Interview with Dr. Benson:
Q. Shopping is an integral part of everyday life. What do we look for to determine if shopping has gone beyond a routine activity and become a problem that warrants professional help?
A. It’s often difficult to determine at what point buying behavior warrants psychological attention, in part because “affluenza,” a modern-day plague, is rampant and condoned by our culture.
When it significantly impairs emotional, social, occupational, and/or financial life, and when undertaken in an attempt to fill a void, regulate affect, or repair mood, I consider buying behavior to be compulsive. Most shopaholics try to counteract feelings of low self-esteem through the emotional lift and momentary euphoria that compulsive buying provides. They experience a higher than normal range of associated problems such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and impulse-control disorders, and may be using shopping to self-medicate. Another group of excessive buyers-less likely than the first group to have the same high degree of comorbidity-buys in the hope of acquiring an identity closer to their ideal.
Compulsive buying is characterized by a maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping that is usually irresistible and intrusive and that often causes marked distress. This might result in frequently buying more than one can afford, buying items that aren’t needed, or shopping for longer periods of time than intended.
It is still rare for patients to seek treatment for this problem, unless referred by a financial counselor, lawyer, law enforcement officer, or family member. More often, the problem reveals itself in the course of ongoing work. As treatment progresses, some patients will begin to talk openly about shopping compulsions, but more frequently, the therapist needs to ask about the patient’s buying behavior. Sometimes, this emerges in the context of financial independence and responsibility issues, relationships, difficulties at work, or parenting concerns.
Compulsive buying also presents itself indirectly in therapy: patients might wear something new to every session, arrive with shopping bags, give gifts to the therapist, or fall behind in paying. Some patients enact several of these behaviors simultaneously.Compulsive buyers are often secretive about their habit. They worry that they will be considered materialistic and vacuous – likely reflecting self-perceptions. We need to be empathic and knowledgeable about this disorder, its psychological meaning, the range and variations within the syndrome, and the effective treatment approaches.
Q. What important developmental needs does the compulsive buyer attempt to meet through shopping?
A. I have no doubt that shopping can be a growth-enhancing activity with potential to promote self-cohesion, self-continuity, and self-esteem. However, to serve these functions, it must be understood as a process that is not about buying, but about being and becoming. In addition to the exploration and expression of self, the shopping impulse in some people is derived from a need for attachment and affiliation. For them, salespeople and shopping companions serve as symbolic transference figures, and as real providers of mirroring and idealizing responses.Ideally, shopping can be autonomous and self-directed as well as interactive and interdependent – an experience of self-examination, selectivity, interpersonal competence, and frustration tolerance.
Q. Retail seduction is a topic in your book. What implication does the cultural condoning of excessive buying have for therapy?
A. We are bombarded with opportunities to shop-in stores, via catalogues, on TV, and on line. This fixation is a source of humor (“Born to Shop” ” Veni, Vidi, VISA”,”When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping”…) and an important boost to our economic engine. The culture, then, smiles upon this addiction.
One of the most fashionable stores in New York mailed postcards inviting people to a “psychotherapy sale,” urging them to bring in their emotional baggage to fill with mood-enhancing bargains. “Get in touch with your inner shopper,” the store beckoned.
And therapists themselves, according to a number of sources, can be notoriously poor in dealing with money and money issues. When working with this population of patients, it’s extremely important that therapists take a close look at the way they think about and use money in their own lives.
Q. You suggest that shopping can be an extremely important process of search. How can we use this concept in our practice?
A. I believe that it’s essential to reach far beyond the traditional associations with buying and having, and to understand shopping as a search for self. It’s a quest for identity and meaning. We need to help patients transform their apparent desire to own more things into a desire to gain meaningful ideas and experiences.
I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self brings together, for the first time, the most important thinking about this disorder. As more and more therapists encounter compulsive buying (whether as a presenting problem or revealed in the course of ongoing therapy), the need for an in-depth clinical understanding of the disorder has grown. Dr. Benson has responded admirably to that need with a practical, comprehensive, and wonderfully readable work.
While the book focuses a wide-angled lens on the many aspects of compulsive buying, it emphasizes understanding the disorder as a desperate search for self in people whose identity is not securely established. It defines the syndrome of compulsive consumption, examines the range and variations within it, discusses assessment and associated disorders, and delineates successful treatment modalities. Offering insights from a broad spectrum of therapies-psychopharmacology, psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioral treatment, couples and group therapy, self-help, and financial counseling-this book is an indispensable toolbox for the increasing number of therapists who see patients with shopping, buying, or debting problems.