Sample Reading

From Dr. Benson’s book:

1. Background

Compulsive shopping is finally coming out of the closet. First described by Bleuler in 1915 and then Kraepelin in 1924 (they labeled it oneomania from the Greek oneomai, to buy, and included it among other pathological and reactive impulses), it went largely ignored for the next sixty years. Only in the last decade have we seen specific and persistent inquiry into the disorder-in the psychiatric literature, in studies of consumer behavior and marketing, and in the popular press. And although the study of compulsive buying is still in relative infancy compared with some of its psychological siblings-alcoholism, for example, or eating disorders or drug abuse-there is more and more evidence, both research and anecdotal, that it poses a serious and worsening problem, one with significant emotional, social, occupational, and financial consequences.

How many people are we talking about? Estimates vary. According to Faber and O’Guinn (1992), somewhere between one and six percent of the population may be full-fledged compulsive buyers. The American Psychological Association’s Monitor (Mjoseth 1997) agrees, reporting that perhaps fifteen million Americans have little control over how much they spend or what they buy. Estimates in the popular literature go higher; they see a full ten percent of the population, perhaps twenty-eight million Americans, as problem buyers (Trachtenberg 1988). And nonpathological compulsive buying-a compelling need to purchase that is not self-destructive, but may become so-could exist in as many as a quarter of us (Nataraajan and Goff 1991). Richard Elliot (1994), who has written about the relationship between addictive consumption and the postmodern condition, suggests that as incomes rise and shopping becomes a leisure pursuit, more and more addictive shoppers will emerge. The same possibility is envisaged by Scherhorn (l990). No surprise, then, that diagnostic criteria for compulsive buying are being proposed to the American Psychiatric Association for possible inclusion in the next revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

As you will read, most shopaholics try to counteract feelings of low self-esteem through the emotional lift and momentary euphoria provided by compulsive shopping. These shoppers, who also experience a higher than normal rate of associated disorders-depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and impulse-control disorders may be using their symptom to self-medicate.

Underlying (or at least intensifying) the deeply felt need of problem shoppers is our nationwide outbreak of “affluenza,” the modern American plague of materialism and overconsumption. This addiction to affluence and all its trappings underscores the reality that for every voice echoing Thoreau’s famous plea, “Simplify, simplify,” a hundred others cry, “Amplify, amplify!” (Sanders 1998). And amplify we do. The kind and number of shopping sites proliferates, and the gap between what we have and what we want grows ever wider. In addition to stores, still the most frequent sites by far, catalogue shopping, television shopping, cybershopping, and perhaps even online trading are becoming fertile grounds for the growth of compulsive purchase.

A particular media focus has been the fetching eye candy displayed by Internet auction sites, yet the newest temptation in the compulsive buyer’s Garden of Eden. USA Today summed up the attraction: “Take the thrill of gambling, the excitement of computer games, the enjoyment of collecting, and the desire to get a good deal, and sprinkle it with a little of the old hunter-gatherer instinct. Suddenly, you’ve got several million people hooked on on-line auctions. (Weise 1999)” Although mental health professionals, addiction support groups, and researchers are just beginning to see cases of what might be called auction addiction, we can expect the numbers to increase sharply. For the susceptible shopper or buyer, these sites have a hypnotic pull.

As always, shopping jokes and bumper stickers are ubiquitous. Thus, the “smiled upon addiction,” as Catalano and Sonnenberg have called it (1993), is smiled upon in two senses: it is at once a source of wry humor and at the same time a behavior much inflamed by our ever present marketing machinery. As a result, compulsive shopping may be an even greater source of guilt and shame than alcoholism or drug abuse. Those disorders are commonly thought of as diseases, or at least recognized as serious problems requiring treatment. Compulsive buyers, who are often quite secretive about their habit, worry that they will be considered simply materialistic and vacuous-judgments that likely reflect their self-perceptions.

