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On Compulsive Buying: And Then There are the Holidays

We’ve been fortunate that Kathleen Gemmell, an eclectic  author and former compulsive buyer offered us a guest post about her own recovery journey which began four years ago, when her son, who could no longer sit by and watch his mother buy herself into oblivion, arranged for an “intervention.”  Kathleen Gemmell loves playing with written words. Currently penning for five online sites and magazines, Kathy is a storyteller, an animal welfare proponent, a psychology buff and a dreamer. We thank her dearly for sharing her story with us.




You can read Kathleen‘s post below:


On Compulsive Buying: And Then There are the Holidays


“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…”


Ah, the holidays! A time for gatherings of loved ones, for merriment and cheer. I’m listing in my mind ALL the gifts I can buy for family and friends. A wool coat for mom, and a television for my brother head up that memo. Oh, oh! A cruise for my son! Indeed!




I am a compulsive shopper. I must recognize the “what” and the “why” of this. I must recall all of what I have learned.


Beginning in my thirties, I first felt the elation, the “high” if you will, that comes when I purchased items. As it was exhilarating for me, I found myself in a tangled web. I bought, and bought some more.


Several issues made this buying an emotionally unhealthy pathway to walk down;

* I could not afford to  shop compulsively.

* The people that I so loved to give to were uncomfortable, and even embarrassed at times.

* I hadn’t the room in my home to place my items.

* I was aware, on some level, that my spending was out of control.

* The relief from anxiety that I got from buying did not last long.


Four years ago, my adult son held an intervention on my behalf. Compulsive buying is an addiction and he saw the pattern I had fallen deeply into. I had been an  overshopper for six years.


My son began by stating, “Mom, I love you, but I don’t like seeing you addicted to shopping.  Last Christmas was difficult for us all. You gave presents galore, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and concerned. One gift is sufficient, yet you bought each of us several expensive ones. Mom, you need to stop this and we’d like to help.”


As I looked at my loved ones who had come together to guide me, I felt a combination of relief, anger and shame.


I was relieved that there may be an end in sight. I felt angry that I was being told what I couldn’t do. I felt shame as I considered that maybe I did have a problem.


Each person talked in turn about my spending addiction. Several shared that they also had struggled with addictions. Goodness! I wasn’t an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler! How dare they!


My thoughts vacillated through waves of panic. Could I stop? Did I want to stop? Would I still be loved if I didn’t stop?


Back around to my son again… “Mom, I’ve made an appointment for you with a therapist who specializes in this disorder. Mom, I hope you go. I want you to go. I need you to go.”


I did arrive on time for that appointment. With Christmas just two weeks away, my anxiety was plentiful.  I so wanted to shop, and shop some more. Red, green, silver and gold goodies were everywhere! My home was decorated beautifully, but I wrestled with refraining from purchasing much of what I saw.


Dr. H was kind and sympathetic. She was, however, obviously on to me from the discussion she had had with my son.


“Kathleen, do you believe that your spending is excessive? Kathleen, do you want to stop? Kathleen, why do you think you spend in this manner?” The questions needed answering and so I tried.


“Yes, my spending is excessive and I am in debt. Part of me wants to stop, but part of me lives for the high I get. I don’t know why I do this.”


On the way home, I felt compelled to stop at a high-end department store. As if I were having a temper tantrum, I bought and bought. I bought items for myself, for family and for friends. Darn them! If I wanted to give them a bountiful holiday, I would! My son’s words fell on my deaf ears.


I had a miserable Christmas that year. It was my turn to hold the festivities. I decided not to give all the gifts I had bought, just four each. I over decorated my home with too many baubbles and bangles. The recipients of my bounty were uncomfortable. Try as he might to maintain a cheerful persona, my son was not only embarrassed; he felt that I had let him down. The picture was becoming painfully clear.


Yes, change was in the offing. I MUST see my way out of this weeded garden. I called Dr. H and made another appointment.


I had much soul searching to do.


And, my journey began.


