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Towards a Definition of Compulsive Buying: Chaotic Thoughts and Chaotic Lives

July 29, 2013

According to Christian teaching, when our thoughts are preoccupied with something other than seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven, when our behaviors seem to be controlled by something other than our will to follow the commandments of Christ, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place spiritually and by extension psychologically.  Compulsive buying disorders, like pathological gambling, and other impulse control disorders are places of great vulnerability in which the sufferer can’t rationally make sense out of certain unfortunate courses of actions that are taken over and over again. Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on the verse from Romans—“For that which I do, I know not”—put it this way:  “My head starts spinning, he means, I feel carried away, I feel abused, I get tripped up without knowing how. Just as we often say, so-and-so came and carried me away with him without my knowing how” (PG 60.507).

Before I examine the various therapeutic interventions available to treat compulsive buying disorder, it is imperative that compulsive buying be defined and properly understood.  In his article, “Compulsive Buying:  Definition, Assessment, Epidemiology and Clinical Management,” Donald Black writes, “Faber and O’Guinn have defined compulsive buying from their perspective as consumer behavior researchers; they define it as ‘chronic, repetitive purchasing that became a primary response to negative events or feelings [which]… becomes very difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences’.  As an alternative, McElroy and her colleagues offered an operational definition for clinical and research use. The definition recognizes that compulsive buying has both cognitive and behavioral components, each potentially causing impairment. Impairment can be manifested through personal distress; social, marital or occupational dysfunction; or financial or legal problems.” In terms of thoughts, compulsive buying is about being fixated on buying or shopping; in terms of behaviors, it is about the impulsive buying, usually with a credit card, of items that cannot be afforded and are not really needed.

The common thread among various theories concerning compulsive buying may be found in the impulsive nature of the act itself.  In their article entitled, “Compulsive Buying”, authors Michel Lejoyeux Ph.D. and Aviv Weinstein, Ph.D. note the central role it plays in the disorder: “impulsivity (i.e., a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli with diminished regard to the negative consequences) contributes to uncontrolled buying.  Compulsive buyers are significantly more impulsive than others (37, 38) and have higher subscores for experience seeking on the Zuckerman Sensation-Seeking Scale (38).” Being impulsive is itself associated with other unhelpful attitudes such as the sense of things needing to be done right now, a spur-of-the-moment way of using one’s time, and a tendency to give up easily. Perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this blog series, these authors define compulsive buying as a response to negative feelings or events.  The compulsive buyer tends to view the act of buying as an escape from negative emotions and distressing situations.

The ascetic fathers would not deny that negative events and emotions lie beneath the surface of such impulsive behavior.  However, their focus would be on the lack of an ascetic life of self-denial on the one hand and the presence of a disordered thought life on the other that together lead to impulsivity. The impulsive thoughts of chaotic hearts and the unruly actions of a markedly non-ascetic way of life are the result of a focus on self rather than God.  According to Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, “Chaotic thoughts are the state of fallen spirits (demons, spirits who have fallen away from God). Our mind, however, must remain concentrated, whole and vigilant. God can only enter a mind that is whole…” Impulsivity is rooted in the thoughts and manifested in outward behavior.  In order to offer healing and hope to those who are shackled by compulsive buying or any other compulsive disorder, the thoughts must be examined and re-directed.  This we will examine together in our next blog post.

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