Compulsive Buying-Avoiding That Which Leads You to Act

Compulsive buying is a psychological and a spiritual disorder that is symptomatic of a distorted and dysfunctional view of self, others, and the world around us.  The real danger in this disorder, besides the obvious social and financial ruin it can wreak, is the compulsivity with which it is practiced.  Compulsivity can easily become a way of living, a modus operandi for daily life if not checked and dealt with effectively.  In the next few posts, I will offer practical steps in dealing with compulsion.

For the fathers, passions and compulsions are related concepts that distort reality and make change difficult.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I describe passions as “a bad disposition of our inner man that is at the root of sinful thoughts and deeds.  If the classical Greek concept of the inner man overlaps with the modern psychological concepts of personality and consciousness, the passions can also be understood in more modern terms as discreet mental states that orient or, rather, disorient a person in specific situations.  Since Saint Gregory Palamas views the passions as ‘paths that are always crooked and perverse,’ they can likewise be construed as misleading cognitive maps that deceive a person into making decisions that take him off the straight and narrow path of virtue.  Saint John Climacus describes a passion as ‘that which persistently nestles in the soul for a long time, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free choice clings to it.’ Several important notions are contained in this passage.  First of all, passions are habitual modes of responding over time, which indicates that they are learned-or to be more precise, over-learned ways of reacting.  Second, since a person chooses to invest himself in the passions, they adhere to him in a profoundly individualized way.  As habitual, persistent, and individualistic modes of reacting, the passions tend to grow rigid and difficult to change if they are left unchecked.”

It should be clear the striking similarities between what the fathers characterize as passions and cognitive therapy defines as compulsions.  If there is agreement concerning the nature of the problem, is there similar agreement as to how to control the passions and/or compulsions?  Indeed, there is, although the two perspectives would characterize these therapeutic approaches differently.  Both would agree that the first step in avoiding compulsive behavior is to avoid situations that feed the compulsion in the first place.  In terms of compulsive buying, this may mean an intentional avoidance of malls, shopping excursions, and the reading of magazines and brochures which market buying temptations.  This also may include a vigilance concerning the eyes-monitoring and checking where they wander and what they seek.  The fathers describe this in terms of praxis and theoria.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom I write, “praxis as a change in behavior, however, is never without its cognitive component, even if that component is intentionally disregarded, because it is spiritually unhealthy.  For example, sometimes the ancient ascetics advise us to practice doing the opposite of what our thoughts dictate in order to weaken the passions, so that new virtuous habits replace the former passionate ones, thereby making ‘tranquility of character (morum tranquilitatis) our natural disposition by constant practice.  In terms of cognitive theory, behaviorally acting contrary to automatic thoughts weakens the strength of dysfunctional schemata and assists in the formation of new adaptive beliefs.”

While the avoidance of shopping malls and other triggers that lead to compulsive buying is a good first step, this must be accompanied by positive, constructive actions in which the old, compulsive behavior is replaced by new, healthy behavior.  The fathers would counsel a focus on a structured prayer regimen in consultation with a spiritual father as well as ascetic practices of fasting and almsgiving.  Cognitive therapy might suggest new behaviors such as exercise, social activities that don’t involving shopping, and the cultivation of hobbies.  These counsels are not set at odds with each other and in fact may work quite well together.  Since compulsions are often so powerful that they are resisted only with great effort, it is better to start with the practice of behaviors that are the opposite of the compulsion.  When you sense the compulsion to shop and buy as a means of self-gratification, take on an ascetical practice that produces the opposite-self-denial.  Saint John Climacus reminds us that in the “case of the imperfect, the mind often conforms to the body.”  Concerning humility, Saint Augustine notes that, “when the body is bent at a brother’s feet, humble feelings are either awakened in the heart itself, or are strengthened if already present.”  The same is true in dealing with the buying compulsion.  When the eyes adopt a non-inquisitive response to the desire for material possessions, the heart is calmed and the thoughts begin to change.  If you avoid the malls and shopping centers, the eyes will not be aroused by their tempting sights, sounds, and smells.

The fathers were well aware of the significance of a person’s surroundings. Saint John Chrysostom once wrote,  “Every place and every space in comparison with the house of God is a tent of sinners regardless of whether it’s a courtroom, a senate chamber, or the house of each of us. And even if prayers and supplications take place in those settings, quarrels, fights, insults, and a gathering of wordly cares. The house of God, however, purifies all these things.” (PG 51. 149) The first step in dealing with compulsions, including compulsive buying, is to change the behavior. Just as an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking must do everything to avoid that first drink, so too a compulsive buyer must avoid the people, places and things that trigger the compulsion to buy.

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