This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Much has been written lately about impulsive behavior, particularly excessive spending or shopping, as its problematic consequences have become increasingly obvious as our economy continues to implode.
While impulse control problems run the gamut from explosive anger to pulling out hair, all impulsive behaviors share in common a singular feature, the inability to resist an impulse or temptation to perform a particular behavior that has harmful repercussions.
Gambling and shopping are familiar examples, notorious for their dire financial consequences. Affluence and the ability to pay for impulsive spending sprees do not negate its presence. Unfortunately, because the pattern is inflexible, people who cannot afford to spend continue to do so, putting themselves and their relationships at great risk.
Maladaptive response to emotional distress
I’m often asked why people do these things, why they don’t they, well, just say no. The answer is that impulse control problems share something else in common, something much more significant and resistant to intellectual commands. These maladaptive behaviors represent repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to permanently banish troubling emotions, fears and anxieties. They represent an attempt to regulate emotions. Shopping is less about acquiring a new “thing” and more about trying to purchase a serene state of mind.
Imagine a hypothetical shopper, a man or woman. For illustrative purposes, let’s envision a woman. When she feels anxious, depressed or lonely, she likes to shop. It distracts her. She says it cheers her up. She feels less tense.
Her urge to buy “things” out there in the mall is her attempt to soothe or balance an inner state of emotional upset. Lacking more effective means to alleviate painful feelings, she feels helpless and uses spending as a coping strategy to purge or alter intolerable distress.
What began inside has moved outside. Our shopper has externalized unspoken inner feelings and acted them out. Shopping becomes the stage on which her inner drama is reenacted. As her helplessness is exposed, she feels ashamed, and self-loathing becomes her frequent companion.
It is important to remember that she is trying to help herself feel better. Shopping is simply a distorted, maladaptive attempt to achieve that. She is trying desperately to escape or manage painful feelings and just doesn’t know how. Her impulse control issues originated in infancy and early childhood, long before she had acquired sufficient language to describe her feelings. What cannot be spoken will be acted out.
If her parents were repeatedly unable to mediate her emotional needs, she learned to expect that no one could be trusted to respond to them, so her infant mind devised substitute comforts. Food is a substitute. Gambling is a substitute. Shopping is a substitute.
Individuals with impulse control problems liken their self-destructive behavior to an addiction, and indeed, they do feel utterly swept away by urges they cannot control.
As a psychoanalyst, I prefer to be curious about the dynamics of impulsivity without affixing a pejorative label on it. While impulsivity often has calamitous results, a maladaptive response to emotional distress is not really an addiction, though substance abuse is certainly another maladaptive response to distress.
Behavior is a wordless language
We are exploring how people cope with insistent emotions that beg for attention. All behaviors wordlessly communicate inner feelings and needs. Impulsive shopping communicates emotional hunger. My therapeutic task is to help patients translate behavioral language into words, so they can learn from them and not simply repeat them.
Back at the mall, as our hypothetical shopper is spending, she’s experiencing a pleasant, though temporary, emotional reprieve. She may feel a blunting or numbing of depression or anxiety, or perhaps a euphoria that catapults her into a frenzy, where she spends even more to sustain her unnaturally elevated mood.
This is the equivalent of forcing roses to bloom off-season in a hothouse. They appear natural, but really aren’t. Her artificially induced mood won’t last.
She then spends too much and brings home her booty still in a state of elation. It is irrelevant whether her plunder is expensive or dirt cheap; TJ Max works as well as Niemans.
What is significant is that she cannot resist an impulse to shop. Later, as her artificial mood begins to dissipate, she is contrite, filled with shame and guilt, realizing that she’s “done it again.” Her gilded carriage has once again become a large squash.
Sometimes the goods are returned; often they are not. Her emotional distress always returns, because she hungers for emotional feeding, not more stuff (or actual food), so the pattern is repeated again and again.
Toxic substitutions for emotional sustenance
Some shoppers actually experience a dreamy, trance-like state they find very comforting, what we might imagine a contentedly warm baby experiences with a belly full of milk. It’s no coincidence that shopping is equated with consuming or consumption.
The problem is that our shopper has slipped herself an inedible substitution. Lonely infants will chew on anything. Closets filled with unworn clothing are nothing more than an adult’s adaptation of a baby frantically sucking on a blanket. Neither can be used to nourish or soothe. The clothes may still have price tags, but emotional damage is unquantifiable.
