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Your Shopping Addiction Could Be a Clinical Condition

You might actually need therapy for your retail therapy.
Your Shopping Addiction Could Be a Clinical Condition You might actually need therapy for your retail therapy.

Felicia Francisco (name changed for anonymity), 26, scans her closet, straightening out a few stray fringes off a black top she just acquired that morning. Her closet (her two closets, to be more specific) take up a significant amount of her studio unit and are arranged haphazardly: color-coordinated hangers separate tops from bottoms, but only a few of them hang properly while the rest compound in a colorful mess of clothing. By the bed, several never-used clothes (telling by the tags attached to them) are on the verge of falling off. Felicia scoops them up to clear the bed, and drops them in a giant foldable IKEA laundry hamper. Filling half of the hamper are even more unused clothes, the stark white tags standing out from the fabric blob.

At the opposite end of Felicia’s condo is her bottom cupboard, and here lies a massive collection of folded paper bags, amassed from many months of shopping (she already did a massive purge last month as the bags were overflowing from their storage). The stack of paper bags is neatly compressed into multiple piles as if in a sale counter, and are of various brands and sizes—some are from the neighborhood department store while some were flown home from Felicia’s recent trips to Toronto and Hanoi. A few feet away were a dozen stuffed bags, yet unopened.

“I save all my paper bags because I can reuse them eventually. I like being economical,” Felicia says with a smirk. But the remark was a self-deprecating attempt to humorize a morbid situation, for atop Felicia’s shoulders is a massive P200,000 credit-card debt waiting to be paid. 

IMAGE Confessions Of A Shopaholic

Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) comes in several other names: oniomania, a derivative of Greek words onios (for sale) and mania (the state of insanity); and shopaholism. Felicia’s case is a probable candidate for CBD: excessive shopping and buying with a marked negative effect on the doer.

Felicia is, for all intents and purposes, a working city girl thoroughly enjoying the liberties of a single lady in her late 20s. Twice promoted in her posh advertising job and living alone in a rented condo close to the business district, Felicia has long settled into self-sufficient, independent living. She pays for rent, bills and leisurely expenses from her own earnings. Stripped of money for a good part of her life—at 12, Felicia’s father lost his position as a bank executive while her mother’s recruitment agency went bankrupt just a few years after—one can say that Felicia is making up for lost time. Her weekly credit card tab racks up on at least two books a week, dining in expensive restaurants every night, booze and cigarettes on the weekend (in many instances Felicia pays for her friends’ as she keeps an open tab at the bar), and scores of budget travel tickets. Belonging to a circle of aesthetically charged young creatives whose very careers center on creating the need to buy nice stuff, she acquires clothing, shoes and jewelry on an almost daily basis, whether online or in her favorite stores.

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Felicia earns less than a quarter of the P200,000 she owes the bank, and is completely at a loss as to how she’ll settle this debt quickly enough without racking up a significant amount of interest. “Working in advertising and being among a circle of people as enthusiastic about shopping, dining out and traveling as me, I always thought my spending habits were normal, even therapeutic. For a while I seriously thought that shopping had a positive effect on me—after working late hours or being berated by my boss, there was no stress that brand-new clothes, plates or plane tickets couldn’t fix.”

It was a widely accepted fact that the act of shopping is cathartic, and to an extent, human beings are generally inflicted with an intense desire—that is, an impulse—to consume. But how does one identify if their shopping behavior is a naturally occurring impulse or an erratic case of CBD? The first step is to realize that compulsive buying disorder has the same genetic makeup as all other medically diagnosed addictions. According to a study conducted by doctors O’Guinn and Faber in 1989, CBD is “a response to an uncontrollable drive or desire to obtain, use or experience a feeling, substance or activity that leads an individual to repetitively engage in a behavior that will ultimately harm the individual and/or others.” Spending a mini fortune on a single shopping binge isn’t necessarily considered a disorder if you can very well afford it, but the moment you trade off, say, your kid’s school fees or medical treatment to afford your purchase, then that’s when it becomes harmful and therefore disorderly.

The second step would be to introspect on the tangible effects of the shopping act. Emil Kraepelin, one of the earliest physicians who recognized compulsive buying as a disease in 1915, provided a more concrete definition: “Kraepelin mentions the buying maniacs (oniomaniacs) in whom even buying is compulsive and leads to senseless contraction of debts with continuous delay of payment….” In short, when you’re broke and in deep debt yet still keep swiping, then there is most likely a problem.

These broad definitions of the disorder make Felicia’s case qualified for CBD. But Felicia is not alone. Women make up 80 percent of known CBD cases in the United States, and while there is a substantial lack of empirical studies of oniomania in the Philippines (the disorder itself is supported by limited literature and has yet to be generally accepted as a clinical condition), Filipino women are still more likely to shop than men as they take up 60 percent of the total consumer population, according to the annual Nielsen Shopper Trends report in 2016.

