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Before the Buying Comes the Beliefs

August 20, 2013

We live in a materialistic culture. That’s as plain as the noonday sun. We live in a culture that glorifies wealth, power, physical beauty, youth, trendiness, and popularity. That’s also as plain as the noonday sun. In this culture, an Iphone is not just a means of communication, it’s a symbol of who a person is. Clothes are not just clothes. Cars are not just cars. It’s not about being covered or getting from point A to point B. In this materialistic world, trademark and brand have a certain aura that people covet and people mistakenly believe will make them into the people they wish they were, but know they are not. And yet buying those brands, those trademarks, allows them to live in an illusion for a few choice moments until the bubble bursts and they find themselves back home with their new possessions, but still with their same old problems surrounding them and even gloating at them. No one is immune from this “to have is to be” culture, but those who struggle with compulsive buying seem to be even further entangled in the snare. And they are so entangled, because at a core level they have believed the lies of marketing and advertising that they have seen as commercials since childhood. Buy-ology even trumps biology as becoming a basic need that must be fulfilled for the sake of that ever-elusive pursuit of happiness.

In order to promote permanent recovery from compulsive buying, more change is needed than slowing down, being mindful, or getting help from a friend, as important as those helps may be. Full recovery requires a change in core beliefs about things and their relation to self. In the work I’ve cited before, “Compulsive Buying:  A Cognitive-Behavioral Model”, authors Kellett and Bolton note that those who are compulsive buyers fall into two categories, “Individuals who attempt who attempt to build self-esteem through acquisition and are likely to be more compulsive, in comparison with individuals who attempt to avoid unpleasant affect via acquisition, and therefore more likely to be impulsive.” In either case, the compulsive buyer has accepted a belief that is patently false, namely that the problem with how I feel or the problem with who I am can be solved by buying possessions. These are fast-food fixes for a deeper hunger that can be satisfied only by the banquet God prepares for His children that seek His face.

The compulsive buyer’s core beliefs need to change. And this change must be as radical as turning from a lifeless idol to the living God. It can be frightening. The old security of the friendly store clerks and shiny, new products or stylish clothes is gone. But out on the waves of life in the midst of a gathering storm one encounters instead what is real, what is true, and what is ultimately good, Christ walking towards the believer with faith. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post on the Creed and its potentially healing effects on such core beliefs, the fathers challenge such dysfunctional core beliefs by re-orienting one’s perspective and turning the focus to one’s relationship with Christ.  For instance, a core belief that says “I am not worth anything” might be challenged to reflect upon the Christian belief that all creation was fashioned by God and for that reason has inestimable value.  That value is inherent and not earned or acquired by human effort or skill.

People who buy things to feel good or to raise their self-esteem would benefit from new prototypes before their minds about what it means to feel good and feel a sense of self-worth. And one of the best examples is the lives of the Saints Who loved God and felt spiritual joy because they sensed His closeness and felt a sense of self-worth, because they sensed His love and knew that they were following His path. Of course, there are a number of psychological tools that are employed in a therapeutic session to change core beliefs. But the all-important first step is to decide what beliefs are worthy of acceptance. And this is where Christian values, reading the Gospels, and reading spiritual books are important, for they provide a stream of sacred wisdom that shows the folly of the illusionary world of advertising to be folly and nothing more.

Another tool that takes time and arduous effort is keeping a diary and a positive data log.  I write in Ancient Christian Wisdom, “For example, a therapist may suggest to a depressed patient with the belief, ‘I don’t accomplish anything,’ that he keep a notebook divided into sections for work experiences, social interactions, parenting, and being alone.  Under each heading, the patient is instructed to list anything that he did or tried to do, for which he deserves some credit, and to review this log daily.”  Further on in the same chapter I note that this practice is not unknown in the Orthodox Christian tradition in the form of the widespread patristic practice of making collections of inspiring advice for the believer to reflect upon. In the case of compulsive buying, those with this problem can make a list of spiritual activities that they engage in, such as prayer, helping a friend, giving alms, walking the extra mile, visiting the sick…, and how they feel emotionally and how they feel about themselves. If this is done daily, I think they will find that the solution to their problem is right at hand in the very words of the Gospel of Christ, the most perfect repository of beliefs that sanctify and ultimately set the captive free.

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