Dr. Ramani talks “My Shopping Addiction” premiering tonight on Oxygen

Oxygen network’s fun-loving slogan may be “Live Out Loud!” — but its newest reality offering, My Shopping Addiction centers on men and women whose lives, finances and relationships are imploding because of uncontrolled spending.

Over the course of the series, 16 individuals — whose spending habits range from $30,000 binges born of a enviable inheritance to a woman who can’t stop frequenting thrift stores — will avail themselves to psychologists Dr. Ramani Durvasula (“Dr. Ramani” for short) and Dr. David Tolin, who help them face the true root of their shopping addiction and find the tools to break it.

Dr. Ramani, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, who makes frequent television appearances to discuss issues of addiction and obsession, says she and Dr. Tolin welcome the unique opportunity to help viewers recognize the myriad forms of shopping addiction — and that help is readily available should they see themselves or a loved one in the series’ shoppers.

“I work clinically and do research in a whole lot of areas of why people can’t regulate themselves, and helping them find regulation — whether it’s food, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s shopping,” she explains. “So this show is a perfect storm of what I do in my professional life and in the television world. As a psychologist, it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to work in this televised space because we all labor really hard and we want to get the word out about problems and solutions. People might say, ‘I shop too much, but is there even something that can be done?’ Or for loved ones who may be watching their child fritter away their financial future, or older adults, people who are retired and get bored and start spending a lot of their retirement money — now they know that there are actually things that can be done to address it.”

Tonight’s premiere episode features Heather, a young woman whose grandmother left her enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her life. But spending sprees of more than $30,000 a month on clothing and items Heather admits she neither needs nor uses are threatening to leave her broke within a few years — and cost her even her closest friends. Roshanda learned to bargain hunt at the 99-cent store from her mother, but the inability to stop stockpiling sundries has left Roshanda in debt to her mother and multiple friends and on the brink of eviction.

We spoke with Dr. Ramani about the series, the prevalence and causes of shopping addiction and how to recognize if you or a loved one may have a problem.

CGM: Are there things that are common in the personalities and backgrounds of all obsessive shoppers?

DR: When we’re talking about a shopping addiction, I always break it down into three primary areas: money, people and time.

By money, I mean that you’re spending beyond your means — so you’re accumulating debt or you’re ignoring other financial responsibilities like paying your rent, paying your utilities, paying back people you might owe money.

No. 2, people, means other people are noticing your problem and it’s getting in the way of your relationships. They’re saying, “You spend too much money, you have too much stuff, you’re not spending time with the family and you’re not spending time with me.”

And finally, time. Whether you shop at a 99-cent store or you shop at Hermés, many of our shoppers shop five, six days a week for many, many hours a day. So if you’re spending that much time shopping, that’s time you’re not spending doing other things. Spending time with other people, studying, exercising, whatever the case may be — but things that will promote your health.

I look for those three things when I’m working with someone and even if a couple of them are off, we’re dealing with a problem. Regardless of where you shop.

CGM: I’ve watched preview clips from the show and the thing that strikes me most is how astronomical the potential losses for these individuals are — homes, cars, relationships — and yet they seem powerless to think beyond their next purchase. Help me understand …

DR: Let’s take a step back and look at any addiction. Addictions are about being very shortsighted. And about getting a quick fix.

Any of us can relate to the idea of going to a store, buying something new and how good that makes us feel in that moment. And to top it off, if you wear that new thing out in the world, people are like, “Oh, you look fabulous!” So you’re getting doubly reinforced.

Now change everything I just said to a drug like cocaine or alcohol or cigarettes. You don’t think down the line to the health problems it will cause or the legal problems it will cause. Right now, it makes you feel good. So anytime anyone is that dysregulated, they tend to take a shorter view and go for the quick fix — and that’s usually an indicator that other things in their life aren’t looking well. They may be unhappy about relationships. They may be unhappy about their job. They may be unhappy about the direction their life is taking. Those are big-ticket issues to take on. So instead of taking on the big-ticket issue — “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up” — I’m going to go buy myself a new bag. A bag’s a quick fix, and for those two hours, four hours, eight hours, you don’t need to deal with the problem and you get to have something new.

