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Compulsive Buying: Filling the Closets and Emptying the Soul

July 26, 2013

In contemporary consumer society, the choices of products for sale seem almost endless, and yet those things that are most valuable and most useful for the soul cannot be purchased at any store or ordered online. Nevertheless, many have fallen into the trap of compulsive buying, a behavioral disorder that fills one’s closets, but only empties one’s soul. In her essay, “A New Look At ‘Compulsive Buying’:  Self-Discrepancies and Materialistic Values as Predictors of Compulsive Buying Tendency”, Helga Dittmar theorizes that this form of buying involves psychological deficits rather than material needs.  She writes, “Psychologically motivated buying seems an increasingly prominent feature of contemporary consumer behavior, such as using shopping as an attempt to improve self-image, self-esteem, or relationships with others. This can, of course, be successful and have positive consequences. Increasingly, however, individuals engage in buying behavior that is so uncontrolled and excessive that it leads to psychological distress and other negative consequences, including serious debt. In its extreme form, often labeled ‘compulsive buying,’ it constitutes a behavioral disorder with impaired control and harmful consequences.” At its root, one can see a confusion between the soul and the things a personal temporarily possesses, under the sway of a deep deception: that what one buys and what one possesses could ever be more important than what one thinks, says, and does.

According to Dittmar, the goal of the compulsive buyer is to bridge the gap between the actual self and the ideal self.  “Material goods have come to play a different, and arguably greater, psychological role in people’s lives, because of social and cultural changes in the significance of, and motivations for buying, material goods. Consumer goods not only help people regulate emotions (e.g., Elliott, 1994) or gain social status (e.g.,McCracken, 1990), but they can and do function as material symbols of who a person is and who they would like to be (Dittmar, 1992). Thus, people increasingly consume the symbolic meanings associated with goods in expressing their identity and searching for a better self (e.g.,Benson, 2000; Dittmar, 2001).”

Of course, such confidence in material goods and their ability to heal our deficits is tragically misplaced.  A reference to alcohol addiction may help illustrate the point.  Initially, alcohol appears to calm the nerves, remove anxiety, and allow for smoother social interaction, seemingly providing the imbiber’s character with desirable qualities. However, those “pleasant” affects only last a short period.  After a time, it takes more and more alcohol to achieve the same fleeting feelings that are eventually replaced by their opposites: shot nerves, increased anxiety, and complicated, interpersonal problems.  Trapped in a vicious cycle with no other exit available, the person reaches the point in which it is no longer possible to function without alcohol and functioning with it is a misnomer as well.  Just like alcohol, compulsive buying becomes the master beast that demands satisfaction.  Rather than leading to freedom, it leads to enslavement.

This particular enslavement is supported by cultural and societal mores that serve to reinforce the notion that the acquisition of material goods will serve to fix what is lacking in our lives.  For years, marketing agencies have operated on this premise.  We are bombarded with images and not so subtle messages that we must buy this car or wear this suit in order to be successful.  One television ad from years ago even went so far as to imply that if men removed the gray from their hair and beard, they’d attract the perfect woman! Before compulsive buying can set in, we have already bought the lies of the manipulative world of advertising.

If we now turn to the ascetic fathers, we would find that they would agree that the discrepancy between the Old Adam and the New, between the image of God in our souls and our conduct as sinners is a problem that requires a solution in order for us to grow into children of light not only in the image, but also in the likeness of God. And they would agree that the solution is repentance not buying more things that simply cloak the sickness and increase the distance between the soul and the image, the soul and God. In one of his homilies, Saint John Chrysostom writes, “How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business, that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction? The desire is deep sown in the minds of men, even of those who seem to be religious.” The desire for gold in order to be someone and the desire to buy things in order to be some one are certainly related.

In the next several posts, we will explore compulsive buying and how it can be healed through therapeutic interventions offered by the ancient fathers and the cognitive therapists.

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