“Sometimes, though, we let ourselves get so used to being ‘fine’ that we lose track of how ‘not fine’ we are.”
―Martina Boone, Compulsion


Kathleen Gemmell


The Ethics of Overcoming Shopping Addiction

Overcoming overshopping does not only bring individual relief; it’s great for the whole world. In a recent article titled Everyday Ethical Changes Every Person Can Make for a Better World in 2016,  online news outlet Quartz has listed spending less as one of the top ways to make more ethical choices. Spending less is an ethical change almost all of us can stand to make. Through keeping our possessions for longer, repairing and recycling clothes instead of throwing them away, and, of course, shopping mindfully you’re doing something that benefits all of us. To read more click here

Are You Losing the “Rewards Game”?

We live in a world where it is now common practice for airlines, hotels, and even credit cards to offer us perks to encourage us to spend money.   Using these programs may not always be as good of an investment as they seem. While healthy use of a reward program can be smart and effective, many people find themselves instead struggling against the pull of the “rewards game” and dangerously overspending.  To learn more, click here.

Getting and Giving the Right Kind of Support: What Overshoppers and their Loved Ones Need to Know!

With the holidays fast approaching, overshoppers and overspenders are heading into some very rough waters. There’s temptation everywhere, and mega pressure to buy, buy, buy. How can you, someone who is struggling with impulses to overshop and overspend, get effective help from your support system? What can you, as a loved one, do or say to ease the pain that the holidays often bring to the surface?

We recently came upon three excellent articles, written by the staff at the Center for Motivation and Change, that highlight the importance and impact of supportive relationships in three unique ways. The content has furthered my thinking and I wanted to share it with you.

Under the best of circumstances, relationships can be quite complex And when anxiety, guilt, and shame are present, relationships can get even more tangled. We’ve been conditioned over the millennia to fighting, fleeing, or freezing during difficult times. Not one of these three hard-wired responses has us reaching out for help from other people. Compulsive shopping and spending often function initially as a social lubricant, offering relaxation, reduced anxiety, a way to quiet self-critical voices, and enhance pleasure. Eventually, though, the behavior leads to isolation and the tendency to withdraw as the negative consequences start to surface.

How to Help your Potential Support System Really be Helpful,” suggests that it is best to involve as many people in your network as possible when trying to make significant life and behavioral changes, even though it may be the exact opposite of what you want to do. Abundant research evidence has shown that relying on your support network can significantly reduce the odds of relapse. This article gives advice on how you can encourage those around you to help you through a difficult time by:

  • educating yourself and others about what you need and what resources are currently available. (e.g. software to block emails from particular shopping venues, information about in-person and online support groups for overshoppers)
  • asking for a specific type of help (e.g. someone who will help you create a holiday shopping plan and hold you accountable)
  • being patient with yourself and those around you
  • staying connected by reaching out and responding when your support system reaches out to you
  • giving members of your support system positive feedback when they’ve said or done something that’s helped you

Many people dealing with a loved one whose behavior is self-defeating or self-destructive believe that “tough love” is the only approach that will help. This stems from the fear that any form of positive reinforcement will “enable” the destructive behavior. Not so! “A note on enabling vs. positive reinforcement” makes it abundantly clear that a nurturing and positive approach to a loved one, in and of itself, is not enabling.

Positive reinforcement of positive behaviors is powerfully motivating and can help the overshopper in your life immensely. Your husband takes his lunch to work, rather than going out for yet another $35 power lunch. Your daughter unsubscribes from the retail sites she’s been trolling constantly. These are the kinds of positive actions you want to reinforce profusely!

At the other end of the spectrum, positive reinforcement of negative behaviors enables the behavior, making it much more likely to continue. Giving your wife money to pay the Con Ed bill, knowing that she’ll almost definitely use it to buy clothing, jewelry, or shoes, is a clear example of enabling. This type of “support” is anything but supportive and may even lead to an increase in the severity of your loved one’s compulsive buying. Better to pay the Con Ed bill yourself and spend time, rather than money, with your wife doing something that makes her heart sing.

  • How do you maximize the positive in your relationships to keep them as effective as possible.
  • How can you minimize the negative?