We have very much become a society of quick fixes, and shopping is very much the go-to quick fix. Because not only do they get the pleasure of the shopping and the buying and the new thing, then they get to hear from the world — “Love your bag, love your shoes, love your hat, love you.”

CGM: I was also surprised to see that you’ve got thrift and discount store shoppers in the mix — so this is not solely a problem of people buying things out of their price range; they just can’t stop buying.

DR: I remember the executive producer on the show said his grandmother used to say you can go broke saving money. I call it the “State Fair Mindset.” “If you don’t come buy this now, it’s never going to be here again!”

For example — and we didn’t see this much in the show — but I see it in vacation shoppers. They’ll be on holiday and they see this outrageously expensive item and they don’t think they’ll ever get back there again, so they buy it and it winds up in a junk bin within a few months of them getting home.

I think what also happens for some of our shoppers is that it was simply the act of going in the store and buying the item. It made them feel good. It’s like eating. You’re consuming something. And consuming something tends to fill a hole. And I think by and large all 16 of our shoppers were trying to fill a hole. The trick for myself and Dr. Tolin, as the psychologists on the show, was to try to figure out what hole they were trying to fill, so we could find more appropriate ways for them to address that emptiness and that longing.

CGM: Give me an idea of what we’ll see when you and Dr. Tolin begin working with the shoppers.

DR: We would spend three or four days with them. And the interesting thing about how we did it is that when we typically do regular psychotherapy with a patient, it’s usually anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour once a week. On this show we were working very intensively with them. But the real luxury I had and Dr. Tolin had as psychologists is that we were working with them in the field.

If you have a shopping problem, you can talk about it all you want in an office. But it was a whole different game when we were in the stores with them. And that happened with shopper after shopper after shopper. Their eyes were glazed and they were looking around them and they become a different person in that setting. So it helped me as the person who was treating them to give them new tools when they walk into that situation.

Although this all happened over a few days, it was a very powerful intervention, because we were at Ground Zero with them. We were in their homes. We were in the stores with them. And then, by pushing them through the many really cool exercises that you’re going to get to see on the show, we were present and able to teach them different kinds of responses.

That’s very different than being in an office with them and not going in the stores and not seeing their homes. We were able to intensify it. And I think in few days we made the progress that we would typically make in many months with an ordinary client.

CGM: Do these people truly believe the things they say to you? I’m thinking specifically of the gentleman who said he felt that his credit card going through means the bank specifically authorized him to shop incessantly.

DR: A lot of the dynamic we were seeing was not only a seeking of approval, but also the mislabeling of the quality of relationships.

A lot of our shoppers felt that they had a relationship with the people who worked in the stores. And when it came down to it, they really didn’t. The people in the stores just wanted to make the sale. You’ll see that — and it’s very interesting to watch these so-called relationships these people think they have with store owners and retail clerks.

If you’re feeling powerless in your life, it can feel powerful to go into a store and make something happen. It becomes the one place where you actually feel that you can do something. Make something happen. Acquire something. Especially when that’s not happening in other parts of your life.

CGM: And even the most secure among us still know that when you go out into a store and don’t buy something, the retail staff can make you feel pretty inferior. So being the person that they want you to be must be powerful …

DR: Absolutely. Most of us are raised to be pleasers. So that dynamic, if that’s a part of that person’s character, they’re very vulnerable when they go into stores. They’ll be very vulnerable and suggestible to a retail clerk’s pitch.

“Hey! You usually have to pay 50 bucks for these, but today they’re only 25 and we never do that!” Never in that conversation do you hear the salesperson asking, “Do you want this? Do you need this?” Or are you falling for this sort of smoke and mirrors trick — it’s so cheap so you should get it.

One thing we talked about a lot on the show was making that distinction between wanting something and needing something. If you run out of sugar and you need to bake a cake, you need sugar. That’s very different from when you have 15 black shirts and you may want another black shirt because it’s cut a little different from anything you have. You have to take that moment and say, “Do…I…need…this?” We need to teach people that distinction, because it sure as hell ain’t going to be the store people saying that!

CGM: Has the pervasiveness and ease of online shopping increased the prevalence of shopping addictions?

