How I Developed a Treatment For My Shopping Compulsion

With Buddhism, mindfulness meditation, and the KonMari Method™

I have a menstrual cycle-related mood disorder called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (read PMDD Is Real — Let’s Talk About It for more info), but even before my diagnosis, I recognized how important self-care is for physical health and mental wellness. Unfortunately for me, what started out as self-care slowly morphed into self-indulgence and then addiction.

With pampering (spoiling yourself) or self-indulgence (engaging in an activity that is considered undesirable) masquerading as self-care, your chosen activity could easily become self-destructive if it makes you feel out of control rather than nourished.

In other words, a glass of wine with dinner could be considered self-care, but it depends on how it makes you feel.

“You need to think differently about what it means to care for yourself and to feel good about who you are,” says clinical psychologist Kristina Hallett. “It’s not just the actions — it’s the internal piece.

One woman shared her story of using drugs and alcohol to deal with PMDD symptoms before she was diagnosed, and unfortunately, developing addictions secondary to PMDD is not uncommon. Those with PMDD are more likely to abuse alcohol and may even be more sensitive to it.

After witnessing family members skirt the line between use and abuse, I chose to avoid substances altogether when I needed a way to cope; I instead turned to shopping to make me happy, otherwise known as retail therapy.

Retail therapy isn’t so bad, you might say, and it does have actual benefits.

True, shopping may restore the feeling of control, stimulate our senses, and give us a mood boost , which is what I was going for when I started. But one of the issues arising from this technique is the potential to become a compulsion. Although the American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognize compulsive shopping disorder or shopping addiction, experts generally agree that it is similar to substance use or gambling disorders. One study found that about 5% of people (from the 16 countries included in the study) are compulsive shoppers, and that’s exactly what happened to me.

For about 6 years (but probably longer), I followed this pattern without realizing it: During the active phase of PMDD, about 2 weeks preceding my period, I would have a sudden, burning desire for something, like a new wallet or purse. I would then obsess over finding the perfect one (P.S. 12% of people with PMDD also have obsessive-compulsive disorder).

But the internet is full of possibilities. So for hours or even days, sometimes sacrificing sleep, I found myself compelled to keep clicking to the next page and the next one and the next one, reviewing all the available options until no page was left unseen. To put this into perspective, people rarely click through to view results even on page two — 95% of people find what they need on the first page.

Regardless of whether or not that search returned viable options, I kept checking various specialty sites and multiple search engines. I’d also try physical stores or ask for recommendations from friends just to make sure I didn’t miss out.

Eventually, I would find The One — or a reasonable facsimile — and even if it meant paying way more than a reasonable amount on a credit card, I would buy it. The fact that I found it was gratifying, and I couldn’t deny myself the additional satisfaction of owning it.

I did a lot of rationalizing to justify the extra expense: it was something I was going to buy anyway (um, not really); I need a new thing for the special event next weekend (nope); I work so hard (true) and don’t I deserve something nice? (This last one was hard to argue with, especially back when I hated my job.)

Then I would be all aflutter with anticipation of receiving it. The package would be delivered, and maybe I’d use the item for a while, but more often I’d be dissatisfied — what could possibly measure up to being The One in real life (except maybe Keanu Reeves)?

Satisfied or not, when I was in PMDD again the next menstrual cycle, I’d move on to searching for yet another thing that I absolutely could not live without; the obsession and shopping loop began anew. Eventually, I was always on the hunt for some thing or another, not exclusively when I was affected by PMDD symptoms.

Like 45% of compulsive shoppers, I felt deeply guilty and ashamed — especially since my habit landed us in hefty credit card debt, which 58% of compulsive shoppers carry.

I found out later that what I experienced were textbook symptoms of a shopping addiction. But because I didn’t know that the shopping issue had deeper roots in PMDD, I wasn’t able to address it properly and continued to spend beyond my means.

I was stuck and so was the debt.

Somehow I managed to pay rent, stay fed, and make minimum credit card payments, but I was essentially living off credit cards. I’d pay as much as possible towards credit cards, which wouldn’t leave enough to buy food or gas, so I’d use the credit card again.

Then I’d get bummed out that I had to use my credit card again and would spend even more in an effort to make myself feel better. I couldn’t escape the cycle and shopped my way further and further into the red. All the while, I was terribly disheartened knowing that I needed to change yet not being able to stop the behavior or get out of debt.

I read a ton of articles about how to gain financial freedom. Everyone said to address the root of the spending first, but no one actually explained in detail how to do that; thus, all my attempts at curbing this spending habit were unsuccessful. I would set unrealistic rules then berate and punish myself for failing to comply. I’d try to adjust the rule slightly and still wouldn’t achieve the desired results. I tried deleting all the shopping apps on my phone to make shopping less convenient. All to no avail.