In my clinical experience and that of most of my colleagues, it is still unusual for a patient to refer him- or herself for treatment for a compulsive buying problem. If compulsive shopping is a presenting problem, the patient has typically been referred by a financial counselor, lawyer, law enforcement officer, family member, or spouse. Much more frequently, a compulsive buying problem reveals itself in the course of ongoing psychotherapy. As treatment progresses, some patients begin to talk openly about the problem; with others, it emerges in the context of financial independence and responsibility issues, relationship problems, difficulties at work, or parenting problems. Compulsive buying may also present itself indirectly in therapy: a patient might wear something new or different to every session, or arrive with shopping bags week after week, or repeatedly give gifts to the therapist, or fall behind in paying the bill. Often a patient will enact several of these behaviors simultaneously.

2. Toward a Definitive Diagnostic Term

As the study of what was once called oniomania evolves, we move semantically back toward the Greek root. In both popular and professional literature, the terms compulsive shopping, compulsive buying, and compulsive spending are often used interchangeably, but the behaviors they represent are in fact distinctly different (Nataraajan and Goff 1992). One may buy, after all, without shopping. or shop without buying. Because progress in understanding this disorder must in part depend on thinking and speaking clearly about it, most current researchers use the term compulsive buying and subscribe to an exceptionally specific definition proposed by McElroy and her colleagues (1994b).

Their choice of buying rather than shopping reflects the difference between a relatively narrow act-taking possession of something-and a far broader one. Shopping, the broader act, is largely the provenance of consumer behaviorists and retailers, who have evolved their study of it from an early emphasis on rational choice to today’s focus on its experiential aspects. Their several concepts of shopping include a type of generalized search behavior (Hawkins, Best, and Coney 1989), a hedonic recreation (Holbrook and Hirshmann 1982), and a way to “spend” discretionary time (Arndt and Gronmo 1977). Viewed thus, as a kind of consumer ritual that enables the shopper to gather information for immediate or future use, shopping can be a way to satisfy many nonpurchase motives (Nataraajan and Goff, 1992).

Even spending, though closer to buying than shopping is, need not be synonymous with acquisition. Spending bespeaks the action of relinquishing funds rather than the gathering of material objects. Nataraajan and Goff (1992) observe that it may occur without either shopping or buying (except in a vicarious or surrogate sense), as when a parent gives money to children. In one solidly middle-income family I know of, the parents, in a desperate attempt to be loved, gave enough to their adult children that they literally bankrupted themselves.

These distinctions amount to more than hairsplitting. Semantic confusion can proliferate into typological and methodological errors, so it is essential that we speak with clarity when we consider the problem of compulsive buying. The most widely used definitional criteria (McElroy et al. 1994b) define the disorder, in essence, as a maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping, whether impulses or behavior, that either (a) is/are experienced as irresistible, intrusive, and/or senseless or (b) result in frequent buying of more than can be afforded, frequent buying of items that are not needed, or shopping for longer periods of time than intended. The buying preoccupations, impulses, or behaviors cause marked distress, are time-consuming, significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning, or result in financial problems, and they do not occur exclusively during periods of hypomania or mania. In short, the compulsive buyer is a person who allows shopping to destructively deflect resources-whether of time, energy, or money-from the fabrication of everyday life.

3. The “Typical” Compulsive Buyer

We don’t yet know very much about the “typical” compulsive buyer. To be sure, several research studies support the popular stereotype, pinpointing a thirty-something female who experiences irresistible urges, uncontrollable needs, or mounting tension that can only be relieved by the compulsive buying of clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics, [and] who has been buying compulsively since her late teens or early twenties (Black et al. 1997, Christenson et al. 1994, Scherhorn et al. 1990). But there are serious methodological questions about these studies, which tend to rely on self-selected subjects. More likely, the spectrum of compulsive buyers is wide, reflecting a set of people who differ from one another in age and gender, in socioeconomic status, in patterns of buying, in the intensity of their compulsion, and in underlying motivation. This diversity suggests that efforts to capture the essence of the archetypal consumer are likely to be fruitless.

Thus, for every well-known name in the Who’s Who of Chronic Shoppers-Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Imelda Marcos, and even Mary Todd Lincoln, who needed eighty four pairs of gloves before she could move into the White House-there are dozens or hundreds of unknowns. And the disorder is not restricted to women. No less a personage than George Washington was reported to have had a “consuming passion” for shopping, a habit that he tried (but failed) to support by consigning his tobacco or other cash crops to his creditors. Both he and Abraham Lincoln (even before he met Mary Todd) were “chronic debtors” (Catalano and Sonenberg 1993; Seelye l998, Wesson 1990). Male or female, rich or poor, famous or not, youthful or middle-aged-there is no convenient identifying demographic.