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Though fictional, there is one woman that comes to mind in the topic of shopaholism. The most memorable sequence in the 2009 chick-lit blockbuster hit Confessions of a Shopaholic starts with a monologue. “Rebecca, you just had a credit card bill of 900 dollars. You do not need a scarf,” the troubled protagonist Rebecca Bloomwood internalizes as she fawns over a green scarf displayed in the window of a fictional Barneys-like boutique. After a convincing speech by the scarf-donning mannequin come to life (an obvious hallucinatory episode), Rebecca hastens to the cashier, attempting to pay off the $120 price tag with petty cash and multiple credit cards. When her final card payment is denied, she rushes to the nearest hotdog stand, admonishing the man to sell her 97 hot dogs and $23 in cash in lieu of a check payment, all for “a desperately important scarf.” Rebecca took home the scarf she wanted.

IMAGE Confessions Of A Shopaholic

This scene is accurate in representing four phases in the act of compulsive buying. It all starts with anticipation, where the individual sets her eyes on a specific piece or place to shop. It is followed by preparation, where she gets ready for the splurge, mulling over which cards to use and convincing herself of the purchase. The hype she builds is ultimately consummated by shopping, in which the individual is in peak euphoria. A 1994 compulsive buying study done on 46 subjects even reported some cases experiencing sexual pleasure in the act of shopping.3 Finally, the shopping act is legitimized and ends through spending, an act often followed by feelings of disappointment and guilt.

As with most addictions, individuals suffering from CBD momentarily assume that once the cycle is complete, their desires will finally be satiated and there will be no craving to spend further. Some will even assuage reservations to spend by promising that this will be their “last.” Such lofty proclamations often fail, and the cycle is bound to pick up again sooner or later once the “sale” sign is in sight or the next stressful incident beckons.

Compulsive buyers don’t necessarily have to be big spenders. The disorder often stems from a single initial purchase, with the act increasing in price, frequency or both, as the individual latches on to the therapeutic feeling of shopping. Eventually, she starts medicating her depressing situation through spending, as the pleasurable act is able to momentarily nurse the stress. The mind afflicted with compulsive buying behavior confronts three stages: First is the activated feeling of emotional and psychological tension, where “the person grows more and more anxious,” as indicated by doctors at the Asian Hospital in Alabang, Muntinlupa. Second, the afflicted person rationalizes that the act of buying will cure her from her affliction, which occurs right when the person heads to the mall or clicks on her shopping app. Finally, the person completes the act of shopping as a reaction to the building tension, rather than the need to own a particular product.

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This brings to mind the row of unopened paper bags gathering dust at Felicia’s condo. For people who suffer from the disorder, the reward of their shopping act stops at the thrill of performing it, rather than the product they afterward obtain. The same qualifier also proves why CBD is highly likened to other behavioral disorders such as kleptomania or pyromania.

One cannot turn a blind eye to CBD’s highly likely links to fashion. As clothes can be affordable, accessible, disposable and ever-changing, fashion enthusiasts are highly susceptible to the disorder. “Retail therapy” is a hallmark term widely used mostly by the fashion-obsessed precisely because fashion appeals to hedonistic tendencies (remember, people with CBD engage in buying because it heals their inner tensions and conflicts). It’s a highly visceral practice, satiating the need to feel good while momentarily suspending logic and intellect. Most shoppers label their trendy purchases as guilty pleasures, and that’s exactly what it is: Shopping is fodder for one’s pleasure senses, and by the time logic takes over again, the money has been spent, the damage has been done, and the remaining feeling is the opposite of pleasure.

While loving fashion isn’t necessarily a health risk, the landscape where it thrives certainly makes people susceptible to CBD. The phenomenon of online shopping illustrates that fact for us. Online shopping has phenomenalized fashion in that it allows a more instant shopping experience—there’s virtually zero time to contemplate the importance of a purchase when one can shop in a few clicks. In the Philippines, the online shopping public is growing at a steady rate. In a 2016 joint study conducted by a digital news website and a local bank, there were 26.01 million e-commerce users in 2015, with an expected number of 46.1 million users by 2020. In this multibillion industry, 140 million dollars are spent in clothes and shoes.

For this feature, a representative from a top e-commerce retail website recounted the biggest single purchase on the site: “A middle-aged professional purchased items amounting to an estimate of P190,000 at our annual sale in 2016,” she says. “Aside from this, the lady had made eight other purchases in the past year, with an average basket size of P26,000 per order.” Furthermore, the figures that an online luxury shopping website shared with us give an even bigger glimpse into how much and how often some Filipinos are willing to spend for fashion. A marketing executive for the site offered: “Our biggest one-time purchase was by a client who spent an estimate of P400,000 in one day. She paid in cash. Only a few days after, she made another purchase worth P100,000. This client is a housewife in her 20s.”

