Getting and Giving the Right Kind of Support: What Overshoppers and their Loved Ones Need to Know!

With the holidays fast approaching, overshoppers and overspenders are heading into some very rough waters. There’s temptation everywhere, and mega pressure to buy, buy, buy. How can you, someone who is struggling with impulses to overshop and overspend, get effective help from your support system? What can you, as a loved one, do or say to ease the pain that the holidays often bring to the surface?

We recently came upon three excellent articles, written by the staff at the Center for Motivation and Change, that highlight the importance and impact of supportive relationships in three unique ways. The content has furthered my thinking and I wanted to share it with you.

Under the best of circumstances, relationships can be quite complex And when anxiety, guilt, and shame are present, relationships can get even more tangled. We’ve been conditioned over the millennia to fighting, fleeing, or freezing during difficult times. Not one of these three hard-wired responses has us reaching out for help from other people. Compulsive shopping and spending often function initially as a social lubricant, offering relaxation, reduced anxiety, a way to quiet self-critical voices, and enhance pleasure. Eventually, though, the behavior leads to isolation and the tendency to withdraw as the negative consequences start to surface.

How to Help your Potential Support System Really be Helpful,” suggests that it is best to involve as many people in your network as possible when trying to make significant life and behavioral changes, even though it may be the exact opposite of what you want to do. Abundant research evidence has shown that relying on your support network can significantly reduce the odds of relapse. This article gives advice on how you can encourage those around you to help you through a difficult time by:

  • educating yourself and others about what you need and what resources are currently available. (e.g. software to block emails from particular shopping venues, information about in-person and online support groups for overshoppers)
  • asking for a specific type of help (e.g. someone who will help you create a holiday shopping plan and hold you accountable)
  • being patient with yourself and those around you
  • staying connected by reaching out and responding when your support system reaches out to you
  • giving members of your support system positive feedback when they’ve said or done something that’s helped you

Many people dealing with a loved one whose behavior is self-defeating or self-destructive believe that “tough love” is the only approach that will help. This stems from the fear that any form of positive reinforcement will “enable” the destructive behavior. Not so! “A note on enabling vs. positive reinforcement” makes it abundantly clear that a nurturing and positive approach to a loved one, in and of itself, is not enabling.

Positive reinforcement of positive behaviors is powerfully motivating and can help the overshopper in your life immensely. Your husband takes his lunch to work, rather than going out for yet another $35 power lunch. Your daughter unsubscribes from the retail sites she’s been trolling constantly. These are the kinds of positive actions you want to reinforce profusely!

At the other end of the spectrum, positive reinforcement of negative behaviors enables the behavior, making it much more likely to continue. Giving your wife money to pay the Con Ed bill, knowing that she’ll almost definitely use it to buy clothing, jewelry, or shoes, is a clear example of enabling. This type of “support” is anything but supportive and may even lead to an increase in the severity of your loved one’s compulsive buying. Better to pay the Con Ed bill yourself and spend time, rather than money, with your wife doing something that makes her heart sing.

  • How do you maximize the positive in your relationships to keep them as effective as possible.
  • How can you minimize the negative?

Increasing Positive Support with Relationship FIT-ness” reminds us that you need to think ahead of time about which relationships, and under what conditions, trigger you to overshop. On the flip side, it’s also critical to identify which relationships consistently make you feel better and stronger. Although certain relationships have a decidedly negative cast and others a positive cast, almost all relationships have both supportive and stressful aspects, depending upon an infinite number of factors: the day, the time of year, your mood, their mood, your context, their context, what you’re actually doing together, whether you’re alone with them or with them in a group, among many other conditions.

Developing and maintaining a supportive environment will greatly enhance your capacity for positive change, so it’s important to ask yourself questions like these.

  • What people and situations, and under what conditions, trigger me to overshop?
  • How might these come up during the holidays?

Here are a few examples to prompt your own thinking.

“My sister always looks so incredibly put together, especially during the holidays. After I’m with her, I find myself withdrawing and going to the internet to shop.”

“I know my husband will try to micromanage every penny I spend this season. It makes me want to ‘forget’ my own credit card at home and use his.

“Our house looks like a toy store already, yet my kids keep adding things to their wish lists and I have such trouble saying “no.”

  • What can I do, inside myself, to enhance the good or lessen the impact of the bad parts of this particular relationship?

A few ideas:

Notice what you’re grateful for as often as possible.

Cultivate your capacity for compassion, the wish that both you and the other person be free from suffering.

  • How can I change the way I actually relate to this person to enhance the good or lessen the impact of the negative parts of this relationship, to make it more satisfying?

Some possibilities:

Change the frequency of contact to the extent you’re able; have more contact if being with this person makes you feel good and strong. Spend less time with him or her if being together feels problematic.

Think specifically about what you’re grateful for in the relationship and express it to the person fully and often.

Your brainstorming and troubleshooting about how to be supportable and how best to support yourself will pay you and your support network many dividends. You’ll develop a strong support system to lean on, when that’s what you need, and a delighted support system to celebrate with, as you make some real headway. “Relationships are often “the lifeblood of support for initiating and sustaining change, not a side-show or distraction.”

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