Your boss makes Vlad the Impaler look like a reasonable, temperate kind of guy. You blew a tire on your drive home from work. As soon as you finally made it to your driveway, you’re cornered by that one neighbor who has a lot of opinions about the homeowner’s association dues. It is, to put it mildly, a bad day.
Then, you spy the brown box on your porch. You can’t remember what exactly you ordered — might be the new nude eye shadow kit from Sephora or that faux Gucci bag you found on Amazon; heck, it might even be a bag of dog food — but there’s something so satisfying about knowing you’re about to open a gift (even if it’s a gift you gave yourself).
The process of shopping — especially online shopping, which doesn’t require fighting for a parking spot or standing in everlasting lines while the food court smells waft into the store — can offer the thrill of the hunt and the posh pleasures of self-pampering. Whether we’ve been carefully researching the best pair of shoes to support our flat feet or are making an impulse splurge for that sundress, we use shopping to feel better and help us deal with stress.
“A coping skill is ultimately a distraction from painful or uncomfortable emotions,” Catherine Silver, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, tells SheKnows. “Many people turn to shopping as a coping skill because shopping is based on the ‘new and improved’ mentality.”
Why we do it
Silver, who has worked with people who’ve turned shopping into a coping mechanism, says that our culture’s 24-7 saturation with marketing that equates self-worth and happiness with making the right purchases has created an atmosphere where shopping becomes, simultaneously, a way to self-soothe and express your emotions.
“People buy things so they can make what they hope to be positive changes, whether it’s their clothing, the sofa in their living room or that new gym membership,” she says. “Shopping can feel like a promise for the future and advertising can really play on that mentality.”
Shopping is a socially condoned, even encouraged, way of releasing pressure: Everything from celebrity Instagram posts to BuzzFeed listicles, TV shows that name-drop MAC makeup and Louboutin shoes and, of course, magazine spreads promise a luxurious life, a feeling of power and prestige, through brand-name goods.
What happens when we do it
Shopping has a fun, “on the hunt” aspect that does make some of us feel better when we’re stressed, but as mental health professionals like Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells SheKnows, this can result in a vicious cycle.
“People get into a pattern where they feel bad and then they shop and they feel better, and then the ‘shopper’s high’ wears off, so they feel bad — or something else negative happens in their lives and they feel bad — and then cycle starts up again,” McBain explains.
Does lining up outside of the Lush store the day those new bath bombs debut or spending many a lunch break on the Fenty makeup website make you a shopping addict? No. There are a few set criteria about when a little retail therapy becomes a lot of trouble. As Silver observes, “a shopping habit becomes a problem when it starts to get in the way of a person’s life and feels out of control. Maybe someone is having financial problems, and they know rationally that they shouldn’t be shopping, but they can’t seem to help it.”
She says the real litmus test is whether you can visit an online or brick-and-mortar storefront and simply walk away without buying anything.
“If there is any discomfort there, that’s a sign that the shopping is coming from an unhealthy place. It’s also important to look at the times you are shopping to see if it is emotionally driven,” Silver adds.
But if you find yourself using Amazon as a way to glut your sadness, anger or stress or uncomfortable feelings you can’t even name, consider contacting a therapist and developing healthier (and less costly) coping mechanisms.
A version of this story was originally published in May 2018.