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retail therapy meaning

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Retail therapy. The very term itself is a bit problematic. Do you think that any licensed therapist out there would consider shopping a form of therapy? Therapy, after all, is meant to heal something—is it not? And has a sweater ever healed your emotional wounds? Has a pair of heels ever made you feel better (probably literally not—since heels hurt like a m*$&%@!). I would file shopping under the same category as drinking, doing drugs, or having impulsive sex with strangers in the sense that, it makes us feel better in the moment, and then much worse after. True therapy should not leave you feeling worse. It shouldn’t leave you feeling regretful. You don’t leave a therapist’s office feeling ashamed of yourself—you feel proud of yourself. You feel like you put in some hard work and reaped the rewards. But, alas, our society accepts retail therapy as a real thing, and it permeates our culture so deeply, sometimes we don’t even realize it. Here are some scary truths about the concept of retail therapy.


It starts early

Even from a young age, when you were old enough to go without adult supervision but not quite old enough to drive, what would your parents do with you on a Saturday afternoon? They’d drop you off at the mall. You were conditioned, early on, to see the mall as a recreational place—somewhere to just hang around, passing the hours. Shopping was something you were taught to do when you just had nothing else to do. That does not set us up for a healthy relationship with the activity.


It’s roped in with “entertainment”

Visit a hotel and ask for a brochure on the local sites and you’ll be given a list that lumps in dining, entertainment, and shopping all together. As if shopping is, in some way, a cultural activity. As if we travel hundreds of miles to visit another city’s enter large retail store here. Since when do shopping and entertainment belong in the same category? Sure, you pay to see a play or a movie but at least those things can enrich your soul and give you something far more meaningful than a purse can.


We call shopping an “activity”

Even as an adult, when you talk to friends and ask, “What should we do today?” it’s pretty common that someone says, “Shopping.” While I wouldn’t normally condone doing things the way men do, in this case, I might. Men don’t really treat shopping as an activity. They need a thing, they go buy that thing, and they go home. They don’t wander from store to store with friends, just to see what’s out there. When it comes to this spending habit, men may just have the right idea.


It does not address the issue

It’s called retail therapy and yet, nothing about shopping addresses whatever issue you’re tackling. You go shopping when you feel stressed about a situation at work or in your love life. To call it therapy is a lie because you aren’t addressing that problem when you’re trying on clothes and sending selfies of a romper to a friend for her opinion. Have you ever left a boutique knowing just how you’ll handle that fight with your boyfriend?


It’s just a distraction

All shopping really is is a distraction. It’s a form of procrastination. We don’t typically call other forms of procrastination like…turning our phones off and drinking a bottle of wine therapy. We call that good old-fashioned procrastination. Yet, somehow, shopping snuck its way out of the procrastination category and into the therapy one. Maybe because we do it soberly (eh, well, not always. Mimosas and shopping go well together).


But it causes more stress after

Retail therapy actually just adds onto the stress you already have. The very way it is the most effective in the moment at distracting you is the same way it will be the most stressful after. Translation: the more you buy and the longer you shop, the longer you get to distract yourself..and the worse you feel later for the credit card bill. All you’ve done is add to your problems. You’ve solved nothing.


In fact, it leaves you feeling less in control

Often, when we embark on a little retail therapy session, we have a momentary sense of empowerment. Perhaps because we are using that hard-earned money and we are “bettering” ourselves by altering our appearance through clothes. But, it’s all a ruse. After shopping you actually feel less in power—less in control of your life. You come out of it feeling almost as if something possessed you. You weren’t thinking clearly in that store. You were somebody else for a moment. Now you regret all the money you’ve spent, and feel you actually lack will power. Therapy shouldn’t leave us feeling that way.


It masquerades as you “treating yourself”

When we talk about shopping, we may say, “Treat yourself.” We talk about it like it’s you pampering yourself. But, it is not that. A massage is pampering. A facial is pampering. Time in a hot tub is pampering. Buying clothes doesn’t impact your body or mind at all.


It even allows for false role-play

Admit it: you do a little fantasizing when you shop. I don’t mean sexually (unless you’re in a lingerie store) but in other ways. You buy the clothes for the life you wish you were leading, rather than being out there and actually pursuing that life. You buy cute workout clothes, or a cute outfit you could see yourself wearing to an art gallery opening. But perhaps you don’t work out much and you don’t go to art gallery openings. Shopping lets you ignore that reality for a moment because, hey, at least you’re dressing the part.


We condone it in one another

We don’t do each other any favors, either. If a friend says, after a stressful time, “I’m treating myself to a shopping trip”, we say, “Good for you.” Or we say, “You deserve it!” We use language around it as if it is some healthy, beneficial activity. We applaud our friend as she rides off to max out her credit cards, and she feels more encouraged because of it.


We normalize the words “I need to go shopping”

Pay attention: you may notice yourself saying the words, “I need to go shopping.” Do you really need to? Do you truly have no clothing to put on your body? Would you go about life naked and afraid if you didn’t go shopping today? Do you only get oxygen to breathe when you purchase X amount of clothing? We never need to go shopping. But we say we do, and everyone around us agrees.


The stores cling onto you

The stores know how addicting shopping is, too. They ask for your email address, promising a coupon if you give it right now. And, before you know it, you’re sent promotions every day, beckoning you to go back in. It has that feeling of a vicious yet soothing cycle of, say, gambling or drinking. It always feels like just one more drink/game of black jack/designer jeans will fix the issue. Even though it is causing issues now.


That money could be put to better use

Clothing and accessories are depreciating assets. They simply are. Sweaters do not go up in value. You could be taking the money you spend on shopping and growing it. Perhaps you could be putting it into a savings account or even spending it on a night class or workshop that would boost your marketable skillset.


That time could be put to better use

Don’t forget the time that goes into shopping. If you’re really an addict, you may spend several hours a week shopping. What else could you do with that time? Finally begin writing chapters of the book you’ve wanted to write? Finally learn a second language?


At the very least, there are better forms of therapy

If you are looking for therapy outside of true therapy (though real therapy is valuable and don’t believe if you hear otherwise), try meditating, spending time in nature, journaling, or even doing something with your hands like cooking or gardening. These actually have therapeutic benefits, and even if they’re just meant to be a short distraction from reality, they don’t run up a credit card bill.

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