The Unconscious Urge to Shop

The Unconscious Urge to Shop

This is a guest post from my friend Luise Jørgensen.

I don’t know about you, but I used to get this silent feeling of being empty or of having an unfillable void, and I didn’t really know what to do about it. At those times, I would often end up going shopping, and it would make the feeling go away – at least, for a short period of time. It didn’t last long, though, and I’d have to venture out again, go online, or roam through women’s magazines and look at stuff and dream of how I would feel owning it.

I would browse stores for desirable clothes, cute interior design pieces that felt like they contained the promise of a happy life just by being pretty, or shoes. High heels, sandals, ballet flats. Colorful ones, black ones, classic ones. I was kind of obsessed with shoes. All of it felt like a way to express myself and to convey who I was and indicate my place in the world. I would spend a lot of time and a lot of money – often times more than I actually had. And I remember feeling slightly guilty, and would often hide what I had bought from my boyfriend that I was living with at the time.

The Unconscious Urge to Shop

When I was in it, I didn’t understand what was driving me other than the desire to look good and surround myself with pretty things (which feels like the most natural urge in our time and age). Something shifted in 2012, though, when I went solo-backpacking in Thailand. With only a small backpack, I felt freer than I ever had. And maybe because my funds were limited, I didn’t really buy much stuff on that trip, but I was happy as ever.

I spent four days of my trip at a small monastery in a silent meditation retreat. I shared a basic room with another woman and wore the same set of white clothes for the entire four days. Life felt so simple, and there was a depth I hadn’t experienced before in sitting through both the desirable and the challenging emotions.

The Unconscious Urge to Shop

In the fall that same year, I made the move from Denmark to Thailand, only bringing what I could carry in my backpack. Once again, I felt the lightness of having so few things. I intentionally stayed in a small room in a guesthouse. There was no kitchen, just a bed and bathroom, and the only things I had were my few clothes, my laptop, a camera, and some books I would regularly exchange at the used bookstore. I lived like that for five months. Of course, in Thailand there’s such a large street food culture that the part of not having a kitchen wasn’t really a big deal, but having so few things was a huge change for me.

When I was in Thailand, I noticed how I had fewer urges to go shopping. I noticed that when moving around in the city, I didn’t understand any of the commercials or the billboards I saw. Written in a completely different alphabet, many of them just registered as a sort of art to me. Also, since I’m Caucasian, the women and aesthetics in commercials looked different from me, which personally made me relate less to them. I didn’t think about that in Denmark, where I look like the dominant culture and feel much more targeted by all the visual commercials. I think I had underestimated the power of all the subconscious messages I received in Copenhagen, where I grew up.

Instead of going shopping, I spent my time photographing, reading, listening to audiobooks, discovering the city and the country side, doing yoga, practicing meditation, learning qi gong, meeting new people, singing, dancing, drinking coconuts and just observing people, writing, and starting a photo blog.

I wasn’t instantly and always happy. To say that would be a big lie. I had put myself in a completely new and foreign place, where I did feel lonely often, and I was faced with a mental and physical burnout. But somehow all of that forced me to look inside, and I started to become aware of when I would try to run away or numb my feelings. What used to be an unconscious urge that I would regularly feed dissipated.

What felt so liberating to me was that I realized I could take back my personal power by becoming more aware of the underlying things that drove me; the emotions I would try to numb and the desire to express myself. I could then actively decide if I wanted to spend my money and what I wanted to spend it on. Which then again gave me more power to decide how much I needed to work, and what my personal priorities are in life.

I believe self-expression is a core human need, and it deserves to exist separately from having to constantly spend money.

Two years ago, I sold my apartment and everything I owned back in Denmark. I thought it would be difficult, but it was actually easier than I thought. People would ask me if it was hard to let go of things. Yes. I could feel an emotional bond to some things that had been part of my history. But if I allowed myself to feel that, and then shift my mindset and realize it was just a thing, and that no part or value would be taken away from me as a person if I gave it away, then the bond would loosen and eventually disperse. Sometimes I would simply think about when I die; none of the things I own will be mine anymore, and it gave a weird but liberating perspective to the objects I felt attached to.

