Binge Shopping Behavior

Expert Q&A with Angela Wurtzel, MA, MFT, CEDS

Binge Shopping Behavior


Angela R. Wurtzel is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Eating Disorder specialist with 16 years of private practice experience.

She has developed a specific approach to working with people who come to therapy with a thirst for understanding, insight and desire to make the changes that they envision for themselves. 

Angela has a natural sense of empathy and concern for people she works with and she provides a reflective and explorative environment for people to come to know their own minds. 

Angela has been involved with various professional organizations over the years. She gives presentations locally and internationally and has brought many influential speakers to her community who gave professional and timely presentations. 

Currently, Angela focuses on her private practice work and writing.  She maintains private practices in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, CA. 

Her website provides information about services, events and media presence, and her blog The Hunger on My Bones features information about eating disorders, self Injury and compulsive shopping.


Why did you start working with compulsive shoppers?

I decided to treat compulsive shopping as one of my specializations because during my work with those who struggle with eating disorders, the issue came up in the course of treatment for many of my patients.

The process of compulsive spending and shopping, as described by my patients, is very similar to the process of over feeding or under feeding with food.


Are there long term psychological effects from this behavior?

I actually think the psychological effects of long term attachment and developmental struggles are what lead to the behavior and that by understanding that for each person, the destructive behavior can be remedied.


Is there a role that society plays in exacerbating binge shopping behavior?

“Retail therapy” [perpetuates] what a person is already doing.  It is similar to the way pictures of thin women [perpetuate] what a person with anorexia is already doing.

By addressing the internal emptiness and by helping a person develop a sense of self, values, and ideas … the external images play less of an influential role.  [This work is supported] by developing insight and an understanding of one’s history, dynamics and ways of being in the world.


Your professional specialties seem to have a strong theme of ‘hunger’ attached to them.  Can you discuss how hunger relates to the compulsive shopper?

I talk about the idea of “hunger diseases” based on the work by R. Battegay.

The idea is that a deeper, unconscious hunger lies at the core of compulsive shopping, eating disorders and self injury.  For each person the hunger is specific, based on their early experiences, attachment history and development.

Compulsive shopping, the process, may show up as a symptom for people who have unknowingly suffered [loss] repeatedly [or] early in life.  It provides a temporary soothing for an unbearable void.

Without appropriate attention and treatment, compulsive shopping can lead to devastating consequences.


In your work you help people who have a hard time divorcing themselves from the “all or nothing” framework of thinking.  Is that a particularly hard struggle for people considering that shopping is a basic life activity?

Black and white thinking, or all or nothing thinking, is a very important concept in my work.

This framework of thinking is a part of each of us and we need it to make decisions.  Some decisions are clearly black and white, however, when it comes to thinking and feeling, [all or nothing] doesn’t necessarily work.

I propose that black and white thinking is where a person may be stuck developmentally. In regards to compulsive shopping and/or hunger diseases, I suggest that developing a thinking process that goes beyond this phase is what is needed and that learning to think and live in the “gray” may be more realistic.

This is very hard for people. Resistance to changing the thinking process and giving up all that is attached to it is very scary.

Giving up the process of shopping as a basic life activity is not the goal.  Learning how to not shop compulsively is the goal.


In your writing you add bits of poetry and song lyrics.  Does artistic expression play a part in your therapeutic work?

I like to use poetry and lyrics in my writing to promote understanding.

I don’t typically integrate these types of mediums in my therapy work. The therapy room is for the patient to explore their minds without my intrusions.


Is binge shopping behavior similar to substance abuse?

There are similarities and differences between binge shopping and substance abuse.  Both can be identified as process addictions.  [Thismeans] that the process of thinking, doing and regretting, [surrounding both] shopping and substance abuse, are the addictive behaviors.

They offer an escape from reality, thinking and the development of the mind.  Many people have described to me how thinking about what they want to buy or what they want to use helps them not think about “real things that are painful.”

The difference between binge shopping and substance abuse is that substances have addictive qualities in and of themselves where as purses and shoes do not.


Do binge shoppers have a recovery rate or relapse rate different than substance abusers?

In my practice, the rate of recovery is based on the person and the depth of their addictive process and developmental damage.

I do not measure recovery and relapse based on the type of abuse, I measure and assess this based on the person’s ability and capacity for insight and developmental growth.


Can you please explain what “psychotherapeutic treatment” is as it relates to people who compulsively shop?

It is a process oriented treatment that addresses each person individually based on their history, current behaviors and proposed goals.

It involves the exploration of a person’s history as it relates to early attachment. The therapy relationship thus becomes a significant element for facilitating change because it will most likely mirror aspects of early relationships that can now be resolved and understood.

My role is not one of a cheerleader or goal setter.  I provide the holding environment for a person to explore their own mind and to talk about what is easy or difficult to express so [they] can find [their own] words.

It is a long term process and the idea is to promote change in [behavior] that can be sustained over time.


Do you find that a person who shops online will have the same compulsive tendencies when they enter a physical store?

The process of compulsive shopping is different for each person.

What a person gains, or feels, from their “process addiction” is what needs to be understood and analyzed so that changes in the process can be made.

Some people find that the rush of getting something immediately is what brings satisfaction and for others doing secretive online shopping is what brings them relief.


Do people who compulsively shop for “things” have the same binge behavior when they shop for necessities such as food?

Again, everyone has their own process.

For some people, going to the grocery store and buying more food than necessary may provide a sense of security.  For those people, knowing that if they want or need something it will be there [is what matters] even though it means some of the food may go bad and will be thrown out in the end.

The idea of knowing in that moment that they will have [those items] is what matters to them.


If a binge shopper will not consider seeking professional help, are there other methods to stop?

I am sure there are support groups and practical interventions that can be extremely helpful.

I am not aware of any groups designed to help the binge shopper specifically.


Angela, thank you so much for your time.  If people would like to reach you or seek treatment, what methods should they use?

Angela Wurtzel, MA, MFT, CEDS
27 East Victoria Street
Rear Cottage
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
1115 Toro Street Suite H
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Phone/Fax (805) 884-9794

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