Until recently, most of the literature on compulsive buying adopted a simple, dichotomous classification; an individual either was or was not afflicted (DeSarbo and Edwards 1996). Now we are beginning to take a closer look. Investigators are differentiating among such patterns of behavior as compulsive daily shopping, occasional but consequential shopping “binges,” compulsive collecting, image spending, bulimic spending, codependent spending, buying multiples of each item, compulsive bargain-hunting, compulsive hoarding, and ceaseless buy-return cycles. As yet, however, there is little or no empirical data about these patterns.

Somewhat more has been done to investigate the compulsive buying continuum and the psychological subtypes of buyers. Providing theoretical constructs for the empirical work that followed, Albanese (l988) proposed a consumption continuum ranging from the stable and consistent consumer to the compulsive, addictive, and irrational consumer, based on Kernberg’s (l976) object relations theory of personality. And although they did not test it empirically, Valence et al. (l988) created a typology of compulsive buyers that includes the emotionally reactive consumer, the impulsive consumer, the fanatical consumer, and the compulsive consumer. The researchers differentiated these types by the particular combination of psychological forces-such as strong emotional activation, high cognitive control, and high reactivity-that inform the compulsive buying act.

Edwards, in a series of published and working papers (1993, 1994a, 1994b), has developed a measure of the severity of buying behavior. Scores on Edwards’ compulsive buying scale (1993) place consumers along a continuum from the normal or noncompulsive buyer, who is assumed to shop and spend mainly out of necessity, all the way to the addicted buyer, who buys primarily to relieve anxiety and whose buying creates a dysfunctional lifestyle. Between these poles lie the recreational buyer, who occasionally uses shopping and spending to relieve stress or to celebrate, the borderline compulsive buyer, whose spending habits fall somewhere between the recreational and the compulsive, and the compulsive buyer, who buys mostly to relieve anxiety, though without yet strongly disrupting his/her life.

In the only empirical research to date that has examined heterogeneity in compulsive buying, DeSarbo and Edwards (l996) hypothesized that there may be more than one path to the behavior or more than one manifestation of it, each with distinct motivations and tendencies. They tested this hypothesis by separating the predispositional and circumstantial antecedents of compulsive buying and found two psychologically distinct clusters. For the first group, compulsive buying appears driven by feelings of low self-esteem, dependency, and anxiety. Such individuals attempt to build esteem via the (temporary) sense of worth, power, and control they achieve in shopping excessively. This cluster has a higher proclivity for compulsive buying than the second and is more likely to seek treatment or self-help. Individuals in the second cluster appear influenced more by their circumstances than by psychological motivations or basic personality traits. These subjects seem to act as they do out of simple materialism or social isolation or avoidance; they shop simply to acquire, to escape from loneliness, or to flee from stress.

Both of the DeSarbo/Edwards groups are markedly impulsive, but the relationship of impulse buying to compulsive buying remains uncertain. d’Astous (1990) argues that the two lie on a continuum, with the former, of course, closer to normal shopping. O’Guinn and Faber (1989) suggest that compulsive buying is, by definition, a chronic state, while impulse purchasing is an acute behavior. Edwards (1993, 1994a) suggests that impulse buying, which she defines as the unplanned purchase of generally inexpensive items, occurs when an external trigger, a product, stimulates the individual to make a purchase. Compulsive buying, in contrast, is motivated by an internal trigger, anxiety, from which shopping and spending is an escape.

While clearly we still have much to learn about compulsive shopping, we have begun making inroads. As the problem gains wider recognition and more focused attention, as the routes into the terrain of compulsive shopping are gradually mapped, answers to many of our questions will emerge. My hope for the present collection is that it will serve as a provisional guide, highlighting established landmarks and suggesting promising but uncharted new paths.

4. The Plan of This Book

The book is divided into seven thematically organized sections. The first three deal with backgrounds and special issues in compulsive buying. The last four focus on practical approaches to the clinical treatment of the disorder.

