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Compulsive Buying-Avoiding That Which Leads You to Act

August 1, 2013

Compulsive buying is a psychological and a spiritual disorder that is symptomatic of a distorted and dysfunctional view of self, others, and the world around us.  The real danger in this disorder, besides the obvious social and financial ruin it can wreak, is the compulsivity with which it is practiced.  Compulsivity can easily become a way of living, a modus operandi for daily life if not checked and dealt with effectively.  In the next few posts, I will offer practical steps in dealing with compulsion.

For the fathers, passions and compulsions are related concepts that distort reality and make change difficult.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I describe passions as “a bad disposition of our inner man that is at the root of sinful thoughts and deeds.  If the classical Greek concept of the inner man overlaps with the modern psychological concepts of personality and consciousness, the passions can also be understood in more modern terms as discreet mental states that orient or, rather, disorient a person in specific situations.  Since Saint Gregory Palamas views the passions as ‘paths that are always crooked and perverse,’ they can likewise be construed as misleading cognitive maps that deceive a person into making decisions that take him off the straight and narrow path of virtue.  Saint John Climacus describes a passion as ‘that which persistently nestles in the soul for a long time, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free choice clings to it.’ Several important notions are contained in this passage.  First of all, passions are habitual modes of responding over time, which indicates that they are learned-or to be more precise, over-learned ways of reacting.  Second, since a person chooses to invest himself in the passions, they adhere to him in a profoundly individualized way.  As habitual, persistent, and individualistic modes of reacting, the passions tend to grow rigid and difficult to change if they are left unchecked.”

It should be clear the striking similarities between what the fathers characterize as passions and cognitive therapy defines as compulsions.  If there is agreement concerning the nature of the problem, is there similar agreement as to how to control the passions and/or compulsions?  Indeed, there is, although the two perspectives would characterize these therapeutic approaches differently.  Both would agree that the first step in avoiding compulsive behavior is to avoid situations that feed the compulsion in the first place.  In terms of compulsive buying, this may mean an intentional avoidance of malls, shopping excursions, and the reading of magazines and brochures which market buying temptations.  This also may include a vigilance concerning the eyes-monitoring and checking where they wander and what they seek.  The fathers describe this in terms of praxis and theoria.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom I write, “praxis as a change in behavior, however, is never without its cognitive component, even if that component is intentionally disregarded, because it is spiritually unhealthy.  For example, sometimes the ancient ascetics advise us to practice doing the opposite of what our thoughts dictate in order to weaken the passions, so that new virtuous habits replace the former passionate ones, thereby making ‘tranquility of character (morum tranquilitatis) our natural disposition by constant practice.  In terms of cognitive theory, behaviorally acting contrary to automatic thoughts weakens the strength of dysfunctional schemata and assists in the formation of new adaptive beliefs.”

While the avoidance of shopping malls and other triggers that lead to compulsive buying is a good first step, this must be accompanied by positive, constructive actions in which the old, compulsive behavior is replaced by new, healthy behavior.  The fathers would counsel a focus on a structured prayer regimen in consultation with a spiritual father as well as ascetic practices of fasting and almsgiving.  Cognitive therapy might suggest new behaviors such as exercise, social activities that don’t involving shopping, and the cultivation of hobbies.  These counsels are not set at odds with each other and in fact may work quite well together.  Since compulsions are often so powerful that they are resisted only with great effort, it is better to start with the practice of behaviors that are the opposite of the compulsion.  When you sense the compulsion to shop and buy as a means of self-gratification, take on an ascetical practice that produces the opposite-self-denial.  Saint John Climacus reminds us that in the “case of the imperfect, the mind often conforms to the body.”  Concerning humility, Saint Augustine notes that, “when the body is bent at a brother’s feet, humble feelings are either awakened in the heart itself, or are strengthened if already present.”  The same is true in dealing with the buying compulsion.  When the eyes adopt a non-inquisitive response to the desire for material possessions, the heart is calmed and the thoughts begin to change.  If you avoid the malls and shopping centers, the eyes will not be aroused by their tempting sights, sounds, and smells.

The fathers were well aware of the significance of a person’s surroundings. Saint John Chrysostom once wrote,  “Every place and every space in comparison with the house of God is a tent of sinners regardless of whether it’s a courtroom, a senate chamber, or the house of each of us. And even if prayers and supplications take place in those settings, quarrels, fights, insults, and a gathering of wordly cares. The house of God, however, purifies all these things.” (PG 51. 149) The first step in dealing with compulsions, including compulsive buying, is to change the behavior. Just as an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking must do everything to avoid that first drink, so too a compulsive buyer must avoid the people, places and things that trigger the compulsion to buy.

  1. Father, I greatly enjoy seeing you reconcile much of modern psychological thought with the Fathers. being a huge fan of Dr. Murray Bowen and CBT I greatly appreciate the blogs.

    • Thank you, John, for your comment and your own Orthodox ruminations. To reconcile what is good in culture with what is revealed in Christ is, in my mind, to restore those elements to their proper place in a unified life of faith. It’s about elevating what is good and in so doing making it better.

  2. Bruce permalink

    Father bless!!!

    Thank you so much for the many insights you share. Your thoughts convey powerful bridges which unite old and new…secular with spiritual….our weakness to Christ’s strength….and isn’t true Unity and Oneness all around us when we have ‘eyes to see’?

    Today, on the feast day of the Procession of the Cross; it is a good time to remind ourselves of the indispensable value of our weakness (i.e. our passions and compulsions) and how these very personal, powerful crosses, as they are transfigured through Him, allow us to experience virtues as gifts from a Loving Father not of our own making.

