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Girl Talk: In Defense Of Retail Therapy

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retail therapy

I have seen a therapist off and on since my first panic attack at age 14. Talk therapy (and the delightful mood-soothing properties of 20 mg of Lexapro) are the reason I can put on pants and leave my house in the morning. With their help, I’ve learned how to self-soothe anger and disappointment, combat the negative self-talk that leads to depression, and create boundaries with my loved ones. My current therapist is this rad little old Italian lady who not only gets me but champions my very Jessica-ness. My life is infinitely more manageable for me under her care and as such I am the world’s biggest proponent of talk therapy. [Nuh-uh, I am! -- Editor]

But all of that doesn’t change a separate fact: sometimes what really makes me feel good is retail therapy.

I am not seriously equating talk therapy under a trained professional’s care with a shopping spree at Target. But nor am I suggesting that it’s insignificant the way I feel when I treat myself  to something shiny and new.

To be clear about how “la la la I love spending money” that I most definitely am not,  let me assure you that I’m 50 shades of broke. I am a professional writer, so I’m on a first name basis with the sales clerks at my local Payless. Price is not exactly what this theraputic feeling is about; I don’t feel “better” buying a $70 pair of jeans from the Gap than I do a $12 tank top from Old Navy. My feeling of happiness just comes from the acquisition.

I believe this is called “instant gratification.” And I spent most of my childhood, teens and early 20s with it completely under control. I was the best at delaying gratification.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the marshmallow experiment? Researchers at Stanford learned that small children who were able to hold off on eating one marshmallow now for two marshmallows later ended up more “successful” later on in life: better SAT scores, less drugs, fancier colleges. They suspected it was because the kids grew into adults who were able to plan, focus, scrimp/save, and delay gratification that served them better in the long run.  For almost all my life, I was very strict with myself, very self-disciplined, in an unhealthy way. Basically, I would have aced that marshmallow test.

But there was something I realized with age, which I was somewhat embarrassed to admit. It seemed, well, embarrassing. Shopping made me feel good. Like, shopping made me feel good as an activity. Some people get their rush of endorphins from a kickball game or an episode of “Top Chef” or knitting a scarf. But me? I like buying myself something. I like deciding I am going to buy myself something as a treat and then going to a store, mulling over a few options, picking something out, and bringing it home.

And I felt embarrassed about that for a variety of reasons, such as:

  1. I don’t want to seem greedy …
  2.  … or materialistic.
  3. I’m “smart” — how can I enjoy something so frivolous as shopping?
  4. What if other people think I should be spending my money on “experiences,” like travel, instead of “things”?

It took me a long time to stop giving a fuck what other people might think. Truthfully, it wasn’t even “other people” who would think I was materialistic or greedy; I wouldn’t “seem” any particular way unless I told people about myself. The person who was responsible for these ideas about restriction, which were just negative self-talk, was me. And I wasn’t concerned with delaying gratification in a financially healthy way (as in, wait for that $100 jacket to go on sale before I buy it). I was with restricting myself because of some idea I had that it was not okay to do this thing that I enjoyed. Doing something  (within reason!) that I enjoy should not have to be so complicated.

It actually took a rather serious bout of depression for me to realize that if going shopping once a month (or more, depending on my financial situation) and buying myself a “present” — a book, a shirt, an eyeshadow — makes life worth living, then go ahead and do it. Budget it in! Talking about issues and life management stuff with my rad Italian lady therapist helps with the big picture stuff, but buying that new novel? A cute skirt from Forever 21? The instant gratification makes me happy.

Obviously, retail therapy should never and will never replace serious mental health care. But I seriously doubt I’m the only woman who has a bad day at work and tells herself, “This weekend I am going to Bloomingdales!” I know I’m not. Some women emotionally eat. Some women rage. Some women over-exercise.  I buy new lip glosses. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s actually some of the cheapest therapy I’ve ever had.

Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com.

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