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Online social and content media has influenced people’s buying behaviors. Haul videos—videos where individuals display, enumerate and tell stories about their most recent purchases— are the sixth most viewed YouTube content, way above highly popular song covers and cooking videos, according to Mediakix, a California-based online influencer marketing agency. As of 2014, over 50 million people have spent an excess of 1.6 billion minutes watching haul videos, and in recent years, 700,000 haul videos have been posted on YouTube. The same study indicated the effect of haul videos on retail and proved that products appearing in haul videos fly off the shelves faster than others. Unboxing videos offer the same kind of appeal, where anticipation is at a high as socialmedia users “unbox” or unravel the packaging of their interesting, often expensive purchases. In 2015, unboxing videos garnered more than 1.1 billion YouTube views.

The problem with haul and unboxing videos is that they only partially represent the process of buying and acquiring material possessions. These tantalizing videos are your shopping trip’s highlight reel. Aside from presenting an unnaturally excessive mode of spending, they often fail to include (or even omit completely) the very real consequences of a shopping spree: possible credit card debt, misplaced finances and shirked responsibilities in favor of indulging one’s compulsions.

On the other hand, many cases of CBD point to a deeper psychological problem and often have proven comorbidity—that is, they manifest together with a pre-existing psychological condition. “Compulsive buyers and their first-degree relatives often have comorbid psychiatric disorders, particularly mood, anxiety, substance use, and eating disorders. No particular type predominates, but the obsessive-compulsive, borderline and avoidant personality types are seen most frequently,” says a study published by the Delhi Psychiatry Journal in 2009. Shoppers who suffer from CBD may even be using the disorder to self-medicate their associated disorders: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and impulse control disorders are only some of them.

IMAGE Confessions Of A Shopaholic

Whatever the case may be, CBD is a real problem, and it’s a condition that warrants medical and psychological assistance.

To this day, Felicia remains untreated, and she makes a case for not seeking help for her condition. “I may have a problem, yes, but it never once occurred to me to get myself checked. I just felt like, when I put it into perspective—knowing people go to shrinks because of physical abuse, suicide, psychosis—I just felt that my condition doesn’t warrant a trip to the doctor.”

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There are very real consequences to an individual with suspected CBD who does not seek help. “The buying preoccupations, impulses or behaviors cause marked distress, are time-consuming, significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning, or result in financial problems,” states Astrid Muller and James E. Mitchell in their book Compulsive Buying, Clinical Foundations and Treatment. In 2003, a study on 44 subjects proved that 68 percent of CBD-afflicted persons admitted that the condition has affected their personal relationships. Several well-known cases of CBD resulted in imprisonment due to wire fraud and debilitating credit-card debt, just like Felicia’s.

The best beginning to solve a spending problem would be a strict assessment of your condition. These questions may also be used on someone you suspect has CBD. Ronald J. Faber and T. O’Guin developed a Compulsive Buying Scale with a list of questions as a guide. It’s a psychological tool clinical psychologists are invited to use, but you may give yourself a go on the following questions to initially assess if you’re a possible CBD candidate:

1. If I have any money left at the end of the pay period, I just have to spend it.

2. I feel others would be horrified if they knew my spending habits.

3. I buy things even though I can’t afford them.

4. I buy something in order to make myself feel better.

5. I write a check even when I don’t have enough money in the bank to cover it.

6. I feel anxious or nervous on days I don’t go shopping.

7. I make only minimum payments on my credit cards.

While cases of CBD run low in the Philippines, practices such as in Asian Hospital recognize the existence of the condition and invite consultations on the disorder. Constant doses of antidepressants have been suggested in some CBD cases, as well as behavorial therapy sessions—these five to 10-month weekly sessions are modified according to the patient’s specific needs and disorder. However, if medical intervention still comes off as intimidating, lifestyle changes can be an essential first step: Upon admitting that the problem exists, parting with credit cards and checkbooks is a necessary and non-negotiable part of the process—this step hastens healing thoroughly. Shopping trips have to be done with a friend who is aware of the condition and is willing to firmly block any temptation. This designated “bad cop” should also be able to erase shopping apps and websites in all the patient’s gadgets. Finally, finding hobbies, interests and distractions other than shopping allow for time to be enjoyed in non-retail activities.

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We can all perhaps relate to Felicia on a certain level, but if your shopping addiction has become just that, an addiction, then undergoing “retail therapy” may do you more harm than good. Hit pause on your next purchase, honestly evaluate your shopping behavior, and don’t hesitate to seek a healthcare professional if you think you have gone overboard. After all, what good is a closet chock-full of fashion if you’re not in a healthy mental and financial state to enjoy it? Contact ASIAN HOSPITAL’s psychiatry department at tel. no. (632) 771 9000.

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