Let Me Start with “Jane’s” Story
I want to tell you a story about a fictional person we’ll call Jane.
Jane goes to a job interview that she really wants. She’s already nervous about making a good impression. Unfortunately, she senses the interview goes poorly because it was quite short. When she leaves, she begins to ruminate on why it didn’t go well. She replays it over and over thinking about what she might have said or done differently. She starts beating herself up, telling herself she’s just a screw up and thinking about all the ways she failed. Now, her anxiety over this is ratcheting up.
As her vague discomfort becomes more pronounced, she is feeling more and more aware of the pressure building. But she keeps trying to shove it down or ignore it. Jane goes about her day, but on this subliminal level, she’s continuing to feed herself these negative messages.
When she comes home, as soon as she walks in the door, her husband greets her by asking her to give him a hand with something or other.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Jane starts screaming at him that he’s always wanting her to do something, that he doesn’t appreciate her, that she’s had a long day and why can’t he let her be! Now, she’s furious, adding to the pot she’s been stirring her misplaced anger at her husband .
She storms off into the bedroom, slamming the door.
Jane is also a compulsive spender.
When she’s finally alone, when she has nowhere else to turn, she feels desperate to make herself feel better, to purge this alien tormenting creature that has grown to monstrous proportions inside of her, now finally overcoming all her coping mechanisms. She can no longer ignore the simmering emotions that have burst into flames.
Suddenly, she has a compulsion to buy that goose down comforter she saw last week on sale. She had been so proud of herself for walking away from the sale, because, even at half price off, she’d have to charge it and Jane had promised her husband that she wouldn’t charge anymore without talking to him about it first. But now, “screw it,” she tells herself.
She goes online maybe telling herself that she just wants to look at it, just to check if it came down even further in price.
But she ends up charging, not only the comforter, but two memory foam pillows and a set of Egyptian cotton sheets.
With all the angst released through her binge (a well-worn pattern of behavior), she feels a temporary sense of relief, which is sure to be followed by remorse, guilt, shame, and self-loathing, not to mention the apology that she will have to make, yet again, to her husband. And this pattern repeats itself over and over and over.
Does this story sound familiar? Have you ever felt like Jane?
You Have to Be Willing to Feel the Pain
I believe that one crucial component of recovery from compulsive spending is the willingness to feel our feelings and face our reality. For those of us who suffer from anxiety, panic, CPTSD (Complex PTSD), and other types of emotional challenges, we may find our symptoms triggered quickly, and seemingly, without warning, leading to overwhelm and the compulsion to act out by spending to relieve the discomfort.
As with Jane, here’s how the process looks. Something doesn’t go as we want it to go. Or we get some news that disturbs us. Or someone says or does something that flares up our anxiety or fear. Or we think we’ve said or done the wrong thing.
In my case, when this happens, the distress begins building within me. I may try to ignore it, but on some level, I’m continuing to stir the pot, ruminating, thinking, and worrying about it. I’m not always aware of what’s going on, because the entire process feels like it’s on autopilot, the product of decades of practice, of digging a deeper and deeper rut into my neural behavior pathways. All I know is that I feel an increasing sense of anxiety building in my body. But even that can be simmering just below the surface, below my awareness, for some time.
Eventually, the anxious (or fearful or angry or pick your own descriptor) feeling becomes so big that it feels like it’s literally going to burst out of my body. At that point, my addict mind kicks in. I want to eject the painful feelings before they explode out of my body. I want relief. So the obsession to act out kicks in.
I’m no scientist, but I can tell you that with spending, the distraction of the compulsion to buy and the adrenaline rush when I make the purchase serves to override my emotions momentarily and produce what I guess are the endorphins I desperately seek to make me feel better. Like I said, I’m no scientist. Essentially, it’s just deflecting from the real issues.
I said up front that it all happens so quickly that it just feels instantaneous. But the fact is, if you back it up, you will see exactly where you might have changed course. And, yes, there is that moment where you can make a choice.
