We’re entering the year’s prime-time spending period with shops and online outlets doing their best to persuade us to buy anything and everything, whether we want it or not.
There’s nothing new about this. We are part of a capitalist world that depends on people spending their hard-earned cash on items they may soon decide they don’t want. The UK’s economy is built on that premise, which may be a bit worrying if people one day decide they’ll stop spending.
We’re not at that stage yet. Indeed, some psychiatrists are suggesting that a bit of a control might be needed, at least as far as internet shopping is concerned where, according to research published in Comprehensive Psychiatry, some people are seeking treatment for compulsive shopping online.
The research of 122 people who are seeking help for such an addiction indicates, researchers say, that about 5% of adults in the Western world – or 2.5m people – are compulsive online shoppers. Psychiatrists say there’s an argument such shopping behaviour could be classed as a mental health condition or labelled as “buying-shopping disorder” (BSD).
Currently, BSD comes under the category of “other specified impulse control disorder” which takes in online gambling, video addiction and other internet-linked compulsions but the authors of the paper say it needs its own separate mental health condition so that it can be considered for serious treatment by professionals, including the NHS.
Problems connected with online shopping are slowly coming into public awareness. Amazon has announced it will turn down customers who buy and then return too many products. I was surprised at that news because I thought the point about buying online was that the shopper could decide the product was unsuitable for whatever reason.
However, further reading of Amazon’s reasons disclosed that some people get a kick out of buying and receiving their package. That is, in fact, their enjoyment. They don’t want the product for itself, they want the product for the feeling it gives them.
So, what is that all about? Again, we’re not talking about people who shop online for a product, buy it and use it, we’re talking about using online shopping as a way of subjugating our inner feelings of distress – we shop to put the lid on such feelings. The problem is that, after the process is completed, we’re back with our original uncomfortable feelings, possibly even worse so after being compounded by our spending.
At some point or other, most of us look for something to distract us from uncomfortable feelings but, the researchers say, the compulsive online shopper’s habit is linked to a higher level of anxiety and depression than offline sufferers due to the internet’s increased “availability, anonymity, accessibility and affordability”. In other words, if you have an addiction problem, it’s all too easy to feed it through online buying.
Underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression are best helped through talking therapy. Identifying the cause(s) and bringing it/them out into the open through our own awareness sometimes with the aid of a professional counsellor is a life-enhancing experience, even allowing for the bumps along the treatment road.
But it takes time and, meanwhile, if the addiction is to be contained in some way, I’d suggest looking at the six stages encompassed within Gestalt therapy’s cycle of experience. It’s a good way for a therapist to understand what may be going on with the compulsive online shopper and also for the addicted person to consider what may be driving them into a pattern of behaviour that is not at all beneficial for them.
The cycle starts with a “sensation”, a feeling or desire within the self. The person (shopper in this case) then has an “awareness” of the sensation which leads to “excitement”, creating an energy to do something about the situation. Next comes the “action” – look online, check out the products, see what you like, reach for credit card/PayPal details and ping, press that button!
After “action” comes “contact”, the reward for what you’ve done. You’ve ordered a parcel, it’s arrived. You unpack it, check it, make sure it’s what you want and experience the pleasure you’re feeling at your gain. From there, the idea is that you move on to the final “withdrawal” stage when you pause and give yourself some time to enjoy what you’ve done –researched, bought, received and enjoyed your purchase. The withdrawal stage is crucial. It allows you to absorb and feel the whole experience and to process it fully.
This is a cycle we work through all the time, although we’re unlikely to be aware of it. Maybe we need to consider its value. It's useful not only to appreciate the “now” moment of our pleasures but as a way of containing some of our not-so-worthwhile habits, in an almost counter-intuitive way.
For instance, put the list of actions and their meanings somewhere readable near the computer. If the temptation to shop arises, return to your list and reflect on what’s going on inside. Go through all the stages slowly, thoughtfully and paying real attention.
Before pressing the “go” button, ask yourself if what you’re doing is going to make you happier long term.
If yes, press that button. If there’s even a hesitation before answering, think again.