All across America, people's shopping habits are changing. For some, unmoored by this year's dizzying post-Christmas sales, shopping has grown even more frenetic. But for most, frightened into prudence by the shadow of the dark economy, it's become more deliberate and fraught with anxiety. The question of "to buy or not to buy" has become more complex than ever. Maybe what we're seeing is the just-perceptible starting-lurch of the engine of transformation. Maybe this new economic pressure on our shopping habits will begin to tip the phenomenon from what it's been to what it can be.Where Shopping Has Taken Us
In our consumer-driven economy, we've long been asking material things to do what they really can't: regulate our emotions, improve our social status, and turn us into our ideal selves. A Cathy cartoon paints it perfectly. "I wasn't going to spend any money," she begins, "but I just have to buy one new thing. If I buy one new thing, I'll feel new. If I feel new, I'll act new. If I act new, I'll lose weight, excel in my job, organize my home, catch up on my correspondence, and have hordes of handsome men showering me with Casablanca lilies." "Quite a lot to ask of a headband," cautions the saleslady. "But well worth the $7.95 try," responds Cathy.
To be sure, even before the downturn, many had raised questions about the psychological consequences of our cultural devotion to materialism. Studies and indicators had found something surprising: that as our economy (and particularly our purchasing) surged from the 1960s onward, our sense of individual and social well-being dropped off sharply. Patricia Cohen found that adolescents who admire others for their possessions are at increased risk for personality disorders and virtually every other Axis I and Axis II diagnosis assessed in their research.Where Shopping Can Lead Us
The closer one examines the psychology of shopping, the more intricacy and nuance we discover in our decisions about what and why we buy. Whether we're shopping for a plant, a pair of pumps, or a political candidate, it's a way we search for ourselves and our place in the world. Though often conducted in the most public of spaces, it's essentially an intimate and personal experience---as we taste, touch, sift, consider, and talk our way through myriad possibilities. Shopping involves searching, not only externally, as in a store, but internally, through memory and desire. It's a vehicle for self-expression, self-definition, creativity, and even healing, an interactive process, in which we dialogue with people, places, things, and parts of ourselves.Mindful Shopping
As mental health professionals, we have a chance to help people see both the pitfalls and the possibilities of their shopping. In particular, we can help the many whose consumption is driven by emotional needs to discover what it is they're really
shopping for and how to get it.
My client Liliana, a personal trainer and nutrition coach for 20 years, has always loved shopping, but now she's trying to limit her spending mostly to necessities. At 3 o'clock on a recent Tuesday, she finds herself in front of Marc Jacobs in Soho, looking at ankle boots in a rich, eggplant shade: they're $155, marked down from $530. Very
I ask her to carry a small journal for taking on-site field notes about her urges. In it, she's going to plan, record, and review her purchases. "When the urge struck," she writes about a lime-green linen sundress she flirted with online, "I was in the apartment. Jodi and Martin were talking. While I couldn't hear the words distinctly, I definitely heard the melody---and I found myself wishing he'd use that same honeyed tone with me. My hands were getting clammy. I was already at the computer, so it was just a couple of clicks to log on to Anthropologie.com, and I was off and running."
Earlier, I'd given her a laminated card with six questions on it: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay? and Where will I put it? I'd asked her to answer them, preferably in writing, whenever and wherever she had a strong shopping impulse. For the sundress urge, answering only the first two---Why am I here? How do I feel?---was enough to awaken her to the connection between what she was feeling and what her fingers were doing. That time, she was able to bypass "proceed to checkout."The Bottom Line
Shopping isn't about buying: it's about being
. It's a conscious act, an essential process of search, an experience of learning and living we engage in all the time. Called on as never before to untie the knot that binds shopping and buying so closely together, we're only now starting to face the challenge of backing away from our culture's relentless pursuit of excess. The time is ripe for a cultural transformation in which emotionally driven shopping gives way to shopping-as-search-and-discovery.
But that change must come to us as individuals, each in our own way and at our own pace. To achieve the change, we must each find ways of countering the relentless hype, manipulation, and pressure to consume that rains on us, cradle to grave. This would be a good time to adopt a simple and profound mantra: you can never get enough of what you don't really need
. If we can just grasp and hold on to that, there may still be time to learn that most traditional of life lessons: enough makes life rich; too much impoverishes.This blog is excerpted from "To Buy or Not to Buy." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!