shopping bags tied together with measuring tape
Photo: Kevin Van Aelst
Eating to soothe your anxieties and disappointments isn't healthy—and neither is heading to the mall. If retail therapy is your M.O. (and your closets and drawers are starting to overflow), Martha Beck has three little steps to help you put your purchasing on pause.
It's past midnight. In five hours I'll be catching a plane to Los Angeles to do a spot on a daytime talk show. I haven't packed yet, or prepped for my appearance. So I just did what any normal person would do: I went to the all-night pharmacy and bought travel-size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, a tiny tube of toothpaste, three packs of gum, two bottles of nail polish, extra reading glasses, three candy bars, a scented candle, six dog toys, five different nutritional supplements, and two pens—one shaped like a cactus, and one that lights up (in six colors!) when you click it.

I used to do a lot of anxiety eating. Because I'm a typical diet-obsessed American female, I worked hard to overcome that habit. But I still do some anxiety shopping. It may not be logical to buy new shoes for a mammogram or stock up on duct tape when it's time to do my taxes; nevertheless, such things soothe me. Temporarily. Though tonight's splurge was briefly comforting, it left me with less cash and more stuff I didn't really need. So I'm putting myself on a buying diet. I don't mean deprivation. I just mean it's time to get back to a more balanced state of acquiring what I need, when I need it.

Mastering a Balanced Buying Diet
If you've ever tried to lose weight, you know that willpower isn't enough: Crash dieting never works against deeply primal instincts. What goes for eating goes for acquiring, too. You see, our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived by collecting pelts, sticks, fibers, hunks of peat—whatever might keep them comfy in their caves. Thousands of years later, acquiring, just like eating, still flips the switch that tells our primitive lizard brains we're well supplied for hard times. To sustain a balanced buying diet, we must flip that switch without actually accumulating more stuff.

There are three steps to accomplishing this: First, avoid a sense of deprivation by focusing on abundance. Second, shield your brain from temptations that trigger near-unconscious overspending. Third, learn to splurge moderately, to keep yourself feeling well supplied without squandering cash and adding clutter. Ready? Let's begin!

shopping tag
Photo: Kevin Van Aelst
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.

Psych-Step Two: Dodge the Gruen Transfer 
Ever forget where you parked your car at the mall? Ever run into a store for a few necessities, only to end up oozing through the aisles clutching objects you suddenly realized you cannot live without? Those scenarios were not accidents. Malls and retail displays are designed to create a quasi-hypnotic state observed by social scientists, dubbed the Gruen transfer (in honor of the late Victor Gruen, the architect who designed this country's earliest shopping malls), and exploited by merchandisers. It sounds like science fiction, but it's real: Humans bombarded with certain kinds of music, light, shapes, and smells go into a mindless shopping daze. Once the Gruen transfer kicks in, we become like Aladdin on quaaludes, groggily grasping at whatever we see.

A Gruen transfer shopping spree is comparable to an eating binge. Like rich food, the dazzling plenty of a shopping center is rare in nature, and we're geared to react to it with almost involuntary greed. But you can use these strategies to protect yourself from going gruesomely Gruen:
  • Always make a shopping list before heading to the store, and don't buy anything that isn't on it. Give someone else the list and have him or her shop for you, or take a friend shopping to keep yourself on track.
  • As you walk into any retail establishment, take a moment to stop and notice landmarks that will help you find the exit quickly. Picture yourself walking out briskly with only the items you need.
  • Steel yourself at checkout counters. Items are placed there to tempt you after the Gruen transfer has had maximum time to transform your brain into a kumquat.
  • Keep the Gruen transfer out of your house: If you glimpse an infomercial, switch the channel. The longer you watch, the more vulnerable you are to sales hypnosis.

Psych-Step Three: Practice Moderation
One reason so many dieters bounce back up to their original chubbiness is that the body "reads" a deprivation diet as famine—and packs on fat to ward off starvation during the next natural disaster. To avoid this reaction, dieters must eat enough "cheat treats" to avoid feeling starved. The same principle applies to buying dieters. If you start to feel deprived, you're in danger of binge buying. The cure is a relatively healthy cheat treat.

In this area, buying diets are easier than weight loss diets. Your primal senses know the difference between a "treat" like salted celery and a jelly doughnut. But only the mind sees a significant difference between a $4 pack of sticky notes printed with Van Gogh's sunflowers and the $40 million original. Given a choice between a $15,000 Ferrari da Varese pen and one from the drugstore that lights up (in six colors!), our primal selves will happily accept the latter.

The act of finding and taking possession of an object is all the reward your hunter-gatherer self really wants. Such rewards can be inexpensive or even free. Once, on a nature retreat, I assembled a fire-making kit from whittled sticks and plant fibers that brought me as much joy as a new refrigerator. Not that I'm advocating a return to primitive life. I'm simply saying that by understanding our primordial programming, we can avoid buying things that will only turn our 21st-century "caves" into troves of objects we'll never use.

I've been applying buying-diet strategies for some time. Ironically, tonight's pharmacy spree convinced me they're working. Once, I'd have coped with my anxiety by rushing to the mall. Crazed by scarcity thinking and the Gruen transfer, I'd have splurged in expensive boutiques, then felt guilty—catalyzing more anxious shopping. So it's a triumph that tonight I took my freaked-out self to a place where the treats were cheap and marginally useful.

As my buying diet continues, I'll use up my tiny toiletries and take all the supplements, while my dog disposes of his toys by eating them. Gradually, my home will grow clearer—until, if you were to visit, you'd find me living in Zen-like purity, neither spending nor possessing in excess. I'd greet you with perfect serenity and perhaps one small, perfect gift. It would probably be a pen.

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