Increasing Positive Support with Relationship FIT-ness” reminds us that you need to think ahead of time about which relationships, and under what conditions, trigger you to overshop. On the flip side, it’s also critical to identify which relationships consistently make you feel better and stronger. Although certain relationships have a decidedly negative cast and others a positive cast, almost all relationships have both supportive and stressful aspects, depending upon an infinite number of factors: the day, the time of year, your mood, their mood, your context, their context, what you’re actually doing together, whether you’re alone with them or with them in a group, among many other conditions.

Developing and maintaining a supportive environment will greatly enhance your capacity for positive change, so it’s important to ask yourself questions like these.

  • What people and situations, and under what conditions, trigger me to overshop?
  • How might these come up during the holidays?

Here are a few examples to prompt your own thinking.

“My sister always looks so incredibly put together, especially during the holidays. After I’m with her, I find myself withdrawing and going to the internet to shop.”

“I know my husband will try to micromanage every penny I spend this season. It makes me want to ‘forget’ my own credit card at home and use his.

“Our house looks like a toy store already, yet my kids keep adding things to their wish lists and I have such trouble saying “no.”

  • What can I do, inside myself, to enhance the good or lessen the impact of the bad parts of this particular relationship?

A few ideas:

Notice what you’re grateful for as often as possible.

Cultivate your capacity for compassion, the wish that both you and the other person be free from suffering.

  • How can I change the way I actually relate to this person to enhance the good or lessen the impact of the negative parts of this relationship, to make it more satisfying?

Some possibilities:

Change the frequency of contact to the extent you’re able; have more contact if being with this person makes you feel good and strong. Spend less time with him or her if being together feels problematic.

Think specifically about what you’re grateful for in the relationship and express it to the person fully and often.

Your brainstorming and troubleshooting about how to be supportable and how best to support yourself will pay you and your support network many dividends. You’ll develop a strong support system to lean on, when that’s what you need, and a delighted support system to celebrate with, as you make some real headway. “Relationships are often “the lifeblood of support for initiating and sustaining change, not a side-show or distraction.”

If Your Loved One is a Compulsive Buyer

Whether, When, and How to Intervene

Is your loved one a compulsive buyer?

1. How strongly would your loved one agree with these statements?

    • My closet has a number of unopened shopping bags in it.
    • Others might consider me a shopaholic.
    • Much of my life revolves around buying things.
    • I consider myself an impulse purchaser.
    • I buy things I don’t need.

2. Would your loved one answer “yes” to a number of these questions?

  • Do you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues?
  • Do you spend more than you can afford?
  • Are some of your purchases unused or hidden?
  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed about this behavior?
  • Would your life be richer if you were shopping less?
  • Have your attempts to change been unsuccessful?

3. Would you answer “yes” to a number of these questions?

  • Is there an overabundance of stuff in your loved one’s home that seems to be added to constantly?
  • Do you see a lot of unused, unworn items (regardless of whether or not your loved one would answer “yes” to that question)?
  • What about shopping bags that haven’t been unpacked or put away?
  • Are there too many of one kind of item?
  • Has your loved one told you that this is a problem?
  • Is this something he/she’s tried to stop, but been unable to?
  • Is your loved one continuing to buy?
  • If you believe your loved one is a compulsive buyer, do you intervene?
  • Has your loved one confided in you that this is a problem?
  • Has he/she asked for your advice?
  • If so, do you think he/she really wants it?
  • Has someone else asked you to intervene? How does your loved one feel about that other person having intervened?
  • Do you have a sense that your loved one has another addiction or compulsive problem that needs to be attended to first?
General Principles Regarding Intervention
  • Realize that there’s only so much you can do. Your loved one has to genuinely want to change—and see some value in changing—for it to happen.
  • Preserving your relationship with your loved one is the first order of priority.
  •  Overspending loved ones can evoke very strong feelings in all of us. Envy, competitiveness, anger, contempt, and disgust are common. Pay close attention to your thoughts and feelings before you intervene.
  • If you notice your loved one becoming defensive, back off.
  • In your desire to help, it’s easy to promise more than you can deliver. Don’t get in over your head. You could both drown!
  • There’s no shame, and more likely wisdom, in telling your loved one that some of what he/she needs goes beyond your area of expertise and that you’ll assist him/her in getting help. There are a variety of sources of help and support on my website you can tell your loved one about.

