Shame often shadows compulsive shopping habit

Many addictions are easy to spot because they are addictions to obvious destructive substances or behavior. A shopping addiction can be harder to recognize.

“Even though shopping is legal and, in fact, encouraged in many ways, there’s a lot of shame with admitting that you have a problem with it,” said Terrence Shulman, author of “Bought Out and Spent.” “People are embarrassed that they are shopping themselves into debt or are out of control, or they fear they’ll be judged for being materialistic.”

Shulman, who runs the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding in Michigan feels that it’s a growing problem. The center offers help on a national level.

“I think, increasingly, both individually and collectively, something is going on,” he said. “People are becoming more in debt and hoarding more.”

Oscar Sida, instructor and Human Services Program coordinator at UNLV, said that, typically, shopping addictions fall into the category of “process addictions,” any kind of behavior that is pathological but doesn’t have a specific mental illness associated with it. Very often, it is used as a coping mechanism.

“It’s pretty simple,” Sida said. “When we buy things, it makes us feel better.”

Heather Marianna, who was featured in the Oxygen channel reality series “My Shopping Addiction,” used shopping to fill a void when she moved to Las Vegas.

“When I moved here, I didn’t have any friends, and I was just bored,” Marianna said. “I went and shopped at Crystals every day because I didn’t have anything else to do.”

The purchases weren’t destroying her financially, as she had recently received a large inheritance, but she said it was still problematic.

“When we’re looking to determine if the shopping is an addiction, we look for the things that are common with any addiction,” Shulman said. “Is it an ongoing problem? Is it secretive? Is it causing negative consequences? Have there been unsuccessful attempts to stop? If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it might be a duck.”

Psychologists recognize several categories of shopping addicts. There are compulsive shoppers who shop to distract themselves from their feelings and codependent shoppers who shop to gain love and approval. There are also bulimic shoppers who repeat a cycle of buying and returning items. There are trophy shoppers who are seeking the perfect accessory for outfits or some other luxury item. Similarly, there are image shoppers who buy expensive cars, watches or other highly visible items or who will pick up a tab to reinforce their status. On the other end of the scale are bargain shoppers who buy things they don’t need just because they find a good deal.

One doesn’t need to be rich to have a shopping addiction. Sida notes that among the many things that might make a person more vulnerable to addiction are genetics, past trauma and even poverty.

“If you’re poor, you have less access to services,” Sida said. “There’s more psychological stress than normal and for a longer time.”

It’s also possible to have a physical injury trigger a shopping addiction.

“Maybe you were an active person who suddenly has limited mobility,” Sida said. “You might end up shopping too much online because you’re using it to fill the space that used to be used for physical activities.”

Sida said that there is no one-stop treatment for the issue, which may have multiple causes and is very likely to be paired with other issues.

“You should develop an individualized treatment,” Sida said. “That might mean having more than one health professional helping you out.”

For Marianna, the issue has been mostly resolved, although she still does quite a bit of shopping.

“I’ve started a beauty company, Beauty Kitchen,” the Boulder City resident said. “I’m still obsessed with buying, but now it’s for more materials to make more products.”

— To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email ataylor@viewnews.com or call 702-380-4532.

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