The Myth of Retail ‘Therapy’

Shopping and Retail ‘Therapy’

I like ‘stuff’.

Like Madonna, (one of the few things we can agree on), I’m living in a material world and I am, or was, a material girl. Nothing beats the smell of a new leather purse, shoes without a scuff or the feel of fresh cotton that’s never been worn. Its clean, crisp and full of promise.

I grew up in a culture where you ‘went to town’ to wander around and buy stuff – just ‘stuff’ to make you feel better, cheer you up, or just to get out of the house. Clothes, trinkets, shoes or even just a new spatula…Stuff made you happy. Shopping was an indulgence, even a hobby for some, and sitting on the bus on the way home, a delightful review of goods amassed was one of life’s simple joys. I was taught that shopping was just something that everyone did.. even if there wasn’t a specific ‘thing’ needed, and that looking at and wanting stuff, all the time, was just how everyone felt. If you couldn’t afford it, you saved for it, took on another Saturday job or ‘visited it’ for weeks until your hearts desire was replaced with something else equally shiny and desirous.

(NOTE: I still want the game Operation and I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten those Doc Martens with daisies painted on them).

Fast forward to 2012 and a whole bunch of credit card debt. 

When you’re 14 and you’re spending your cash on a t shirt to make you feel happier is one thing. When you’re 39 and you’re buying a $4,000 sofa to cheer yourself up… well that’s someone in need of therapy.

With solid earning potential and a love of all things ‘quality’ I spent my 20s and 30s developing quite the taste for expensive articles. 600 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets,  Bang and Olufsen stereo. Manolos. A Burberry coat. Non of which fit within my actual budget or my needs. Buying expensive beautiful things made me feel expensive and beautiful? Maybe. The more likely scenario is that in the face of debt, a little more debt doesn’t feel painful at all and along with my taste, my credit card balance was on an upward trajectory.

I got divorced and bought stuff to make myself feel pretty. I dated unsuccessfully and soothed each failed date with a little ‘something’. Every purchase somehow acting as a consolation prize.. yes, even that new zester from Williams and Sonoma. It was what I knew, a pattern I’d followed since I was old enough to have money. You’re sad =  buy yourself something to feel better.

I often didn’t need the things I bought, and if I did, it seemed to give me extra room to splurge.. after all ‘I needed it’ so the $200 version was clearly better quality and a better investment that the one from Target.

Last year -after my $4,000 sofa – I decided to see what was behind my shopping weirdness. I was so in debt from my house renovations that the sofa barely registered in my psyche and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. Especially not on my salary. And while I loved (and still love), my sofa, I was scared at this coping habit I’d developed which was actually spiraling me out of control. My ‘self soothing’ wasn’t working any more.

A recent article in The Atlantic shared the life changing insight that its actually all of the steps leading up to the actual purchase that makes us happy, not the actual buying and ‘having’. In fact, the actual purchase transaction and what follows can make us less happy (how many of us have walked away from a counter thinking ‘Can’t afford it.. guess I can return it ‘??).  It appears that wanting something is a trait we all enjoy, and actually being able to afford it not only makes us even happier, it also makes us less likely to actually buy the thing we want. Because we can afford it, we get more particular..more discerning and less likely to buy something ‘just because’.
Sadly its actually those who want something they can’t afford who buy on a whim.. and due to the circumstances of their purchase (they can’t afford it), they don’t actually derive any sustained pleasure from the experience. Buying stuff when you’re poor and depressed, makes you poorer and more depressed.

Guess my family habit of ‘cheering yourself up’ with some retail therapy is actually bunkum. 

To which my therapist added that we all need to differentiate between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’. To discern whether we can actually afford something and to postpone decision making until after the ‘buy’ endorphins have subsided. That ‘I want..I want’ chant in your head? Yes, that’s actually the pleasure of shopping. Not the purchase. So enjoy wanting but don’t think you need to hand over the AMEX to feel even better. In all likelihood, you feel better (rich or poor) if you don’t. According to the Atlantic, its actually experiences that give us happiness. Not stuff. And while you can still buy experiences, they don’t have to cost anything except time.

So today I find myself saving for a trip, planning a vacation and excited for my evening with a girlfriend walking around the park. These days, now I can actually afford things,  I find that I don’t want them. I’m loath to buy on a whim and I don’t buy anything without stepping away for a while first.  Shopping is no longer my Valium or my inner cheerleader. I don’t need ‘stuff’ to ‘cheer myself up’ or validate my dateability.  And while I’ll never deny the joy of a new pair of Manolos or the scent of a new leather tote, I derive equal joy from a fantastic meal with friends or a long weekend for no specific reason. 

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