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Compulsive Buying and Getting some Help from a Friend

August 6, 2013

In the last post, I spoke about learning not to act on the impulse to go out and buy and the use of the exposure and response prevention technique, which is very much about the real choice we have with respect to our actions that the fathers speak about at length. I also mentioned the relationship between this process and the life of asceticism in general. Of course, it is not easy to live an ascetic life, especially at the onset and in isolation from others. Likewise, it is not easy for someone who is used to medicating feelings of sadness, anxiety, or other emotions with a shopping spree, to just sit alone with the anxiety and sadness without doing anything. Whether it be asceticism or learning to overcome an addiction or compulsion, we need others in our struggle. There is a reason why when the Lord sent His disciples out into the world as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” He sent them forth by “two and two”!

In the spirit of the Alcoholics Anonymous model, an accountability partner can be a tremendous asset in helping a struggler deal with the normal compulsive response to addictive urges.  In AA, this is normally the role of the sponsor.  The alcoholic is counseled to pick up the phone before he picks up a drink.  The same wisdom holds true for the compulsive buyer.  A trusted accountability partner who understands the nature of compulsive buying can help the sufferer to recognize the compulsive thoughts, but not act out on them. In the series on anger management, I referred to the time-out as a therapeutic tool in dealing with the issue of anger.  The accountability partner may serve a similar role as the time-out in stopping the compulsive stream of thoughts that inevitably lead to a shopping binge.  The basic notion is to stop the freight train running in your head so that you can regain a modicum of control over these old thoughts and impulses.

While the church fathers don’t speak explicitly about accountability partners and self-help groups, they do speak about the importance of turning to a spiritual father for help and the spiritual strength derived from the communal life. In fact, Saint John Cassian notes, when believers have “but one purpose and mind to will and to refuse the same things,” then love remains and zeal is increased to rid oneself of one’s thoughts so that the words of the prophet will be fulfilled: “Behold how good and joyful a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” (Conference 6, chapter 3). In like manner, belonging to a support group with all that such belonging entails or having a relationship with a sponsor and all that such a relationship entails can be a great help in overcoming a problem such as compulsive buying. The group or the friend can remind one of one’s aims and strengthen one’s resolve. This in turn increases mindfulness or what the fathers would refer to as watchfulness.

Increasing watchfulness, of course, brings us to the very root of the patristic solution. Saint Dorotheos of Gaza counseled, “Let us pay attention to ourselves and be watchful, brothers while we still have time. Why are we negligent? Let us do something good, so that we can find help during the time of temptations” (Discourse, 11 SC 92.358).   Saint Dorotheos makes an important point here in dealing with the addictive impulse.  This moment is not just a moment of temptation, but an opportunity for victory.  If the proper weapons are readied in advance and then employed (prayer, vigilance, and remembrance of God), the moment of temptation becomes a moment of triumph over the addiction.  We then realize we are capable of choosing something other than the compulsive activity; we are capable of holiness!

Diadochus of Photice noted, “What distinguishes a man who is virtue’s friend is that he constantly consumes everything that is earthly in his heart by means of the remembrance of God, so that, bit by bit, the evil in it is consumed by the fire of the good remembrance, and his soul returns in perfection to its natural brilliance; nay, even with an abundance of glory” (On Spiritual Knowledge, 97, translation mine).  For the Fathers, it’s not enough to just get over a problem, it is always about becoming everything God desires for us to be.

  1. Brother,

    The blessing of the Lord.

    I recently came across your blogsite and very much like what I find here. I hope to get your book soon. Kudos. Keep up the good work.

    May Paradise consume us.


  2. Thank you for your encouragement, Father Michael! I am glad you found your way to this blog. “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

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