    St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians …. “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me”

    Isn’t so much of the challenge in our daily life to abandon ourselves (which includes the belief that I can rely on my own answers and remedies) as we in Truth encounter our own powerlessness to fix ourselves? The other side of this powerlessness to control our weaknesses can be the experiential discovery of God’s healing, mercy, and love for us as well as an innermost certainty we are not God….and that to live a life based upon our own self centered and selfish desires enslaves us to separation from the Gift of His Life and Love for us….everywhere present and filling all things.

    One of the most difficult ideas for me in my own recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs were these simple sentences from page 39 of the AA Big Book:
    But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. This is a point we wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash home upon our alcoholic readers as it has been revealed to us out of bitter experience.
    My own self knowledge(including the self help of CBT type tools I tried) was the ONLY tool I was willing to use to solve my addiction and my many years of failure lead me to the ‘pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization’ described in this same chapter of the Big Book. In my powerlessness, I was finally willing to surrender myself to a Power greater than myself who continues daily to reveal more of Himself to me based upon my own level of participation and cooperation with His Will.

    We are discussing problems which originate in the ‘false self’ of the ‘old man’ and thus our attempts to solve these problems are filled with delusions which arise from a foundation without God.

    AA’s 3rd Step Prayer expresses this transformation from defeat to victory this way:
    God, I offer myself to Thee-
    To build with me
    and to do with me as Thou wilt.
    Relieve me of the bondage of self,
    that I may better do Thy will.
    Take away my difficulties,
    that victory over them may bear witness
    to those I would help of Thy Power,
    Thy Love, and Thy Way of life.
    May I do Thy will always!
    Today I have a deep abiding gratitude for my addiction as perhaps the only pathway God could use to lead me, in the hardness of my head and heart, to Him.

    I am also so grateful for the great blessing of your book and your blog. Most importantly, I feel His Spirit touching me in the words you share in your posts and in the kindness of all your comments.

    May God bless you…now and always!!!

  3. The Lord God bless you and keep you, Bruce!

    I also thank you for your kind and helpful words that beautifully put the tools of therapists and fathers into perspective. On the one hand, one needs to be aware of alternatives to maladaptive behavior. On the other hand, that knowledge is at most a starting point for a journey, not its end. Even when tools are put into practice, such as avoiding a bar or a store, those tools are ultimately not enough, for the passions and human resourcefulness can and do combine to find ways of getting around what the tools are meant to ward off. Something deeper within the soul and something stronger than the self is needed and that is reliance on God through genuine synergy in which we let God lead and we humbly and joyfully follow. In that context, the tools become enlivened and powerful, because they express much more than a behavioral or a cognitive choice, they express in small and simple ways devotion to God, trust in God, and gratitude to God who wants us to be co-laborers, weak left to our own resources, but strong when united to Christ in humility, obedience, and love. Thank you, Bruce, once again for your rich comment.

    • Bruce permalink

      Father Bless!

      Your comment “something deeper within the soul and something stronger than the self is needed and that is reliance on God through genuine synergy in which we let God lead and we humbly and joyfully follow” is, I believe, a call to action for the Church to serve as a spiritual hospital with timeless, eternal prescriptions for the soul sickness we find in each of us. Your work is capable of doing much to build bridges that join the prescriptions of today with the timeless wisdom Christ has expressed throughout the ages in the words and actions of his saints.

      The almost epidemic rate of increase in mental disorders here in the U.S. suggests that even with all of our technical and material advances, our spiritual foundations are planted in the sands of something ever shifting like post modernism formulas not the rock of Christ …. and that as we elevate our judgement above God’s we are losing our way and our lives.

      Our culture has arguably also erected comfort, pleasure, and entertainment as gods we serve and devote ourselves and energies to worship. We reject or resist the crosses our circumstances give us and avoid the potential of what we can learn from our sorrows and suffering.

      I am reading a small very powerful booklet called the ‘Victory of the Cross’ by Dumitru Staniloae. Here’s a paragraph that beautifully expresses his point of how we resurrect our lives through our crosses as we accept and transfigure them…. and we can discover the Giver of Life who is the only source for Goodness, Life, and Truth as we take up our crosses like our passions and compulsions. It also suggests a great hope for us all as we see the cross of this epidemic of spiritual sickness and we can use this cross for unifying ourselves to God….and that in this great spread of spiritual sickness we may be able to hear the radical call of Christ to ‘follow me’

      “No one can escape the cross on this earth. But he who wishes to avoid it, he who does not see or does not wish to see God through it, will be lost by it. He who seeks to separate the gift of the world, the gift of life, from the cross, never really succeeds in doing so. He finally loses the gift itself because he does not see it as the gift of God who reveals his reality as greater than the gift, and who shows the way towards himself by the cross. He remains definitely weighed down under the weight of his suffering, that is in hell. The cross is given to all of us to lead us towards the life of the spirit and as a means of re-establishing the dialogue of man with God. It is given to all because in it the meaning of life is objectively to be found. But the one who does not discover this meaning it it will be totally lost in the darkness which his suffering causes him, since his suffering instead of revealing the meaning will hide it more impenetrably.

      God bless you and thank you for your insights and your kindness.

      • The Lord God bless you, Bruce!

        Thank you for that beautiful passage from the booklet, The Victory of the Cross. The epidemic of mental disorders today is no doubt related to the spiritually unhealthy environment in which people are raised and in which people live their lives. How this can all change through the victory and mystery of the Cross! So much of our state of being disordered is related to the disordering passions that come to direct so many of our decisions, rather than the teachings of Christ. Collectively, the passions are sometimes referred to as the world. And the passions and the world seem at times overwhelming, but we can receive much encouragement from the Lord’s words: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Thanks again, for your contributions.

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