Shopping Therapy: The Psychology of Stuff – Part 1

All opinions are my own, and I’m not at all a psychologist or any sort of expert — in fact, I’m wholly unqualified to express this opinion (but express it, I will). This piece is simply a very unofficial exploration of an idea.

“Our relationship with stuff starts early,” says Christian Jarrett in an August 2013 edition of The Psychologist, a publication of The British Psychological Society. “The idea we can own something something… is one that children grasp by the age of two. And by six, they exhibit the ‘endowment effect,’ placing extra value on an object simply by virtue of it being, or having been, theirs.” Moreover, this fosters the beginning of what appears to be cyclical mentality: children place extra value on what is there, but “With ownership comes envy. When youngsters play with friends, they soon discover other people’s toys they’d like to get their hands on.”

Cute Snuggle Teddy Bear Young Joy Girl Kids

Women’s (and Men’s) fashion and lifestyle magazines carefully nurture and cultivate this mindset of envy that has been fostered from youth. You need to get this new Prada bag. You need to find the latest floral trend. Fanny packs are out, but belt bags (a wholly different product altogether) are the next big thing – so get your Gucci one now before the trend is done.

All of these things are geared to make you feel as though you’re not good enough, not stylish enough, not cool enough unless you have the next big thing that your neighbor can, in turn, envy. I’m guilty of this too, of course– I begged my husband for years for a Burberry trench, and asked for a Louis Vuitton Keepall for our first wedding anniversary. I have eagerly devoured subscriptions to Elle and Vogue that I don’t even remember signing up for (nor do I think I pay for- it might be magic). One of my greatest pleasures is pulling out one of the 49 initial pages of ads and sketching new colored frocks and imagining purchasing a $4,500 skirt for no reason whatsoever and wondering why Kendall Jenner is so popular.

But the reality is… this is just stuff. As an affirmed shopping lover, I also am well aware that my love of things is both a sense of expression and a lodestone. The more you collect, the more options you have to mix and match your style, but… the more room you have taken up in your home. If you’re a luxury buyer, you can probably walk into your closet and realize you’re sitting on the mortgage for your house. And slowly, as our closets grow and we outgrow our space because we don’t let go, we begin to verge dangerously on a hoarding mentality.

Jarrett argues that this is correlated to self-esteem: “our things embody our sense of self-hood and identity.” He suggests that “how much we see our things as extensions of ourselves may depend in part in how confident we feel about who we are.”

More than that, for some, acquiring things goes beyond simple self-esteem. We’ve heard of shopping addiction, also known as compulsive buying disorder. This is a repetitive behavioral addiction characterized by a circuit of behaviors: a feeling of anxiety or arousal when thinking about shopping, an urge to shop/buy, relief when purchasing, and subsequent guilt. These behaviors mimic a drug addiction, causing the sufferer to spiral into cravings, disregarding the adverse effects of giving in to these urges.


Per, “someone who is a compulsive shopper becomes psychologically dependent on thoughts of shopping, the process of shopping, and the euphoric (or trance-like) feeling that comes from buying. For some, spending sprees temporarily quell difficult feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, anxiety and/or stress.” As someone who admits to liking shopping too much, I get it. I truly understand how easy it is to try to fill a hole, emotionally or spiritually, with stuff in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses and feel better about oneself.

Please don’t judge me too hard for referencing Goop, but despite Gwyneth’s endorsement of “Jade Eggs for your Yoni” (NSFW) and her love of steaming her vagine, the site also has some really accessible and smart lifestyle tips that make the few sillier (and disproportionately newsworthy) suggestions worthwhile. There are a number of articles on Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, and one post in particular that implements some of these lessons into minimizing your closet. “Very few of us,” it reads, “have the necessary hard heart to part with items that often have sentimental value– or worse, cost a lot of money, yet still carry their tags with the promise of a ‘some day’ outfit.”

Succinct and concise, I can’t think of a better way to put our emotional attachment to things, and specifically the things in our closet. The prospect of “what if” (What if I need this in the future? What if one day this style comes back? What if I want pass along this battered-to-hell Coach bag with no real value off to my children?) keeps capitalism hale and healthy and brings another generation into disposable fashion habits. Let me tell you a secret: you don’t need this stuff.

I know it seems a bit hypocritical that I’ve started a shopping and style advice blog, and am advising you not to buy too much. I’m hopeful that you’ll see repetition in my suggestions, and that you’ll take my advice on ways to shop for items as frugally as possible. I hope that you see the amortized value of a few quality pieces as more worthwhile than lost of fast fashion.


Check out this sweet Canadian wartime propaganda poster! Still applies today.

I hope that waiting to finalize a purchase becomes a part of your process. I hope that the waiting period has the same intended effect as Brady Laws, that require gun buyers to wait to purchase a guns in hopes of avoiding more crimes of passion– consider this a time to avoid crimes of fashion. Sorry, was that tasteless? But seriously, think about everything before you compulsively buy.

So, how does one enjoy shopping without developing a dependence on stuff for self esteem or instant gratification? How does one avoid becoming a hoarder? What’s the smart way to shop?

…I’m totally the cliffhanging jerk that tells you that Part 2 of this post will be published this time tomorrow.


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