What do you say?

  • Tell your loved one what you see—without adding any interpretation or analysis.
  • Let your loved one know that you want to help and you’ll do whatever you can.
  • It’s also useful to let your loved one know that this problem can be quite serious and often has psychological roots. Let your loved one know that there is specific and effective professional help available and that you’ll help them with resources.
  • Make sure your loved one knows that overcoming a habit like overshopping takes time, energy, awareness, knowledge, and patience.
  • Let your loved one know how important it is to forgive him or herself for any backsliding, to notice and allow it. That’s allow, not swallow; allow, not wallow.

Proven Strategies for Stopping Overshopping

  • Make a list with your loved one of what she currently has in the categories of items that are being overbought. Seeing excess in black and white can be a helpful motivator.
  • Encourage your loved one to think about her particular overbuying cues or triggers. Does her buying occur in response to particular feelings, watching others shop, holidays, advertisements, time of day or year, seeing a sale sign, for example?
  • You might let your loved one know that it can be helpful to keep a notebook handy and jot down thoughts and feelings that occur to her/him when there’s an impulse to overbuy. The writing creates space between impulse and action, expands consciousness, and can serve as a deterrent to buying. Knowing what triggers the impulses is extremely important baseline information.
  • It can also be extremely helpful to take some deep breaths and follow them all the way in and all the way out when an impulse occurs. This slowing down will help your loved one to know that eventually the urgency will subside, if not pass altogether.

Suggest that she ask these questions before every purchase:

1. Why am I here?

2. How do I feel?

3. Do I need this?

4. What if I wait?

5. How will I pay for this?

6. Where will I put it?

  • Encourage your loved one to think about the negative consequences of overbuying, whether those are emotional, financial, occupational, social, or relationship difficulties. Often there are both immediate negative emotional consequences (when the “high” of the buy has passed) and longer term negative consequences—when the bill comes, for example, or a spouse or partner finds hidden goods.
  • Suggest that the loved one enlist the aid of someone that he or she can use as an advocate, or shopping support buddy, to help gain control. Sometimes the buddy makes him or herself available for phone calls, or provides e-mail support. Sometimes the buddy might go shopping with your loved one and keep him or her focused on the goal of stopping overshopping. Other buddies help overshoppers by helping them “shop in their own closet” and make new outfits with existing clothes.
  • Sometimes it may be useful for you to be a shopping support buddy to your loved one. You might offer to make a quick call to your loved one at home or office during high-risk times to assure your loved one is not out shopping or, if she is, to help her to leave the shopping venue. Be sure the loved one reads this as a helpful reminder rather than a policing action.

Shopping Support Buddies

A friend or family member is overshopping and this behavior is having serious negative consequences. Maybe you know what a deep financial hole this person has gotten into. Maybe you see the negative effect this behavior is having on important relationships or on the person’s work life or mental health. What can a friend or family member do? How can you help without alienating the other person? How can you help without becoming the shopping police? How can you inspire hope, provide resources and encourage the overshopper to seek professional help, if necessary?

A friend and family member can play various roles in an overshopper’s life. One such role is the role of Shopping Support Buddy. A Shopping Support Buddy is a person who agrees to become an overshopper’s advocate, and works with her* to help stop overshopping. The exact form and nature of your relationship will be determined by the two of you; no two of these relationships are alike. You, as Shopping Support Buddy need to be someone the overshopper knows and respects, trustworthy and non-judgmental, someone with whom the overshopper can be herself. Typically, Shopping Support Buddies are friends or relatives, sometimes a Shopping Support Buddy is a coach, counselor, therapist, religious leader, or spiritual advisor.

As a Buddy, how can you support the overshopper? You can tell the person about resources that she might consult; a comprehensive resource list is in the Resource Center of our website, You can be on the other end of the phone when the going gets rough. If your Buddy is reading, To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop and perhaps doing the written exercises from the book in the Shopping Journals, you can listen to your friend when she shares some of the work she’s done in the Shopping Journal, and bring a second pair of eyes to the search for patterns. You can be a confidante, revisiting with her what she’s discovered about why she overshops and how it all began, or what she’s observed about her personal shopping triggers and aftershocks, or what she considers the costs and benefits of either stopping or continuing. You can be an understanding and encouraging voice, celebrating her triumphs with her and bucking her up when she slips a little. You can give a gentle push and remind her to get back to the work of the book, if she’s stopped.

