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Breaking the Cycle of Compulsive Buying by Cutting off the Thoughts and Edifying Readings

July 31, 2013

There is something truly tragic about compulsive buying even beyond the accumulated guilt and the threat of debt. Compulsive buying, like so many other disorders, is a bad solution to real problems, “a solution” that keeps one trapped in a vicious cycle that feeds on itself and locked within a harsh inner world that conforms to the shallow and manipulative world of marketing. Healing can only come by breaking that cycle and by taking cues from a world with another set of values that encourage, strengthen, and offer hope. For cognitive therapists, learning self-regulation over impulsive and compulsive behaviors is the key to recovery. For Christians, the key is self-discipline in the form of asceticism for the sake of Christ and for the sake of one’s own soul. And in both cases, it is not simply learning to do new things, but also to deal with one’s thoughts in a new way.

In their paper, “Compulsive Buying:  A Cognitive–Behavioural Model,” Kellett and Bolton describe the vicious cycle of compulsive buying in terms of antecedents, triggers, the act of buying, and the post purchase phase. First of all with respect to antecedents, compulsive buyers as children were often taught by sometimes emotionally distant parents that gifts and money are a reward for good behavior and a means of providing safety and security. When material possessions come to define self, social rank, and even well-being, the compost is present for the development of compulsive buying. Second, with respect to triggers, Kellett and Bolton note, “A key factor in prompting binges of acquisition or more continuous compulsive buying behaviour appears to be the experience of negative and/or self-conscious emotions, such as feelings of body dysmorphia, depression, tension, uncontrollable need or anxiety prior to shopping episodes.” Similar to issues in the development of anger, researchers have found there are emotional and physiological factors that serve as triggers that can lead to the onset of unmanageable behavior. Third, with respect to the act of buying, the compulsive buyers find themselves completely absorbed by the buying process that gives them a high. Finally, with respect to the post-purchase phase, such individuals feel guilt and remorse, attempt to hide or ignore their purchases, and experience a recurrence of the negative emotions that triggered the buying incident in the first place.  I believe it is possible to draw a correlation to the earlier posts on anger where we were able to see a similar dynamic at work.

While the ascetic fathers do not propose a specific therapeutic regimen for this disease of our consumer-oriented, materialistic age, their prescriptions and counsel for rooting out the passions are instructive and may be applied in the case of compulsive buying disorder.  As I pointed out in my last blog post , the root of the problem stems from maladaptive beliefs about our selves, our possessions, and our happiness in the face of situations that trigger self-defeating automatic thoughts that in turn exacerbate negative emotions.  These painful and distressing thoughts are never just presented as merely the distorted opinions of someone who is upset, but as the actual, objective state of affairs, reality itself. These thoughts in turn set in motion other thoughts about how to escape the negative feelings or emotions.  The thoughts may whisper to us, “make the pain go away” or “I feel bad so I should treat myself by buying something that will change my feelings”.  This is where the “thought stopping” counsel of the fathers may be particularly helpful. A “Get me behind me Satan” to thoughts that will cause us to stumble can arouse us from a self-induced slumber reminding us that the thought is just a thought and doesn’t necessarily reflect reality as well as the fact that just because a thought enters the conscious mind, it doesn’t have to be heard and obeyed.  Of course, when the fathers would advise cutting a bad thought off in the bud, they also suggested sowing a good thought quickly. In this case, it would be wise to turn away from thoughts about material possessions that are held out to us as a false paradise (escape) and turn immediately to our all loving and merciful Father who is our true paradise, ready and quick to hear us, especially in moments of peril. This true refuge can calm the thoughts, reorder priorities, and guide action in a way that is constructive, beneficial, and ultimately sanctifying.

At times, when impulses are clamoring for fulfillment, it is certainly helpful to turn from that thought to prayer, but sometimes that can be a real challenge. In such instances, reading some material that can also help direct the thoughts back to God. The words of Saint Serapim may offer a concrete expression of God’s love for those enslaved by impulsive behavior.  “This Was From Me” is a famous letter written by saint Seraphim of Viritsa that he sent to his spiritual child, a bishop who was in a Soviet prison at that time. The consolation and counsel offered to the bishop can help anyone widen their perspective in a way that makes the impulses appear smaller and God’s providence even larger than life.

“Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for this reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that this was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, this was from Me.

I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that this was from Me.

I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the “contradiction of the nations.” I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know that this was from Me.

With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, this is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul. All these things were from Me.”

One Comment
  1. Love the quote by Seraphim of Vyritsa!

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