DR: We don’t get too much into that space on the series because online shopping’s not really dynamic. However, the majority of people on our show did take part in some of that, but the majority of it took place in a store.

And you’ve got to remember: Shopping in a store is a very compelling experience. Stores are very attractive places to be. Shopping malls have become destinations. In Los Angeles, you look at a place like The Grove. They made The Grove look like a fake European town and people like to go there and walk around. So instead of walking the beautiful mountains and trails we have around Los Angeles, they go to a fake European town. A fake European town that’s filled with what? Stores.

So we’ve turned stores into destinations and we focus a lot on that in this series. But I think online shopping was also something that many of them did. I really hope we get a Season 2, because I would really like to take that one on. I think that’s something that plagues a lot of people. You can do it at 2 in the morning. You can do it without leaving the house. Older adults who may have limited mobility. New mothers. People who can’t get out and about. It’s a really vulnerable space. And it’s harder to regulate.

CGM: Have you found that the current economic climate and the sense of deprivation and belt-tightening that goes with it have had an effect — the sense of people rebelling against long-term frugality?

DR: You’re raising a really excellent point — and it’s funny that you are asking this, because I was just opining about it this morning. There are two issues here. No. 1, because of the recession, some people don’t have jobs, or they’re not making as much money, so the margin for error becomes smaller. If you make spending mistakes, you can fail that much more quickly.

But to your other point, this idea that people are really having to belt-tighten, that leaves a person to feel very deprived. And there’s a difference between feeling deprived and feeling depleted.

Depletion is what happens when everything in life is pulling at you. You don’t have enough money. You’re under a lot of stress. You’re under a lot of pressure — whether it’s kids, or job, or relationships. That can deplete you and it can make it harder to say no.

Feeling deprived is the belief in your mind that you’re owed something. That you deserve more than what you have. And I think that sometimes people confuse the two. And they don’t realize that when you’re feeling depleted, there are better ways to feed that — get rest, get proper nutrition, get the proper amount of activity. Depletion can be addressed by those kinds of things.

Deprivation is a mindset — “I deserve more!” And that’s really a byproduct of the modern world where we’re having designer labels shoved in our faces all the time. You’re a better person if you wear Kim Kardashian’s shoes or Jessica Simpson’s bag or you carry a Birkin. We are so powerfully tugged by the media saying that if you have things, then you will have a better life. And that’s a really, really hard battle for people to fight.

So I think it’s that idea that people do feel more deprived, because they don’t have the resources they once had. They’re having to work harder for less money and unfortunately that can really gum up their signals in terms of wanting and needing and feeling that they deserve more. And then they can start making mistakes that have ramifications for the long term.

CGM: How critical is it that the people around the shopping addicts be part of their recovery?

DR: What sadly happens many times — and I think parents unintentionally do this — they want to do right by their kids, so they make things available to them, help them out with a debt, and before you know, it becomes a habit. And now their child, their adult child, has a spending habit and the parents contributed to that by acting like a human ATM machine. And then the parents are like, “You need to stop!” But now this is an uncontrolled habit for this person.

However, people around you can help you stop. And many times, as you’re going to see throughout the series, when these people have to face their friends, their loved ones, their family members, and really make a choice between them and the stuff, you really see the struggles that ensue. You’re going to see that struggle play out all season on the show.

Sometimes it’s the social network that contributes to the origin of the problem. Just like people have drinking buddies, a lot of people also have shopping buddies. So you have to teach them to be the voice of reason in their network.

CGM: Are the people on the series receiving aftercare to make sure their new, better habits stick? Because, theoretically, you don’t have to drink another drink, or take another illegal drug — but everyone has to shop for necessities.

DR: Aftercare is important, and everyone will be offered different amounts of it, depending on the nature their issue. As you’ll learn from the series, we have 16 patients and 16 different stories. So there are 16 ways that their issues will be dealt with. The follow-up care will be a place where they can continue practicing the skills that they learned in the exercises to get to the root cause of the problems and see how that connects back to shopping. Different people are availing themselves of it in different ways. Some people are more comfortable doing it than others.

My Shopping Addiction premieres tonight at 11/10CT on Oxygen.

Photos/video: Oxygen

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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