shopping tag
Photo: Kevin Van Aelst
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Psych-Step One: Think Abundantly
Your nervous system goes into "fight/flight" alert whenever you're stressed, and toggles to its "rest/relax" state when all's well. Each response involves hormones that, for the past several decades, have been carefully studied in all humans...except for half of us. That's right—until around 2000, human stress responses were studied predominantly in men. When researchers finally thought to look, they found that stressed women secrete a different hormonal mixture: adrenaline and testosterone, like men, but mixed with much higher levels of hormones like oxytocin that prompt "tend and befriend" behaviors—nesting, feeding, grooming.

Can you see the connection to buying? Men's stress response says "Fight or flee!" Ours says "Fight or flee—and make sure everyone has a nice warm sweater!" There's a reason why, when anticipating nerve-racking social events, most of us go directly to "What will I wear?" It's the same (deep, hormonal) reason we may react to an argument by redecorating. Anytime our stress response takes over, we buy the way soldiers fight. "Ours not to reason why," a friend of mine once wrote, "ours but to find and buy." We can't help it. We're victims of our own buy-ology. (Sorry. Genetic pun disorder.)

The way to get around this situation is to increase our awareness of abundance. If you embark on a buying diet in a mind-set emphasizing lack, you'll create a scarcity response and end up buying a Lexus on credit. If, on the other hand, you focus on how much you already have, your buying compulsions will remain dormant. The best way to do this is to dive into an overcrowded area of your home and wallow for a while. I myself need look no further than the mug on my bedside table, which is stuffed with pens. To start my buying diet, I've just dumped those pens on my bed and pawed through them. The physical act of touching them has made me feel overstuffed. Obviously, the two pens I just bought are unnecessary. The thought of buying even more holds all the allure of a sixth helping of oatmeal.

I find that when my clients use this exercise, they not only lose the desire to buy more but can actually feel suffocated by stuff. Warning: Don't decide to "go through all that stuff" right now. Clearing out—using up or discarding what you don't need—is the buying-diet equivalent of exercise; trying to leap from couch potato to instant triathlete is unsustainable. A more realistic strategy is to finish, toss, or donate a few more items than you buy each day. The idea is to create balance between inflow and outflow; excess in either direction disrupts that balance.

As you become more used to this way of dealing with stuff, you'll begin to meet your needs by "shopping" among things you already own. You'll recombine old clothes for new looks, put new photos in old frames. This approach is far more creative and interesting than continuing to buy. It can make you feel proudly capable and help keep your financial diet balanced, too.

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