Please tell me I am not the only person who does this!
I will be in the middle of something. Folding the laundry on the dining room table, for example, or putting away stray coats that ended up on the floor in the front hall, or working diligently on editing a novel, when suddenly, and without warning I will find myself in the kitchen standing in front of an open refrigerator. I will be standing there looking for something. I won’t even be hungry. I might have eaten thirty minutes before, or be an hour away from lunch. But suddenly, I need something.
Usually, I will find something. Sometimes (although rarely) I will have the presence of mind to say to myself, “What are you doing here? You just ate! You aren’t even hungry!” But on a normal day I will find a little something to stuff into my mouth before I continue folding clothes or tidying coats and helmets and bike gloves or doing the ceaseless metaphorical vacuuming of creativity that is editing.
Although I am capable of self-examination on any given day, when it comes to this urge to snack, I feel powerless. I can know intellectually that I am just bored, or tired, or overwhelmed or angry, and not really hungry. Knowing these things does nothing to stop me from wanting to open the refrigerator and find something, anything to snack on.
As I struggle with binge eating, I have been able to draw a very fine parallel between binge eating and impulse shopping.
The emotions and contexts are very similar. The results are very similar.
Emptiness and compulsion
The emotions of these twin impulses start with a feeling of emptiness: not physical emptiness necessarily (although fatigue might be concerned physical emptiness), but a feeling of uselessness, of futility and a need for meaning. I mean, there is nothing less fulfilling than folding laundry that will only get pulled out by the handful as a child searches for a too-small tee-shirt that is currently in the washing machine. Or putting away coats and helmets that always seem to be out no matter how many times I put them away. Or trying to find a misplaced Oxford comma and making sure I am correctly using a semicolon. Or needing to go to the Pharmacy to get bandaids. Or to the bakery for a baguette. Or the Post Office to return our internet box or send our rent check.
It might be, although surely not for you, so let’s pretend it’s just me, a compulsion. A sudden, frenzied dissatisfaction with my life, my liberty and my pursuit of happiness. The most painless way (because anything else would require self-examination and that is too painful and too time-consuming) to dam up that dissatisfaction is to buy something new, or at the very least, acquire something that is new-to-me.
Futility, boredom, uselessness, eternal starting over. The urge to shop and the urge to overeat, for me, are born in those emotions right there. As if buying something new or putting something in my mouth will change the emotions or make housework or editing more palatable.
Newsflash: It won’t.
Maslow and that stupid thing we had to learn in eighth grade.
Do you remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? My social studies teacher managed to make this the most boring thing I have ever learned about, when in reality, it holds the key to understanding the urge to binge: whether it is food, clothing, home décor, sex, alcohol, or sleep.
The first level of Maslow’s pyramid is Physiological Needs.
Food. Drink. Clothes. Sleep. Sex.
Because these are all basic needs, you would think that, for us, who live in developed society, whose basic needs truly are met, we should be satisfied. And yet how many of us struggle with food? With alcoholism? With excessive shopping (or a phobia thereof)? With sleep deprivation (or an inability to function because we sleep too much)? Or problems related to sex: not getting enough, our partner wanting too much or not getting what we want out of it?
Note that all of these issues would deserve a deep-dive, and they are all part of the Physiological Needs level from Mr. Maslow’s incredibly boring Pyramid of Needs. They are the fundamental building blocks of our everyday life, the purveyors of much of our dissatisfaction with our lives, and the ones in which I believe leaps of faith are the most powerfully rewarded.
Why do you shop?
Why do you shop? What emotions precede an impulse purchase? Boredom? Anger? A need for distraction? Dissatisfaction with your job? Can you draw a parallel with your urge to shop with another area of your life, like food, sex, sleep or alcohol?
You might like to use shopping as a de-stressor, or a reward. Or as a way to get in our steps or simply because you have a few minutes to spare before that dentist appointment you’ve been dreading all week.
In your notebook with yesterday’s five-item inventory, write down the first few thoughts that float into your mind about what drives you to shop. It’s okay if you write “I genuinely needed a new nude-colored bra” or “I had no more socks.” But I think we both know that it doesn’t end there. You can be honest. No one is reading your diary, I promise.
Why do you want to stop?
You want to stop shopping mindlessly. But why?
I can think of a bunch of reasons:
1. You want to save money/stop spending money thoughtlessly
2. You want to end the conflicts with your significant other over your habit
3. You want to decrease your impact on the environment
4. You want to gain some control over your impulses
5. You want to believe that there is a reward for trusting
Go ahead. Add your reasons for wanting to stop shopping to your notebook. It’s okay that there be multiple reasons. It’s okay even that sometimes they be in conflict. We are human and we are complex and nuanced creatures (it wouldn’t be fun otherwise!)
Tomorrow: Setting a challenge and finding motivation
Tomorrow we are going to examine your reasons for shopping and why you want to stop in order to help you make a plan and find support along the way.
If you have a few minutes, go back to your closet and pick out the three most recent additions. Answer the same questions you did about the five heavy-rotation workhorses of your wardrobe.