Section I, “An Overview,” begins with Donna Boundy’s introduction to this disorder and its various faces. Boundy carves out clinical profiles of the different types of compulsive shoppers and identifies the behavioral indicators of a compulsive shopping problem. Her subgroups are differentiated from one another on the basis of what the spender seeks, consciously or unconsciously, from his/her spending. Some, Boundy learned, spend to fulfill fantasies of themselves as successful; others spend to get rid of their money, because they feel more comfortable being broke. Still others shop to distract themselves from unwanted feelings, or spend on partners or children in a never-ending attempt to buy love. The chapter closes with a discussion of the cultivation of true wealth, a theme that I revisit in the final chapter of the book.

Providing research support for much of Boundy’s material, Ronald Faber chronicles the results of his more than twelve years’ pioneering experimental research into the demography, phenomenology, prevalence, etiology, and causal mechanisms of compulsive buying. Based on their initial examination of this problem, Faber and his colleagues defined compulsive buying as chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes a primary response to negative feelings, providing immediate short-term gratification but ultimately causing harm to the individual and/or others (O’Guinn and Faber 1989). Their subsequent work has generally been driven by three basic research questions that Faber investigates in the chapter: “What drives or motivates compulsive buying behavior?” “Why does this problem affect some people but not others?” “Why do some people turn to buying, rather than some other behavior or substance?” As you read through the book, you will notice that almost every other author refers to Faber’s work, which will continue to serve as a touchstone for research and study in this field.

Section II, “Shopping, Buying, and Selfhood,” features three papers that examine, each very differently, the relationship between possessions and the sense of self. Whenever the topic of compulsive buying is mentioned, assumptions about gender rise to the surface. Why is it that this seems predominantly a woman’s problem-and is it really? Colin Campbell’s chapter, “Shopaholics, Spendaholics, and the Question of Gender” takes up the gauntlet of this complex question, suggesting that the two genders apply a very different calculus when it comes to the value of the shopping process. Men, he finds, adapt the activity of shopping to a work frame; women, in contrast, fit it to a leisure frame. Having built this foundation, Campbell also considers the question of how individuals make the transition from shopaholic (or more controlled recreational shopper) to spendaholic.

Regardless of who does the shopping and what the activity looks like, there is an object to the hunt. Russ Belk’s seminal paper, “Possessions and the Extended Self” (1988), has been revised, updated, and expanded for the current volume; it surveys the meanings that consumers attach to possessions, which then serve as reflections of the individual’s extended self. Belk considers the evidence that possessions are important components of the sense of self, describes the processes by which possessions become self-extensions, considers the functions of possessions over the course of the life cycle, and addresses the question, “What are the functions of the extended self?”

Clearly, defining ourselves by our possessions can contribute to feelings of well-being, even if those feelings are fleeting. Having conducted to my knowledge the only empirical research into the relationship between self-image and compulsive buying, Helga Dittmar is in a unique position to report that there are underlying social psychological mechanisms centered on consumers’ self-concepts, and that these mechanisms play a role in both ordinary and excessive impulse buying. What differentiates the two populations, Dittmar finds, is the significantly greater degree to which compulsive buyers believe that consumer goods are an important route towards success, identity, and happiness. She argues that problem buyers purchase goods in order to bolster their self-image, drawing on the symbolic meanings of products in an attempt to bridge gaps between the way they see themselves, the way they wish to be, and the way they wish to be seen.

Fashionable clothing is the highest frequency purchase for the particular subgroup of compulsive shoppers reported on most often in the professional literature, that “thirtysomething female” referred to above. In her chapter, “Clothes, Inside Out,” Eve Golden weaves a beautiful tapestry, using the psychological meanings, roles, and function of clothes as the warp and the sociological literature on adornment as weft; she strategically shuttles literary and artistic threads throughout her essay.

Picking up some very different threads, Section III, “Special Issues in Compulsive Buying,” includes two papers that highlight a pair of quite disparate subgroups of compulsive buyers. Werner Muensterberger writes about the compulsive collector, who is neither thirtysomething nor typically female. In the case of compulsive collecting, he finds, the passion that is normally the wellspring of collecting becomes an obsessive attempt to master and rework childhood trauma. Muensterberger provides rich illustrations of compulsive collecting from his extensive clinical experience as well as from history.

