How I’m Conquering My Compulsive Shopping by Focusing on My Mental Health
The origins of my shopping habit stem back to my childhood. Growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, I felt immense pressure to look a certain way from a young age. My classmates all seemed happy; I, too, wanted to be happy and fit in, so I did everything I could to dress like they did. In middle school, my closet was full of Juicy Couture tracksuits in every colorway, shiny Michael Stars tops and a collection of Tiffany’s necklaces, while my schedule was packed with trips to the salon to get highlights, tips and more. By age 13, I had a Louis Vuitton bag and insisted on trading in the Fossil watch my grandparents bought me for my Bat Mitzvah for a more expensive Swiss Army watch. I even had a pair of grey sweatpants that had the word “shopping” emblazoned across the butt. In high school, I bought my Vera Wang prom dress at Saks Fifth Avenue, and during my senior year, I was awarded the “best dressed” superlative in the yearbook. People thought I was fashion-forward and inventive, but deep down inside, I was falling apart.
I did have a rather privileged upbringing; my family was upper-middle class and we spent more money than we should have. Beneath our seemingly put-together exteriors and grand ski vacations, we were all silently collapsing as we wrestled with issues like mental illness and codependency — things that were more often than not swept under the rug. I bottled up my feelings, internalizing the chaos at home and trying to pretend everything was fine.
For a long time, I tried to hide my anguish behind a stylish, cheerful exterior. In my 20s, I was a chameleon, dying my hair and trying a myriad of cuts and styles whenever I felt lost or disconnected, oftentimes dropping hundreds of dollars on a whim at some of New York City’s more exclusive salons and retailers. On different occasions, I dyed my hair black, red and also experimented with balayage, highlights and bangs. I frequented high-end stores like Opening Ceremony, Club Monaco and a number of vintage boutiques — both after work and on the weekends. Shopping was both a creative outlet and a mask; it allowed me to become the person I wanted so badly to be, but it also protected me from revealing my true identity.
At that time, I thought looking good would make me feel good. I dressed myself in clothes I could not afford, trying my best to keep up with the trends of the season. My love for shopping was a borderline addiction — nothing could compare to the hit of dopamine I got from spending money on clothes. I racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, filling my closet with unnecessary denim jackets, patterned blouses and pairs of overalls. Every new item brought a temporary, though fleeting, feeling of hope — the hope that I would finally be enough. I spent all of my money and emotional energy attempting to fill my internal voids by pretending like I had it all together and dressing the part.
My shopping habit was the marker of a laundry list of issues I was not addressing. At that time, I held myself to the highest standard of perfection in which my satisfaction was linked to unhealthy expectations I set for myself, especially at work. As a trend forecaster employed by a major corporation, I was my harshest critic, doubting myself every time I achieved some level of distinction in my career. Whether it was a promotion or an opportunity, I got high off the feeling of success for a brief moment, then quickly reverted back to beating myself up internally. Ultimately, I felt empty and emotionless, constantly doing things in an ill-advised attempt to validate myself and appease the nasty voices in my head telling me I needed to be someone else in order to be worthy of true happiness. My worrying was relentless, holding me captive as if I was a prisoner, drowning in a sea of fear and self-doubt.
My breakdown came swiftly and suddenly the summer after I turned 28. It was like a dormant volcano had finally erupted due to a slew of triggers that knocked me in some of my most sensitive areas. There was a break up, a frightening surgery, a death in my family and a dog attack. Looking in the mirror, I was pale, fragile and raw. I found myself incapable of dressing the part I had attempted to play for so long.
As I fell into a deep bout of depression following that series of unfortunate events, I grew increasingly anxious; at the same time, I stopped wearing my typical colorful, vintage ensembles. Instead, I opted for drab, loose outfits and basics in black or gray. I quit wearing makeup and shaving my legs and armpits. There were many days when I couldn’t do basic things to care for myself, like shower or put on a bra. My laundry piled up, my room grew cluttered and my appearance faltered. The way I was dressing at that time no longer covered the way I felt internally, and it was a visible indicator that I needed help.
Overwhelmed by physical and emotional discomfort, I finally had to surrender to my crippling anxiety and immense distress by seeking out a psychotherapist. I learned that I was unknowingly living with an anxiety disorder, which was at fault for a lot of the unhealthy coping methods I had subconsciously adopted. Together, we discussed how my various vices — including shopping — had kept me from addressing the turmoil inside of me. Thanks to therapy, I have learned that breaking bad habits isn’t something you do cold turkey. It’s a slow, deliberate and lifelong process.
While I have not given up my shopping habit completely, I now challenge myself to think more about my spending habits and pause before I buy things. I have barely purchased anything since last fall, which feels like a major personal triumph. Though I do catch myself craving an afternoon of shopping once in a while, I’m able to hold back, choosing instead to invest in things that steady my mind, like reading a memoir or practicing yoga. I now recognize that engaging in self-care will help me feel grounded for a longer period of time than any new outfit or accessory ever could.
These days, I am more conscious when I do buy things and I put less of an emphasis on how I look. Instead, I try to focus on how I feel internally. Now I notice a massive difference in how I perceive my appearance and approach my wardrobe; establishing more compassion for myself has allowed me to let go of feeling like I always need to be perfect. I welcome my various quirks and neuroses, seeing them as the glue that holds me together.
My best outfit days are the ones where I feel comfortable in my own skin, no matter what I wear. Through learning the importance of decluttering one’s mind and closet, I began the process of parting with old belongings, while simultaneously reconsidering how I want to present and refashion this updated version of myself. Someday soon, I hope to establish a wardrobe that mirrors this more authentic and mindful me, but I’m taking my time to get there.
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