Retail Therapy: When The Dark Side Of Shopping Has You Feeling Like $h*!
Somehow, the idea of ‘retail therapy’ (i.e. buying something to make yourself self feel better) has become an incredibly normal part of our lives. It’s a routine, enjoyable way of assuaging loneliness, discontent or anxiety, a road to receiving compliments, or another box checked on our never-ending journey towards self-improvement. The trouble is, purchases aren’t permanent, and material goods don’t fix everything. In fact, retail therapy can make you feel really really crappy.
Perhaps due to my age and gender, I associate the idea of retail therapy with the sugar sweet, candy pink zeitgeist of the early aughts. Sex and the City, Legally Blonde and Clueless carved out the archetypal Shopaholic™: a sassy, well-dressed woman who’s adored by men and revered by her peers. Yes, she spends recklessly and often ends up in debt, but what does that matter when she has a new pair of shoes?
Unfortunately, the reality of reckless spending isn’t as glamorous. I’m a prime example: I was so toxically enamoured with the idea of retail therapy that I racked up $5000 of credit card debt at university, which took me four years to pay off. I bought stuff when I felt ugly or inadequate, when I was stressed or bored, or when I wanted to be complimented – and it seems that I’m not alone.
“Generally speaking, shopping produces bad feelings like guilt when we shop for the wrong reasons,” explains life coach Raghev Parkash, who works with clients with negative shopping habits. “For example, when we are feeling down or upset and use shopping to make us temporarily happy, or if we spend money that we don’t have.”
So, what kind of feelings drive us to shop in the first place? “It could be a number of things: sadness, loneliness, a feeling of inadequacy,” says Raghev. “But ultimately, the main driving force is that shopping is an outlet that gives people a temporary feeling of certainty.”
“Shopping can release a false feeling of control, happiness and flow,” he continues, “But usually, a crash follows the shopping trip, as it’s just a temporary way to avoid feelings and emotions that haven’t been dealt with.”
This rings particularly true for me. After I shopped, I would feel happy and excited for a few minutes before feeling overwhelmingly bad. I questioned whether I even liked the clothes I’d just bought and if I’d actually wear them. But mostly, I’d start panicking about money.
Amidst limitless online stores, free next-day delivery and ‘fuss-free returns’, buying has never been so easy. And even if you’re not shopping your way out feeling low, the seemingly innocuous one-click buy comes at a price. Francis, 25, puts it bluntly: “Shopping makes me feel like sh*t because the instant gratification of looking good is then later swathed by guilt and the realization that I cannot afford this stuff.”
Alice, 30, has spent most of her career in retail and has “plenty of stories about what shopping can do to people.” As well as witnessing huge spending splurges, she has seen people “returning thousand of pounds worth of stock because they were drunk during a purchase.”
In particular, Alice notes a cultural shift in how we shop. “I think the nature of retail therapy has changed,” she says. “The simple pleasure of buying something new for a purpose isn’t so pleasurable now we live in a very competitive, fast fashion society.”
She has a point. Fast fashion has totally transformed how we consume clothes. Lightning fast turnaround times from online retailers and high street titans allows us to shop the latest trends at cheap prices. The problem is, trends change at a similarly breakneck speed, leaving a path of exploitative labor, environmental damage, and unused clothes in their wake. According to an article by Quartz, at one point in 2018, H&M had stockpiled $4.3 billion in unsold clothes.
“In order to make a profit, labels want to make you feel as if you’re being left behind, out of touch, and to a degree, miserable without whatever product you don’t have,” Alice adds.
For some people, the actual act of shopping is what makes them feel like sh*t. Harsh overhead lighting in dressing rooms is commonly cited as a particularly grim aspect of shopping, as well as erratic and unrealistic sizing.
22-year-old Emily recalls the time she got stuck in a dress in Zara. “I tried on a dress in my usual size. When I tried to take it off, I realized, to my horror, that it was completely stuck around my boobs.”
“After five minutes of pulling, the dress ripped in half. While I know that Zara is renowned for their small sizing, I was nevertheless mortified and felt terrible about my body.”
“Luckily, my mum threw the dress into a corner, so at least I didn’t have to pay $70 for something I’d never wear!” she laughs.
So, it seems that shopping is particularly adept at making us feel like shit. While shopping can be a symptom of a deeper psychological or emotional problem, the engine of the retail industry is fuelled by keeping us in a sustained state of inadequacy. With fast fashion quite literally poisoning the planet, are we starting to realize that our modern mode of shopping might just be sh*t?
Raghav offers some advice if shopping is making you feel bad.
1. Always give yourself space to feel every one of your emotions/feelings and be present with your experiences. This will make you want to shop less and less.
2. Whenever the urge to shop is there, explore an alternative outlet instead that is more fulfilling, sustainable or passion-led, like meditation, going for a walk, or listening to your favorite music.
3. Recognize any patterns and seek professional support from a coach, counselor or therapist.
4. Share your experiences and feelings with loved ones/friends. Knowing you have a support network always helps to ease any negative feelings and behaviors.
5. Commit to shopping less. Plan your week in advance and set in place the various activities, tasks, and goals you would like to achieve. It will make you feel good to see yourself spending less time shopping and more time on the things that are important.