Beautiful things can still have an almost hypnotic effect over me. My immediate instinct is to just want them, even though I might not need them. When I visited Denmark some years ago I was struck by how many beautiful things there were everywhere, and just by looking at shop windows I could feel this old familiar urge rise in me – an urge to have the things. If I took a step back, noticed the urge and walked past the shop, it would disappear surprisingly quickly. I started using a mantra whenever I would go out in the world where it was almost inevitable to be window-shopping. I would look at things while repeating to myself “things I don’t need”, “things I don’t need”, “things I don’t need”. It really worked for me. I think it created a distance between the things and me, so fewer emotions would be triggered.

I still buy things, and I still value beauty, but the greater personal awareness has led me to find beauty in other places as well. I spend a lot more time in nature now, and creative expression has become a big part of my life. Moving to the other side of the world was an external shift that kickstarted a fundamental internal change, and it feels great to have more power over the decisions I make in my life.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ― C.G. Jung

Luise is a mindfulness coach who supports women to embody their personal power so they can live a fully expressed, wholehearted and meaningful life. You can read more of her stories on her blog.

  • Wow. Thank you for sharing. This year I’ve been working on looking at a lot of the items (that are essentially junk) as “just things” instead of the memories attached to them. If my mom gave me something that I didn’t even like or use I would hold onto it, because I didn’t want to let go of the memory attached to it. But like you said, it’s just a thing, and throwing away the thing does not mean throwing away the memory. I plan on throwing out a lot of my stuff soon, and this article is really going to help me when I do that.

    On a different note, it’s been a tough year for my family. My dad had multiple strokes that left him physically disabled, and very different cognitively. He isn’t the same dad that I had before the strokes, the one I really depended on to keep me grounded. Now I’m taking on more of a care giving role in his life, which has made me feel like I’ve lost him. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, passed away about two months after my dad’s strokes. This was another devastating blow to my family, on top of navigating our new roles in our dad’s life. The third blow was when my cousin got into a car accident that she did not survive. All of these events happening in one year has really rocked my world and made me look to other ways of filling the empty spaces in my heart. All of this is on top of planning a wedding by the way, which is a joyful time for me, but also has its own stresses. Did I mention I’m trying to finish my bachelors degree?

    I started to look at shopping as a way to numb all of these negative emotions and it lead to a lot of financial turmoil. I’ve been budgeting and have gotten my finances on track, saving about $1,200 in 2 months (This is a win for the poor college student)! Part of my struggle is still there, and I still slip up and buy things that I don’t need. This post has helped to shift my perspective back to where it needs to be and I just want to thank you for sharing your story!

    • Dear Rachel, thanks so much for reading and sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear that this year has been so challenging for you… I find it takes courage to look life directly in the eye and especially to see ourselves with full awareness of what we’re doing. I cheer on you and wish you all the best in life. Love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • Thank you for this beautiful post. I have never had a tranformational experience of travel the way you have, but have always felt a magnetic pull toward simplicity. I recently moved to a small town and bought a house where I experience nature daily in my large forest-like yard. My family jokes that I have less things in my entire home (and that includes gardening and home maintenance tools) than my granddaughter has in her bedroom. And that, brings me peace.

    I still feel the pull of shopping, but keep only a couple outfits for dress up and meetings, jeans and a few tops for casual moments, and several t-shirts I wear with yoga pants or jeans to work out, hang out, or garden. And that, also brings me peace.

    Reading blogs like yours reinforces what I feel inside and I am grateful that Cait Flanders featured your guest post on her blog.

    • Dear Linda, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I so relate to your pull towards simplicity, and I love the sound of your house with a forest-like yard! These days I myself feel the call of nature more and more… I’m happy to hear that this post resonated, and I truly believe mirroring ourselves in like-minded people is such an important element of life. With love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • I never considered myself to be a shopper. I didn’t frequent the mall or shop online. At least that’s what I thought – until I was forced into a shopping ban after being laid off. Suddenly I realized that I shopped a lot more than “never”!
    This was particularly true before I met my now-husband. I was dating a guy that I rarely saw. I worked 2 jobs, 60 hours a week. I didn’t have a social life. So I’d go shopping – sometimes even when I didn’t want to, just to give myself something to do that also got me out of the house. I never realized how much I did actually use shopping – regardless if I made a purchase or not – to cope with the depression I was in.