Don’t underestimate the importance of your role as a Shopping Support Buddy. Not being alone in this struggle makes a big difference to the overshopper. Knowing there’s somebody else who understands what she’s going through, who’s on her side and cheering for her, can keep her motivated. In addition, sharing her problem with you will help her truly feel her feelings and communicate about them, rather than expressing them in self-defeating behaviors like overshopping. It will also help the overshopper move beyond any denial she has, reduce her feeling of shame, and lead to greater self acceptance.

Guidelines for Shopping Support Buddies
Somebody who respects and trusts might be able to use your help in learning to control her overshopping behavior by serving as a Shopping Support Buddy. Ideally, the overshopper will share difficulties, doubts, and successes with you, and you’ll remind her to use the skills she’s in the process of acquiring. Your role as a Shopping Support Buddy isn’t to treat or cure; it’s simply to be there with understanding and empathy when the opportunity arises. You’re a listener and a cheerleader and a positive, creative coach. If, after a setback or two, your buddy loses confidence in her ability to change, you can be of tremendous help by remaining hopeful. If, on the other hand, she accomplishes a program goal, celebrate with her. If she calls you in the grip of an overshopping urge, calmly remind her of the skills and techniques she’s acquiring to control it. Change can’t be forced or rushed, not even by the most well-intentioned Shopping Support Buddy; it will happen only when the overshopper is ready. So be prepared for your buddy’s ambivalence. There’s a part of her that very much wants to stop; and there’s often just as big a part that wants to continue. Overshopping, despite its many costs, has powerful short-term rewards, and it’s entirely normal that someone have mixed feelings about stopping. Your job is to stay empathic. If your buddy weakens, don’t express disapproval but rather solidarity, empathy, and comprehension: “I can see how hard it is for you to give this up. Let’s you and I figure out together what you can do instead of shopping today.”

Tips for Shopping Support Buddies

1. You and your buddy are a team. Two people on the same page is a recipe for success, whereas two people working in different directions is not very palatable and seldom productive.

2. Help your buddy to stay focused on the stopping overshopping task. If she begins to avoid the work or to make excuses, remind her of the ultimate objective.

3. If your buddy gets upset with you, stay calm. And if she’s unmotivated to do the work on a given day, make it possible for her to save face and temporarily opt out of your help.

4. Always provide emotional support. Don’t scold or argue with your buddy. Acting like a taskmaster or a drill sergeant makes people nervous or angry and interferes with their ability to learn new approaches; they feel even more isolated and misunderstood, and retreat into bad habits.

5. Help your buddy make decisions, but don’t try to make them for her. It’s probably better for you to ask good questions, questions that will help your buddy zero in on the right answer for her.

6. Be a steady cheerleader. Support even the slightest progress. Stay in touch with your buddy in whatever way that the two of you have discussed and agreed on.

7. Accompany your buddy on an actual shopping trip, one where she’s planned her purchase(s) in advance, based on what she’s learned. Remind her of her commitment and her tools for stopping overshopping.

8. Don’t go beyond your own comfort level. In order to be a useful Shopping Support Buddy, you need to know and set limits on how much you can do at any given time. If you think your buddy needs the help of a trained professional, it’s important that you let her know that and tell her why you think it.

9. Acknowledge yourself for your generosity and willingness to tackle what can be a difficult role. And allow yourself to lovingly decide not to become a Shopping Support Buddy if, after reading these guidelines, you don’t feel fully prepared to take on this role. If that happens, perhaps there is someone else you know and can contact that might be a better candidate.

May you have patience, compassion for yourself and your overshopper, and success!

*A reminder: for the sake of simplicity, both overshoppers and Shopping Support Buddies are referred to here with the feminine pronoun, even though overshoppers are almost as likely to be male.