We cannot Control the First Arrow … But We don’t Have to Shoot Ourselves with the Second
A book that was transformational to my understanding of this choice is “Hope and Help for Your Nerves,” by Claire Weekes. I urge you to read it. She was the forerunner of the self-help movement, and in this simple book, she outlines the process that can keep these emotions from overcoming us. But bear in mind that I said it was simple, not easy.
Basically, she said we can consider these emotional triggers like arrows. We cannot stop the first, but we can work to keep from shooting ourselves with the second, third, etc. In her case, she was referring to making a conscious decision to stop thinking about “it” (it being whatever it is that began bothering us in the first place, like “Why didn’t George say hello when I walked by? Did I do something wrong?” And we’re off and running).
Of course, there is more to it than that (and for those with CPTSD, “it” goes all the way back to the original trauma, usually in childhood), but the point that is relevant for what I’m discussing here is that what leads up to your compulsive spending when linked to an emotion is not instantaneous at all. So if you feel like you just “come to” after the purchase and the rest is a blur or if you feel like there is no distance between desire and acting out, well, it’s just a matter of learning to become more conscious and strengthening the muscle that allows you to withstand the intense discomfort of that pressure buildup.
So, at the moment you are rocked emotionally, that is the point where you can work to develop awareness and willingness to face and feel the pain. You cannot be captured by your demons if you are conscientious and conscious. But there is one caveat.
A Few Tips to Help You Learn to Withstand the Pain
Learning to feel your feelings can be tremendously trying because as the pressure builds up, the desire to release it increases. It can literally feel like you are going to die if you don’t make that next purchase. That’s why learning techniques to quiet your mind or to bear discomfort, such as meditation, can be an invaluable aid. And, if you do suffer from CPTSD, therapy and/or a recovery program like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA) may help you find the relief and healing you seek. And, as always, if you are a compulsive spender, know that you can find the help you need to address your addiction in Debtors Anonymous or Underearners Anonymous.
Two Guided Meditations to Help You
Here are two meditation audios that I created to help you.
Guided meditation #1 – Watching Your Breath
Guided meditation #2 – Repeating a Word or Phrase (Mantra)
From my experience, meditation is not about achieving peace where all thoughts disappear, but learning to sit in discomfort. The practice of bringing my mind back from straying thoughts (more like a tsunami of thoughts) to my breath or a word or phrase without running screaming out of the room is how I began building the muscle of being present and withstanding discomfort.
Taking the Practice of Meditation into Your Daily Life
While a daily meditation practice will help you go far in developing consciousness about how you are feeling, stretching that muscle during the rest of your day will take time.
But once you have experienced the eureka moment where, for the first time, you are able to avert disaster, you will always know that it’s possible … and it becomes easier to do each successive time.
I have definitely gotten better at finding that moment, but it’s the work of a lifetime.
Here is How Jane Could have Changed Course
So let’s go back to our story about Jane. Is there a moment where Jane could have changed what happened; a moment when she could have become more conscious and, therefore, changed the trajectory of her ill-fated path?
The answer is yes.
Maybe she could have made a phone call after the interview to help her process what had happened and lead her away from the path of self-recrimination.
Maybe, instead of shoving down the feelings, she could have stopped resisting them and accepted the discomfort and disappointment.
Maybe before she screamed at her husband, she could have paused for a brief instant to feel her growing pain, and told him that she needed a few minutes to herself. And then walked away.
Maybe she could have taken a brisk walk around the block to move some of the energy.
Maybe she could have listened to her self-talk and countered each negative with a more loving thought.
Maybe she could have sat still and meditated, releasing all the pain and negative self-talk to the healing balm of watching her breath.
It Just Takes Practice
But all of these maybes are predicated on Jane’s willingness to be present with reality, to meet situations and feelings head on, and on her growing her ability to sit with discomfort without fueling it.
I’m sure not perfect at this. But I keep working on improving and increasing my willingness to feel my feelings without trying to shove them away or pouring gasoline on fiery emotions. But one thing I know–every time we defuse one of these situations, we’re building a muscle memory for the next. With practice, what seems impossible for you to do today may come to be your likely reaction tomorrow.