    • Hi Amanda, thanks so much for reading and sharing. I can relate to your insight about seeing how much we actually shop without knowing it, I think it requires more awareness and willpower than we think to do it differently in the kind of society we live in. Wishing you all the best. With love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • This was great, and thanks for introducing me to Luise’s blog! That’s the thing I struggle with most right now, is not “wanting” the things. I’m getting better at it but it’s definitely taking practice. I realize more and more now that having more things isn’t making me happy, and it’s also making me unhappy because it’s taking me further from my goals.

    • Hi Jacquie, thanks for reading and sharing. Like with everything it takes practice, practice, practice ;) I can really relate, and I think the key is to keep practicing and being gentle with ourselves along the way. With love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • I didn’t realize how much of my spending was related to self-expression until I read this post. I’ve definitely fallen in the trap of thinking I needed to purchase certain things to prove who I am. It can really add up when you feel like “I must own all of the DVDs and merchandise to prove I love this TV show” and “I must buy these new clothes to prove that this is my style.” I’m wondering why I can’t just let people get to know me to find out those things about me. Maybe it’s because it feels more vulnerable to open up to people instead of letting others judge you based on how look and what you own.

    • Hi Victoria, thanks for reading and sharing. And wow I think it’s a great realization you’ve had, and very brave of you to name it. I can really relate, I think it’s a common thing that we end up doing automatically, but once we see it, it’s very liberating to take our personal power back and be able to choose whether we need to purchase anything or not. I definitely think it can feel more vulnerable to open ourselves up, and also it requires a change of habit and mindset. Cheering on you, with love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • Love this! So much. I am not near as minimalist as you are, and I so admire that. But I have found ways to prevent or at least limit that same mindset in my own life. For me, getting rid of the social media that is constantly at our fingertips made a huge impact on my happiness. I stopped comparing myself and home and family to the pictures I saw on FB or Pinterest, and instead chose to enjoy what I have. Maybe it’s not the best, but it’s my best and that’s absolutely all that matters.

    • Dear Ember, thanks for reading and sharing. I can really relate to what you write about social media, and I think the more awareness we have about all that drives us in our lives, the more freedom and ultimately joy can we create for ourselves. Here’s to your best (which is exactly what matters) and the steps you’ve taken. With love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • Luise, thank you for an insightful post. I do enjoy singing (in the car or shower I mean, not SINGing!) and dancing. I never drank from a coconut, but I have done yoga. And while photography isn’t my “thing,” I totally get the need for creative expression. Creative expression (art and writing in my case) allows me to surround myself with positive emotion-filled items rather than trying to buy positive emotions. Isn’t it telling how your time in Thailand reduced your desire to shop? Advertising geniuses are just that: genius. Makes me want to keep my guard up when watching TV or driving past billboards!

    • Dear Priscilla, thanks for reading and sharing. I love that you use creative expression like you do. And yes I do feel it very clearly – the power of advertising or just the fact of being surrounded by shops or not. I do think that’s another reason why I’m so drawn to spending time in nature now, since there’s less that triggers desires for things or promises of certain emotions tied to things. Keep expressing and being! With love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

  • Good stuff. I too have been on a journey of accumulating less stuff and now find recreational shopping more like visiting a museum. I go to a vintage shop or a home decor store and see pretty things and find myself wanting them, but then when I hold the item or contemplate the purchase I can’t envision how it will add to my life. Where will I put it? What will I get rid of to make room for it? I purchase a lot less and recreational shopping isn’t really something I do anymore. It’s not as much fun as it once was.

    • Dear Lori, thanks for reading and sharing. I love how your describe recreational shopping like visiting a museum! that really is a great picture. All the best and much love, Luise (this reply comes late since I’ve been intentionally offline for the last month and a half)

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