The other special issue explored in this section is compulsive gift-giving, which has received no formal attention until now. Mary Ann McGrath’s “Giving ‘Til It Hurts: Two Case Studies of Compulsive Gift-Giving Behavior” is an in-depth study of two individuals, one male and one female, who feel that they cannot give enough while consistently giving too much. Her chapter, which represents a first attempt to merge the academic findings of gift-giving behavior with the clinical concerns of mental health professionals, casts light on a dark side of this activity.

The remainder of the book, Sections IV through VII, offers concrete, practical help to the clinician who wants to learn more about evaluation and treatment of this disorder. These sections address compulsive buying from a number of vantage points: psychiatric considerations, psychodynamic thinking and therapy, couples and group therapy, and financial counseling and self-help.

What distinguishes pathological from nonpathological buying behavior? The external criterion is whether or not such behavior is causing significant disruption or impairment in an individual’s social, occupational, financial, or marital functioning. Internally, however, the situation is much less clear. Section IV offers two looks at the complex psychiatric considerations involved in assessing, diagnosing, and treating compulsive buying. These include establishing a definition of pathological buying behavior based solidly on valid and reliable research data, and looking hard at the nosological dimensions of the disorder, particularly at whether compulsive buying is controllable and whether it is ego-syntonic or ego-dystonic. These questions bear directly on diagnosis and treatment, and answers to them may be different for different sufferers. Some compulsive buyers, not unlike the ritual handwasher, take neither pleasure nor release from their uncontrollable and unwanted buying; these appear obsessive-compulsive. Others, apparently impulse driven, can exert some finite, albeit varying, control over buying behavior. These buyers often feel intense gratification: “I felt high,” “it was like being on a drug.”

Donald Black, in the first chapter of this section, looks carefully at a number of clinical screeners currently in use, as well as several other important assessment techniques. He describes, compares, and contrasts these assessment procedures and offers commentary on how to create an effective and informative assessment battery. In the second chapter, Toby Goldsmith and Susan McElroy propose a definition of compulsive buying based on their own empirical findings (as well as those of other researchers). They also address the important issue of comorbidity and compare the findings of the three major research studies that have explored the relationship between compulsive buying and other disorders. Their chapter includes a discussion of the findings from drug studies that have been undertaken with this population and offers suggestions for future research.

In the two papers that begin Section V, “Psychodynamic Thinking and Therapy,” a pair of the issues raised in the previous section are explored in detail. First, Ramona Goldman examines compulsive shopping as an addiction, continuing the broadening of a concept once used only with reference to drugs or alcohol. Goldman surveys the relevant literature on addiction as well as the empirical research that has been done on the relationship between addictive behavior and compulsive buying. After describing her work with two different types of addictive buyers, she discusses the treatment implications of viewing this disorder as an addiction.

Eating disorders, which can also be viewed as addictions, are often associated with compulsive buying (Faber et al. 1995; McElroy et al. 1995). In her chapter, “Eat, Shop, and Be Merry: When Eating and Shopping are Companion Disorders,” Diane Barth looks at the relationship between these two consumptive feeding frenzies, describing the way that both are used to regulate and process overwhelming feelings that can’t be put into words.

David Krueger, whose case material confirms the frequent coincidence of eating and shopping disorders, writes about compulsive buying as an action symptom. He sees it as a story with its own developmental history and psychodynamic scenario, one with multidetermined defensive and attempted developmentally reparative intentions. Krueger’s theoretical view of the disorder richly informs his therapeutic technique.

In the final chapter of this section, “Shopping for Fashion: Clothes and the Psyche,” Arlene Kramer Richards considers clothes-shopping in the context of a psychoanalytic understanding of women’s interest in dress. She discusses the development of shopping compulsions, suggests what they can mean, and provides clinical material to illustrate four different manifestations of this symptom. Richards demonstrates how shopping for clothes, touching as it does upon so many issues of sexuality, narcissism, safety, and power, can become a natural venue for symptomatology.

