Hoarding, shopaholism, and materialism

I’ve been growing dissatisfied with the way I have been referring to myself in this blog as a hoarder (or clutterer or packrat). That’s not all I am. I realized that I am conflating hoarding with shopaholism or, more technically, oniomania. I used the analogy of a bathtub to a household in my first Observation. What I now think is that hoarding is about the bathtub being plugged; shopaholism is about the water going into the bathtub.

When I said that I’ve gotten better at draining the bathtub, I mean to say that I’m getting better about hoarding. I have almost no clothing I do not use regularly, for example. I do not, as much as I used to, “hold onto a large number of items that most people would consider not useful or valuable,” as Wikipedia puts it. As I deal with hoarding, I am even finding it easier to give away “good stuff” because I see that it is junk in my hands due to being of inadequate value to me.

What I am trying to address in this blog as a whole is the drip into the bathtub, that is, my tendencies toward shopaholism, which Wikipedia describes by the criteria of “1. Over-preoccupation with buying; 2. distress or impairment as a result of the activity; 3. the compulsive buying is not limited to hypomanic or manic episodes.”

Before I proceed further, let me refer you to three bits of Wikipedia so that you can see I am talking about three different entities.

The topic of this Observation post is the way that so many self-help books and sermons make a monstrous error in addressing hoarding and shopaholism as if they were forms of consumerism, or what Wikipedia more precisely calls “economic materialism.” This leads on the one hand to a lot of unnecessary guilt among those with tendencies toward hoarding and shopaholism who however never have their problems really addressed, while there remain materialists who don’t realize they are disordered, who feel pleased with themselves because their multiple, large cars and homes are spacious, orderly, and free from any signs of compulsive shopping.

The general shotgun exhortation in sermons and self-help books is generally to the effect of, “Material objects cannot make you happy; only love can make you happy; do not love anything that cannot love you back.” To which I reply, “Well, duh.”

These thunderings about true happiness seem so obvious to me because hoarding and shopaholism are not marked by what Wikipedia terms “acquisition centrality,” which “is when acquiring material possession functions as a central life goal with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by people’s material wealth.”

Hoarders and shopaholics have various symptoms, but we are all marked by “distress or impairment” from our behavior toward possessions. I know all too well the grief comes from slipping on a pile of old magazines on the floor or from finding that due to earlier purchases, I have to pay special attention to make sure I have some financial breathing room. Shopaholics’ jokes about “retail therapy” are just that, jokes, and bitter ones at that. Our grief is not the materialist’s secret grief that nothing is ever enough.

I don’t labor under the illusion stuff makes me happy in any deep sense; that is part of what I am trying to say in my descriptions of things I want that I won’t buy. I hope it is unnecessary to point out that feeling good for a little while is not the same as being really happy. I know full well that these objects can make me feel good for a while but not in any fulfilling way. I have no illusions that my ability to buy something is a mark of having “succeeded” in some essential fashion.

So I have built up enough resentment that I want to say, cordially, “bugger off” to people who confuse the greed in economic materialism with the types of greed that mark hoarding and shopaholism. These are three different entities that are marked by greed of different kinds.

Greed is an unhealthy relationship to material goods that leads to the accumulation of more than is needed for a healthy life. The hoarder has difficulty letting go of things, the shopaholic has difficulty not acquiring things, and the materialist has difficulty understanding that more things are not the key to happiness. Two or all three can certainly overlap in one person, but they are not the same.

Some would call economic materialism a moral disorder while hoarding and shopaholism are mental disorders, and I consider that distinction misleading. All disorders are similar in that they are fundamentally a failure to reach full human potential. The issue then is to not to condemn some people and excuse the problems of others, but to help all people to fulfill their potential, each in their own way.

And so, what I am trying to deal with in this blog is my own shopaholism, my preoccupation with acquiring things that I consciously know will not make me happy but which I want anyway.

Furthermore, I firmly intend not to denigrate the material world, hence my phrase, “no sour grapes.” But that is a topic for some other Observation.


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