I was recently interviewed for a television segment that will air next week (see the end of this post for more information) and I was asked about how far along I am in my recovery from compulsive shopping. After pondering for a moment, I said that I am approximately 75% recovered at this point and will always have to be vigilant of my shopping behavior and the underlying feelings. In today’s post, I reflect upon the growth I’ve achieved thus far, where I am today in my recovery, and how I see the future unfolding.
The Starting Point
I started this blog in January 2013. At that time, I had a closet stuffed full of clothes that I rarely or never wore, a wardrobe that lacked cohesion, little comprehension of my personal style aesthetic, virtually no control over my shopping behavior, and a completely unbalanced life. Shopping was my main hobby and I shopped as a way of dealing with all types of feelings and life situations, both positive and negative.
If you asked me in late 2012 about my buying behavior, I would have told you that I was shopping to try to improve my wardrobe and style. I would have bragged about the excellent deals I had gotten at both retail and resale stores. I also would have downplayed the severity of my shopping problem because, after all, I wasn’t in debt. Sure, I exceeded the clothing budget my husband and I had agreed upon sometimes five-fold, but we always paid off our credit cards each month. I wasn’t in danger of going into bankruptcy or being out on the street.
But deep down I knew that something was gravely wrong with my shopping habits, that what I was doing was far from normal or okay. The interviewer last week asked me if I had hit any sort of “rock bottom” before I decided to try to turn things around. In truth, I hadn’t, at least not in the traditional sense. I wasn’t on the verge of divorce and I was still able to manage my day to day life okay. However, there were some serious consequences both inside and outside my closet. The wardrobe tracking I had done during 2011 and 2012 revealed that half of my wardrobe consisted of what I termed “wardrobe benchwarmers,” those items that were worn only once or weren’t worn at all over the course of an entire year. I didn’t have a lot to show for my overspending except a cluttered closet full of clothes that I didn’t need and certainly didn’t love.
What’s worse, though, is that I suffered from what Dr. April Benson (author of “To Buy or Not to Buy”) has termed the “poverty of the soul.” I was so obsessed with shopping and clothes that I didn’t have much of a life beyond it. I felt empty inside and my effort to fill the gaping hole in my psyche with clothes, shoes, and accessories was failing miserably. Something had to give.
So I started this blog as a way to chronicle my journey toward recovery and potentially connect with, inspire, and by inspired by others who struggled with compulsive shopping. I set some goals and rules for myself and took on various challenges (including Project 333) to help me along the way to a healthier relationship with shopping.
There have been lots of ups and downs over the past three years. Sometimes it felt like I was taking two steps forward and one (or even two) steps back. The experience of treading water was common, especially when it came to my effort to buy fewer items. The belief that “more is more” proved difficult to vanquish and I still feel challenged on that front.
Yet, through writing my posts, interacting with readers, and focusing on healthy and gradual change, I have made some strong progress. I have pared down my wardrobe by over half, downsized my jewelry collection by two-thirds, developed a much stronger sense of style, and am far more satisfied with the contents of my closet and the outfits I wear. I have managed to adhere to a yearly budget for the past three years and moved from monthly to quarterly accounting last year in an effort to shift toward seasonal shopping. I shop far less frequently than I used to, make fewer buying mistakes, and have a significantly lower proportion of wardrobe “benchwarmers” than I had prior to starting the blog.
While I used to focus a highly disproportionate amount of energy on shopping and clothes, I have now cultivated some other interests, including my growing love for photography and cooking. Instead of running out to the mall to help manage stress, I’m now more likely to grab my camera and go for a walk by the water near where I live. I enjoy feeling the cool breeze on my skin and viewing and photographing the gorgeous colors in the sky as the sun goes down. Being outdoors brings a peace to my soul that trolling the racks at Nordstrom never gave me.
Although I have dedicated some posts to the topic of shopping psychology, much of my focus thus far has been on the practical. I have done my best to synthesize what I’ve learned into tangible recovery tips, which I’ve shared in my blog posts and consolidated and enhanced into my two books, “UnShopping” and “End Closet Chaos.” I have used all of my tips myself, which has helped me get to where I am in my recovery today. I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made and that I’ve been able to impact many other people through my blog and my books. I’m also happy to have started a private Facebook community in which hundreds of women from all around the world help each other to shop more mindfully and overcome their various wardrobe challenges.
What Lies Ahead
So more than three years into my recovery process, here I stand at approximately 75% recovered. At this point, I am reminded of the tagline for my blog, “Trade your full closet for a full life.” I am convinced that those words encompass the key to the remainder of my recovery. I have dedicated the bulk of my efforts thus far to the first part of the equation, my full closet. I have downsized considerably, built a more workable wardrobe, and cultivated a cohesive and inspiring sense of style. While my wardrobe will continue to evolve over time, it’s in a pretty good place and I’m happy with it. It really is time to shine the spotlight much more on the full life portion of the equation.
