Despite many studies and research projects, much discussion, and a great deal of theorising it seems that there is still no definitive clear definition of what constitutes addiction. The most concise statement that most in the field seem to agree on is that “addiction is a behaviour or pattern of behaviours that an individual cannot stop repeating despite damaging or life changing consequences”.
If a definition of addiction is hard to agree upon then an explanation of the causes is even more difficult to establish or understand. Are some people much more prone to addictive behaviours than others? Is there such a thing as an addictive personality? Is there an “addiction gene” or many of them? It is likely that these questions and many more will never be answered or agreed upon.
With all this background of lack of definition it is perhaps understandable that some addictions tend to be seen (by the general public at least) as “real addictions” and some not. In fact though, applying the “damaging and un-changeable behaviors” test suggests that anything can be “addictive”.
When an individual uses alcohol or other substances to excess, and to the point where there are negative consequences to family, friends, or themselves, we have little difficulty seeing this as an addiction. When the behaviours are less visibly or obviously damaging, we might be less inclined to accept them as such.
Shopping addiction is easy to dismiss as someone being “bad with money” or just ill disciplined. Society even normalises and promotes the positive effects of shopping as “retail therapy”. The methods and skills of marketing every kind of merchandise employ sophisticated techniques to encourage us to buy. It is easy to see how this, together with the very real (if short lived) psychological benefit of making a purchase could be, for some, akin to the short term benefits of substances. It is also apparent that shopping could then, just as substance abuse, become a pattern that certainly “fits” our definition of addictive and mirrors the patterns of other better accepted addictions.
I was fortunate to gain much of my training and experience whilst employed at the Priory in Woking, who I still maintain a working relationship with. As the “household name” of addiction treatment The Priory has a huge experience of every imaginable addiction and with them I met many clients who struggled with shopping.
It must be said that those having treatment and help from the priory are generally amongst the more well heeled in society and this tends to disguise further the effects of addictive shopping. This can however make things even worse since the “damaging consequences” may take much longer to manifest and be less severe if the sufferer can “afford it”. This does not however lessen the psychological effects of the addiction and, even more importantly, the underlying trauma or emotional history behind it.
The beginning of recovery from addiction can usually only happen when the sufferer wants it badly enough, and this is probably only after the consequences become severe enough for change to be clearly the best option. Family and friends could, long before this point, have been greatly affected but the individual must themselves reach the point of being severely enough harmed to want to change things. Seldom is the resolve found without this level of crisis.
With alcohol, drugs or many other addictions the core of recovery will be abstinence. Some addictions however don’t allow this. Food addictions (eating disorders) cannot be tackled with abstinence because, plainly, we all must eat. Shopping is similar in that it would be almost impossible for any of us to never shop, though a period of a friend or relative carrying out shopping may be a necessary early stage.
So, Is Shopping addiction real – YES. As someone who has seen the devastation that it can cause I am in no doubt at all that shopping can be an addiction and that its consequences and effects, and the agonising suffering that it can cause, are every bit as damaging as alcoholism or drug addiction.