I only started to make progress on this debt in the last few years — when I paired Buddhism and mindfulness meditation with the KonMari Method™.

Buddhism and mindfulness meditation

Although I felt guilt and shame, I wasn’t able to stop buying even after recognizing this pattern, which led to even more guilt and shame for not being able to control myself. After a while, I started to notice that I usually ended up sending the objects of my obsessions to Goodwill, regardless of how much I paid or how important they seemed at the time.

While searching for a way to manage work-related stress and anxiety in 2015, I found Spirit Rock, a meditation center focused on Buddhism and Insight Meditation (or Vipassana), which develops mindfulness and the ability to see the truth through our experiences. Finding this organization changed my life.

Particularly helpful for addressing the shopping compulsion and debt were the practices of equanimity, staying grounded in difficult times, and metta, directing loving kindness towards yourself and others.

A talk on equanimity given by Larry Yang, a Dharma teacher with extensive personal meditation and teaching experience, has stayed with me ever since I first heard it almost 3 years ago. In his talk, The Ocean of Experience, he said:

“Our minds are conditioned over and over to satiate the extremes, the wanting, the craving. We just have this addiction to more — more is better, bigger is better… And the irony is that the craving and the attachment of desire can never be satiated. All craving is the craving for no craving — that’s the irony. All craving is the craving for satisfaction.”

His teachings simultaneously highlighted the shortcomings of the methods I’d used previously and revealed an important component of my multifaceted situation. I was able to take my first step towards recovery by untangling the reason why my purchases ended up in the donation bin: I didn’t actually want the things I was buying. When I turned to shopping as a coping mechanism, I was reaching, grasping for something that couldn’t be found outside myself.

“Even if those physical sensations are met in that moment, it’s only temporary because satiating craving does not create real contentment… The cause of suffering is craving itself… Through the mindfulness and the awareness and the kindness, we can cultivate that capacity to be aware, content, with equanimity.”

Larry Yang

While equanimity practice was critical in improving my spending, metta practice helped me more graciously handle the difficult process of recovery. Treating myself so harshly when I was not able to meet unreasonable, self-imposed goals was damaging, but I learned through metta practice to be kinder and more compassionate with myself — not only when things didn’t go as planned, but also when developing a more realistic plan for eliminating the debt.

I was finally able to uncover a path forward and diverge from the pattern of addiction in which I’d been stuck for so long. Little did I know that PMDD was behind it all and that I needed to dig a little more before I could change my patterns for good — and truly heal.

The KonMari Method

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the goal of the KonMari Method is to encourage living exclusively with items that you cherish. To oversimplify, the process involves physically holding every single thing you own, asking yourself if it sparks joy, and only keeping it if you can feel that the answer is yes.

“Keep things because you love them — not ‘just because’ “— Marie Kondo
Quote from the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, image by author

This focus on the feelings associated with our possessions resonated with me because I was using purchases as a way to feel better. Even though the desired effects of buying were short-lived, shopping had become an intensely emotional process.

As I’ve said before, learning the KonMari Method helped me internalize that liking something isn’t the same as feeling joy — and isn’t enough reason to buy.

Realizing that was what I needed to re-calibrate my shopping behavior: Ask if an item sparks joy before making a purchase. Before starting the search, before following the script of obsession — or just before clicking that buy button, if I wasn’t able to stop before then — I would pause with the help of my meditation practice and ask myself if this thing I wanted to find or buy would genuinely spark joy. Almost every time, the answer was no.

And I could move on.

Closing thoughts

The last 9-ish years have been a long, frustrating journey of being stuck in debt and destructive habits, but thanks to support from my wonderful husband and practicing these techniques, I was able to make this progress even before knowing that the root cause of the behavior was PMDD.

With equanimity practice, I am mindful of not placing too much importance on the cravings that make me believe I can’t live without this object. With metta practice, I am kind and compassionate with myself if I get set back, like having to use a credit card to pay for an unexpected, essential expense. With the KonMari Method, I tune into my feelings to determine whether I truly want what I think I want.

I’m not perfect, but I’m well on the road to recovery from my compulsive shopping disorder — both emotionally and financially. After a lot of false starts, I was finally able to prioritize paying off the tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt that I accrued due to my undiagnosed mood disorder and retail therapy, and I’m on track to be out of debt by early 2021!

Just as importantly, or maybe more so, I’m no longer consumed by the heavy burden of a guilty heart.


Resources

If you suspect that you or someone you know might have an addiction, please seek professional help.

Below is an affiliate link for Marie Kondo’s book which I have read and found helpful. If you make a purchase after clicking the link below, I’ll earn some money at no extra cost to you. Thank you for the support!

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Teena Merlan