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Addiction to Spending

By Dr. Margaret Paul
March 15, 2010

Discover what might be fueling an addiction to spending, or any other addiction, and how you can heal from all addictions.

"I keep getting into more and more debt, but I can't seem to stop. I do great for a while, and then I just have to go shopping and buy stuff. This is going to ruin my life if I don't stop, but how do I stop?"

Mary Beth is addicted to spending. What does this mean and how can she stop?

Mary Beth's compulsive spending does not come out of nowhere. It is rooted in her fear of feel feelings that she believes she cannot handle. In her mind, it is easier to handle the anxiety of debt than to feel the deeper feelings - the painful feelings of life - that she believes she has to avoid.

Here is what happened that triggered Mary Beth's last spending spree.

"I went home for Christmas and it was awful. I guess it's always been awful, but this time seemed even worse. There was nothing I could do right in my mother's eyes, and my father was, as usual, completely emotionally absent. At one point my mother screamed at me that I am hopeless. I thought I managed it all at the time, trying to not take it personally as she treats others this way too, but when I got home I went on the spending spree. I thought I did a really great job of not reacting to her and taking care of myself, so I don't understand the spending."

Mary Beth is missing a major aspect of taking loving care of oneself in the face of another's unloving behavior. She is bypassing the core feelings of loneliness and heartbreak she feels when her mother yells at her and criticizes her.

Since Mary Beth's mother has always been like this, Mary Beth had to learn as a child to not feel the deep pain of her mother's unloving behavior. As a small child, she could not feel that much loneliness and heartbreak and survive. So she learned various ways of not feeling these feelings. She learned to disconnect from her body and stay in her head. She learned to turn to sugar to self-sooth. The problem is that these protections created an inner emptiness, so as she got older and started to earn her own money, she learned that buying things temporarily filled the emptiness that she was creating by her self-abandonment.

Now it was habitual. She automatically disconnected from herself when anyone was in any way unloving to her with their anger, blame, criticism, or withdrawal. It was no longer just about her mother - it happened all the time at work and with her boyfriend. Each time someone was in any way uncaring with her, she would shut down, go for the sugar, and then go out and buy stuff. While she felt better for the moment, she found that she was feeling more and more empty and needing more and more sugar, junk food, and things to fill her up.

Now, as an adult, Mary Beth needed to learn to feel and manage the loneliness, heartache, and heartbreak she felt when others were uncaring.

"Mary Beth," I said to her in our phone session, "please imagine being back with your mother at Christmas. Remember her anger and criticism. Imagine that you go into anther room so that you are not near her. Now put your hands on your heart, acknowledging the loneliness and heartbreak that we all naturally feel when others are unloving and uncaring. Breathe into your heart, being very kind, tender, gentle and compassionate with these painful feelings. Give yourself the love that you wished someone would have given you as a child when your mother was being mean to you. Stay with these feelings with deep caring and understanding toward yourself until they start to move through you."

I gave her a few minutes to move through these feelings.

"How are you feeling now?"

"Wow! I feel so much lighter!

"Are you willing to practice this every time someone is uncaring to you and see how this affects your spending?"

Mary Beth reported that, each time she remembered to do this for herself, she had no desire to shop and spend. Her addiction surfaced only when she forgot to lovingly attend to her feelings.


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