We move from individual treatment to other therapeutic modalities in Section VI, which includes chapters on couples and group treatment. In “Overcoming Overspending: A Road Map for Spenders and their Partners,” Olivia Mellan guides us through the different money types that are commonly found in polarized couples with an ovespending partner. The core of her “money harmony” work is individual self-awareness, which she tries to promote through experiential techniques. These include asking her patients to write a money dialogue and to practice the nonhabitual by “taking a walk in each other’s shoes.” Mellan’s focus in treatment is on helping overspending couples learn to communicate better about money. To accomplish this goal, she exposes several myths that impede couples’ healing, outlines what a spender needs to do to change, and suggests how the non-overspending partner can help.

I have had the good fortune to learn of not one but two highly structured, comprehensive group treatment programs for compulsive shoppers. The two have significant areas of overlap as well as significant areas of difference. Melissa Burgard and James Mitchell have adapted a highly successful cognitive-behavioral group treatment model for eating disorders to the treatment of compulsive shopping. Their chapter identifies the unique features of the program, which include helping a patient identify and restructure dysfunctional thoughts and requiring the periodic participation in the group of his or her support system. Leonard Brazer’s money disorders program, which combines psychoeducational lectures and structured dynamic group therapy, seems particularly suitable for compulsive buyers who are also compulsive debtors; participation in Debtors Anonymous is an integral part of the program. In his chapter, he details the content of both the lecture portion and the structured group format that follows each lecture.

Section VII, “Financial Counseling and Self-Help,” begins with a thorough investigation of Debtors Anonymous, a twelve-step recovery program, yet another type of support system. In “Debtors Anonymous and Psychotherapy: A Powerful Combination,” Betsy Levine and Bonnie Kellen, specialists in money issues and compulsive behaviors, walk us up the steps and into the meetings that make up the work of Debtors Anonymous. Cataloging the usefulness of D.A. for patients with compulsive buying problems, they illustrate the integration of D.A. and ongoing therapy in three case vignettes. As a preemptive closing gift, they alert us to some potential problems in treating compulsive buyers who also participate in Debtors Anonymous.

At this point in the book, the reader will have become familiar with the terms spending plan and shopping diary. Nowhere are they more central than in financial recovery counseling work as practiced by Karen McCall. McCall’s method, detailed in her chapter, is essentially holistic: while supplying the tools and teaching the skills clients need for managing their money effectively, she also addresses the underlying family-of-origin and spiritual issues that have helped to shape, and may continue to fuel, a client’s money behaviors. This chapter introduces the richness and breadth of financial recovery counseling, describes the method, and illustrates the integration of the financial recovery process with psychotherapy and other support services.

Simultaneous with the decade’s heightened awareness of compulsive buying has been the development of Voluntary Simplicity. This grassroots movement turns away from activities that have failed to deliver satisfaction and contentment-shopping, for example, or scrambling up the career ladder-and embraces instead the joys of creativity, community, and the celebration of daily life. One of the leading proponents of Voluntary Simplicity is Cecile Andrews, who for some time has been leading simplicity circles, a form of adult education and social change that helps people in their quest for meaning. In her chapter, Andrews describes the history of these circles and explains their three basic elements and format. She discusses the outcomes that are generated and, in citing general observations and a member’s specific story, suggests how simplicity circles could help a compulsive buyer.

The final frontier of this book is the space created when we let go of an anti-shopping mythology, the set of artful half-truths that obscure the possibility of self-definition, self-expression, creativity, and healing that are embedded in shopping. In “What Are We Shopping For? The Quest for Identity and Meaning through the Process of Search,” I explore such questions as “Is Shop a Four Letter Word?” “Can Shopping Ever Really Matter?” “Is Selfhood for Sale?” and “Are Consumer and Culture Codependent?” I attempt here to disengage shopping from buying, to reframe it as a vital and innate motivation for search. I hope to free shopping from the codependence of consumer and culture, and validate it as a quest for identity and meaning.

I invite you to shop this book as you would a store, feeling free to pick and choose, return or exchange, gather information on anything you wish. My hope is that it will serve as both source and stimulus, promoting your interest in this problem and helping you foster change when you work with compulsive buyers. May they no longer lay waste their powers, getting and spending.


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