to help them get rid of piles of things they’ve bought and find it hard to let go of, even as their garages and closets (and guest rooms) are chock full of clothes, shoes, household items and other stuff that they don’t need and never use.

How did we get here and how can we get out of this cycle of acquiring things we don’t need, don’t want and don’t have the space for?

When I realized I was shopping more than I really wanted to, I decided to do some work on myself to get to the bottom of it. This is what I found:

Avoiding difficult emotions: I used to shop so much because I felt sad, lonely or bored. And I didn’t want to feel those feelings…so I continually ran away from facing them down – and learning from them – by going shopping. It was hard, at first, for me to sit down and admit to myself, “I feel lonely.” Part of my mind said, “If you let yourself feel this, it’ll kill you. Run, run now, go shopping, don’t feel it!” And, for many years, that’s just what I did.

Wanting to feel in control: There is so much in the world that we cannot control. Things happen all the time that we don’t like: people let us down, we don’t get the promotion, the new house or the new partner. Shopping (and hoarding) gives us a sense of being in control: “I can’t control my partner’s anger at me, but I can control buying a great new (whatever) to cheer myself up.”

Feeling not enough: Often, we feel that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, successful enough just as we are. We think that by having more great stuff – clothes, furniture, cars, homes – that we’ll feel better about ourselves and that other people will admire us more and want to be with us.

Ironically, all our possessions aren’t making us happier. Psychological research shows that a home with too much stuff is correlated with higher levels of anxiety. The idea of our home as a calm, safe refuge is a useful one: we just have to get back to simplicity (with a lot less stuff).

When I was a personal shopper in New York City, I found this was often the case. People had so many clothes, shoes and accessories that they didn’t know what to do with them. There were too many choices: it was too confusing to get dressed in the morning. And there were all those items that they really never wore, but hated to part with.

Psychological research shows that it is experiences – not things – that bring us the most lasting joy. Memories of these experiences stay with us, long after the short-term thrill of a new acquisition has passed.

If you find yourself shopping more than you’d like, and holding onto stuff when you’d be happier without it, consider the ideas in this column and see if you can’t find a way out.

I did. So can you.



(image courtesy of nymag.com)