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5 Sort Of Disturbing Things I Learned About My Shopping Problem

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Do you ever think about how and why you shop? Is it out of necessity? As therapy? To problem-solve? Earlier this week a friend asked me to participate in a survey about shopping habits. For an hour, I laid it all bare, telling a room full of random strangers about the things I purchased, why I bought stuff, and my retail shopping experiences. And let me tell you, it was not pretty.

Well, that was depressing, I thought, as I gathered my things and left the small conference room where I’d confessed all my wicked shopping sins. I might just have a problem. In the spirit of spilling the dirt and getting it off my chest, I suppose I should share my shopping truths with you. After the jump, some of the not-very-smart choices I’ve made when it comes to shopping and spending money.

1. I never need anything, but I want everything. Consumer culture and fast fashion drives our desires for new and shinier toys all the time. But just because you know that there are capitalist forces at play, doesn’t mean you can always stop yourself from buying into the idea that you absolutely must have that new $200 pair of jeans. For many of us, shopping isn’t about solving a problem, it’s about changing a feeling. I may have told myself I really needed a new white eyelet dress, but we all know that my personal sense of well-being and ability to function in the world won’t actually be destroyed if I don’t have a new garment from Zara or whatever.

2. But shopping can feel so dire! Many of us are emotional shoppers, for whom the act of buying stuff isn’t even as important as the act of looking. Browsing through racks of pretty garments and over-priced pieces of jewelry can serve as a mental salve on whatever annoying or frustrating thing happened that day. In fact, often, actually acquiring isn’t the point at all. Shopping allows our brains to go on autopilot. It’s a respite from anxiety and stress. For some people their happy place is watching TV or enjoying a nice glass of wine. For others of us, it’s browsing the racks at Madewell.

3. Shopping takes up a lot of time. Again, it’s not always the act of buying clothes that’s rewarding: It’s the hunt. Is this what our hunter-gatherer instincts have been reduced to? Well, yes. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology found that women and men closely mirror ancient hunter/gatherer tribes in their shopping habits:

Modern shopping behaviors are an adaptation of our species’ ancestral hunting and gathering skills. … Women … scored higher on skills and behaviors associated with gathering, even through the environment and the objects being gathered have changed with respect to our ancestral environment. Men scored higher on skills and behaviors associated with hunting. Thus even though the prey is now an expensive home theatre system, men are still applying the skills that were developed to obtain meat in a hunter-gatherer environment.

4. Buying one thing can “open the floodgates” to additional purchases. Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You spend a bunch of time searching around in an online shop for something you like. It takes a while, but you find a dress you want, and it goes in your shopping cart. Suddenly, you’re looking at everything on the website with fresh eyes. Well, you think, if I’m going to spend $50 on a new dress, hey, let’s go wild and get a couple of new dresses. How about some shoes, too? Suddenly, that conservative purchase of one $50 dress turns into a $500 shopping spree.

It’s no surprise: The act of purchasing is believed to boost serotonin levels; it puts you in a slightly manic state, which means some of us associate buying more with acquiring more “good” feelings. Just like a gambler may feel more motivated to gamble after winning big on a slot machine, a shopper (like me, anyway) feels more broadly inclined to shop after finding something they like.

5. But ultimately, it’s a letdown because the rush is so fleeting. Purchasing items, and the attendant rush of serotonin that comes with that, is often almost matched by the emotional letdown you feel when you realize it’s just another thing I probably don’t need. There are dresses I’ve purchased in moments of extreme manic desire that now languish in my closet, unworn. And that’s the thing, right? You can only do so much with a new dress, or a new pair of shoes. They can’t really transform who you are as a person. Instead, they give you the simulacrum of transformation, without actually making you do any, you know, work on yourself. And isn’t that the most appealing part of all?

I suppose, like G.I. Joe says, “knowing is half the battle.” I will always love shopping. I’ll always get a rush out of finding the perfect pair of boots or a fantastic new coat. But ultimately it’s just a thing and it’s only as powerful as we choose to make it.

[Shopping photo courtesy Shutterstock]

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