I haven’t exactly ignored the need to develop a fuller life. After all, I have an entire category of the blog dedicated to that topic and have written quite a few posts on full life subjects. I have pondered what a full life is, whether my boredom was with my wardrobe or my life, how lonely I am, the things shopping won’t fix, information overload, worrying about what other people think, my lack of balance, and my low self-esteem. I even created what I termed the “2014 Full Life Project.”
Yet, even with all of this attention on the issue of a fuller life, I still feel like my life is much more lonely and empty than I want it to be. I’m still vulnerable to turning toward my maladaptive shopping behavior as a coping mechanism during tough times. I still spend the bulk of my time alone and feel that I lack close relationships in my life. I still feel completely unclear about my future or even what I want it to look like. It’s time to turn the flashlight away from my wardrobe and toward my inner being. Selecting “balance” as my theme for 2016, increasing my awareness of my balance challenges, and making some concrete commitments to turn things around is a good start, but I need to delve even deeper.
Honoring Our Real Needs
I am reminded of a powerful quote from April Benson,
We can never get enough of what we don’t really need.”
That’s why compulsive shoppers keep buying more and more; we are trying to fill a psychic hole with material goods. That will never work, no matter how much we buy. So what do we really need? Well, it varies from person to person, but there are some virtually universal needs, such as:
- Love and affection
- The esteem of others
In order to stop buying compulsively, we need to find new and more productive ways of meeting these needs. What’s more, we need to get better at self-care and honoring our feelings and boundaries. I can’t speak for all compulsive shoppers, of course, but I know that I have a tendency to put others first and myself last. I often say yes to commitments when I really want to say no. When others need me, I’m generally there for them, all too often at the expense of my own needs. I frequently feel resentful about this, but since I have such a strong need to be liked, I don’t speak up and thus allow myself to become depleted through giving more than I have to give. Then I use shopping as a way to nurture myself, and the cycle repeats itself.
Guarding Against Relapse and Furthering Recovery
Fortunately, all of the work I have done on myself since I started this blog has helped keep me from falling into the abyss of compulsive buying in which I found myself for years. But in order to safeguard myself from relapsing or developing an alternate compulsion (I already struggled with eating disorders for years, as well as other compulsive behaviors), I need to work on honoring myself more and speaking up for myself and my needs. I need to allow myself to feel my feelings instead of rushing to cover them up through shopping or other types of avoidant behaviors. I need to trust that if I sit with my feelings (and perhaps journal about them), I won’t go insane; rather, I will most likely gain clarity and peace through the process.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m not even totally sure what I’m going to do, but I think a good start will be to do the following:
- Continue journaling: Last week, I wrote about my “unconventional journal” in which I have been writing about my various complaints. I’m going to keep that up, but I’m also going to resume keeping a gratitude journal, as I feel it’s important to balance things out (there’s that word again…). In addition to becoming more aware of what needs to change in my life, I need to remain present to all of the blessings I have as well.
- Revisit “To Buy or Not to Buy”: I read April Benson’s wonderful book back in the early days of the blog, but I didn’t complete all of the exercises. I plan to do so this year and will likely dedicate at least a few blog posts to sharing what I learn in the process. (NOTE: I have already written a few posts about Dr. Benson’s ideas: mood patterns, reasons for overshopping, shopping triggers, and shopping “aftershocks.”)
- Revisit a few other books: There are a few other books that I’ve read previously that I would like to revisit, including “You Are What You Wear” and “Codependent No More.” I would like to do more book reading in general and cut down on the amount of online reading I do. This is all part of my “balance” goal, as well as an important part of my recovery. I’m sure I will come across some other books that I’d like to either revisit or read for the first time, but this is a good start. I’m aiming more for quality – and absorbing the material and incorporating it into my life – than quantity with my reading.
Recovery is a Continuum
I believe that recovery exists along a continuum rather than being a binary process. I may always be a recovering shopaholic and may never be fully recovered, but that will scarcely matter if I get to the 90-95% level of recovery. At that point, I will be living a full life and shopping will have taken its rightful place in my life. I may always enjoy shopping, but I won’t be living to shop anymore. I will shop mostly to fulfill true wardrobe needs, but I will also allow room for a “passion piece” here and there.
I will have so many other hobbies and interests that shopping will merely be one of the things I like to do. I will be a well-rounded person with healthy relationships who takes care of my own needs and has clear boundaries in place. My life will be balanced, intentional, and happy. It won’t be perfect, of course, as nothing ever is, but there will be beauty in the imperfection. I will be enjoying the journey and okay with who I am, flaws and all.
Thanks to all who have been on the journey with me thus far, whether you’ve been following me since early 2013 or just found my blog this year. I value your readership very much, no matter where you are on the recovery continuum. I’m happy to have you along for the ride, even if you aren’t a shopaholic at all and simply want to learn how to better manage your wardrobe and cultivate and express your personal style. I learn a great deal from my readers and I know I wouldn’t be as far along in my recovery today if it weren’t for your support, encouragement, and even the hard questions and “tough love” you sometimes give me. I appreciate you and I wish you the best on your path.