Our shopper has learned to use objects, in this case clothing, for a purpose other than that for which they were intended. Shoes were meant to cover her feet and, yes, delight her with aesthetic or sensual pleasure. They were not, however, intended to provide emotional sustenance. For that she must turn to trustworthy people and healthy pursuits.
If she experienced people as unreliable and untrustworthy, she will turn to non-human objects for comfort. Our hypothetical shopper has learned to substitute stuff for affiliation.
Emotions override judgment
Impulsive shopping is repetitive and episodic, following an inflexible pattern. It is problematic precisely because it is inflexible. The impulsive shopper feels locked into a very rigid sequence of behavior where adult competencies, like restraint, judgment and self-control, feel inoperable and useless. Emotional hungers that originated in infancy override her judgment.
This dichotomy is not indicative of immorality, failed willpower or self-control. It exposes a shrieking inner baby who is starving for emotional food that was lacking long ago. At the moments when impulsive behavior holds sway, adult capacities are suspended, as the needy inner baby takes control. It is as if an infant has been given the car keys, though has no license to drive.
Behavior feels so wildly out of control, because a baby has not yet acquired adult skills and capacities like judgment and restraint. Children are extremely impulsive, which is why parents monitor them so closely. Judgment is one of the last capacities to mature during late adolescence. Parents are required to muse with their teens to help them learn to think and plan.
Shame and the inner baby
The needs of the inner baby are more insidious, shamefully stuffed down, because no adult wants to think of himself or herself as having immature facets. But we all embody a mixture of traits, and some are more developed than others.
From an emotional perspective, when our vulnerable shopper feels like the stability of her inner emotional world is at stake, the desired object actually does represent survival. Our shopper really does feel like she can’t live without it, whatever “it” is, and at that moment, her infant self cannot.
Tending the inner baby from the inside out
The gifted psychoanalyst, Dr. Judith Mitrani, recently remarked that, from a developmental standpoint, our baby parts never “grow up.” Like ink on a page or rings on a tree, they are always with us. But, we can learn to interact with them proactively by becoming more conscious of their attributes and lingering unmet needs.
Unconscious personality components have a hidden life of their own out of awareness and take over like little tyrants when least expected. The moon is always present, even on dark nights when it can’t be seen. Psychoanalysis is the process whereby self-awareness increases and these hidden moons become illuminated, so we can learn from them.
Impulsive shopping is a defense against engulfing emotions of despair and annihilation anxiety that originated in infancy. Our current, unstable economic surround stirs up inner insecurities, amplifying the maladaptive characteristics of fixed, inflexible coping strategies.
For our hypothetical shopper, inside and outside have come to feel dangerous. Until she begins to understand her inner world, she will repeat this unrewarding cycle in a desperate effort to regulate unspeakable feelings.
No quick fix
There are plenty of self-help books circulating out there that prescribe simplistic, one-size-fits-all behavioral strategies or solutions, but it’s important to remember that their authors are selling books. Quick-fix solutions for entrenched difficulties rarely exist. In this case, the classic axiom applies: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Interventions that appeal to the intellect do not soothe the hungry, anxious baby or alter the inner emotional landscape. They are a prescription for repeated failure, mounting shame and guilt.
Behavior may be controlled, but emotional problem remains, requiring constant vigilance. Eliminating symptomatic behavior without decoding its function forecloses on important learning that may lead to more consistent change.
There is a high rate of recidivism among individuals who attempt to simply subdue or control behavior forcefully, because these interventions do not assuage the underlying emotional needs that drive impulsivity. In fact, they punish the fragile inner baby. Locked in battle with unmet emotional needs, and these invariably win, a person is left feeling like the stubby tail on a really mad dog.
Defenses insure survival of the mind
All defenses are difficult to relinquish, because they were originally enacted to insure survival of a baby’s vulnerable mind, preventing an undeveloped, young psyche from going to pieces. Intellectually, our hypothetical shopper may sense that she is performing an outmoded coping strategy that has become self-destructive, but resistance unleashes all the bottled up terrors of her infant life that remain unbearable.
Benefits of psychoanalytic therapy
Analytically oriented therapy can be very helpful, because it seeks to access and understand the emotional needs driving bewildering symptomatic behavior. When our shopper’s inner world is decoded and comprehended, she will find herself in a position to learn from her behavior, not simply repeat it.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975