I remember one therapy session from when I was an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital about thirty years ago like it just happened yesterday. We were talking about the way I liked to acquire things and spend money. It is important to know that money was in very short supply in my household and my compulsive shopping had gotten my husband and me into a significant amount of credit card debt. My therapist asked me what the goal was when I shopped. Was I buying things that I or the family needed? Was I buying things to show off to my friends? Was I buying things as a way to deal with my anxiety? . I had no answer because I was really did not know why I was doing it. He asked me if I was trying to fill myself up. I looked at him quizzically not understanding his meaning. He then told me this story:
A young girl was sitting on the beach. She wanted to dig a swimming pool for her stuffed bear so she dug down into the sand. When the hole was a decent amount deep, the got up and ran to the water’s edge with her pail and collected a bucketful of water. She quickly ran back to the hole and poured the water in. She stood there aghast as she watched the water drain away into the sand. She again took her bucket down to the water’s edge where she filled it. Again, she ran back to the hole and poured the water in only to watch it slowly drain away.
She sat down and thought about it and decided that she would just keep digging because she really wanted her stuffed bear to have that swimming pool. So she dug and dug and the hole got deeper and deeper and then suddenly, as if by magic, water welled up from the bottom of the hole and filled it.
What is the lesson in this story, he asked me?
I honestly did not know. He replied, “If you want to fill yourself up you need to do from the inside out, not from the outside in. Going to the store and buying things will not fill the void inside you. You need to fill that hole yourself.” I was stunned because I had never thought about this. But as I thought about it, it made more and more sense.
When I came home from the hospital I took a good look around my house and was amazed as I did an inventory of all my stuff. I had so much! Over the next year I began to divest myself of it but more importantly, I stopped shopping. I stopped buying things in an effort to make myself feel better. As time went by I was able to divest myself of most of those things and did not engage in any more recreational shopping in order to replace them. Over time, I learned how to fill myself up from the inside out and become a happier person because of it. I learned that things are just that — things. They do not bring any lasting pleasure. They do not give you any lasting happiness because the thrill of buying them is short-lived. I learned to give myself experiential things — a trip to Florence, Italy with a friend, a class at a local eatery on how to bake the world’s best sourdough bread, a ticket to see a play at my local theater.
Because I no longer shop when I am feeling anxious or depressed, I have a lot fewer things living with me in my house. I also have a lot more money in my checking account. I don’t rely on things anymore to give me the pick me up that I need. I try to do that myself.
If you are engaging regularly in retail therapy, I want you to think about what that experience gives you. Does engaging in this kind of behavior give a net benefit to your life? If not, how do you change it and stop doing it?