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Retail Therapy:

Shopping Arcade, could be Burlington Arcade, an 18th century covered shopping arcade. black and white tiled floor, one story shops in the arcade

If you feel you need an emotional pick me up, deal with your mind first and once you have done that, go and make a purchase that makes your heart sing.  But don’t mix up how your mind is feeling with buying clothes.

Retail Therapy – like throwing emotions at our clothes

We throw a lot of emotions onto our clothes.  The most obvious example is retail therapy.  As you probably know, the idea behind retail therapy is that buying something, anything (but often clothes), makes us happier.  So we buy in order to feel better.  It’s like a short cut, “I feel bad, I want to feel better, I buy something, I feel better”.

While I love the idea that clothes make us happy, I want to explore whether it is healthy for us to link the two factors, clothes and emotions, in the way that we do.  I love the transformational power of clothes – you put something on to wear and feel better, or beautiful or strong, or confident.

I understand that.

What I want to address is feeling a feeling that we don’t like – sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, and using clothes to put a plaster/band-aid, over the top of that feeling rather than addressing the feeling itself.

So, my thinking is that the two shouldn’t be linked.  That is to say we should manage our emotions independent of how making a purchase, and the clothes we buy, make us feel.

Are you aware of the extent to which you might be doing either of these two scenarios?

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Retail therapy works

I do understand and relate to the fact that retail therapy works.  And sometimes a beautiful purchase is exactly what we need.  And that’s all it is, a beautiful purchase.  There is no doubt that managing our clothes and planning what to wear leads to a calm, organised approach to life.  Neither is there any doubt that clothes can make us feel happy, or powerful, or confident, or sexy, or free.  What we wear is important, far more important than the transient nature of fast fashion, the unatainable model shapes of catwalk models and the sometimes elitist nature of the fashion world would make us believe.  What we wear is important because we are actually telling our body what we think about by what we wear.

Embodied cognition experts have discovered that our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts, including those generated by the clothing we wear. Clothing can enhance our psychological statesand it can improve our performance on tasks. (positivepsychologynews.com/news/emily-vansonnenberg/2012052122126)

Thoughts and emotions

Powerful, happy, confident, sexy, free are all emotions.  What triggers that emotion is a thought.  We have a thought, it triggers a feeling and we feel an emotion.  So our clothes don’t make us feel any special way, it is the thought about the clothes that triggers our emotional response.   The thought can be virtually imperceptible, you may not even realise you are thinking it.  But you are.

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Why you wear what you wear

An example of this could be, what to wear for a big night out, say a friend’s birthday.  It’s a significant milestone birthday and so you want to look extra amazing for that evening.  You go to your wardrobe/closet and pull out different outfits.  The first one:

  1. black crepe long sleeved dress – “No”, you think, “it’s too formal”.  By which you mean boring.
  2. white trouser suit – again, “No”, you think, “it’s a day outfit”.  My which you mean, not party fun enough.  or sexy enough
  3. a full length, chiffon halterneck – “Yes”, you think, “it’s perfect”.  By which you mean, fun, sexy, party dress…..

This is just a simple example.  But do you see the link and the pattern?  The pattern is:

  1. garment
  2. thought about that garment
  3. feeling about that garment
  4. decision as to wear it or not based on feeling

Shopping Arcade, could be Burlington Arcade, an 18th century covered shopping arcade. black and white tiled floor, one story shops in the arcade

Retail therapy and the brain

Let’s take shopping, retail therapy, as an example.

You’re going to go shopping to do a little retail therapy.  The reason for this could be that:

  1. You’re bored and want a little relief from the boredom
  2. You’re frustrated by some other situation and you believe that your frustration will be alleviated by shopping for clothes
  3. You feel sorry for yourself – You’ve had a bad day, things aren’t going the way you want them to, and you think that by spending time shopping, you’re going to feel immensely better.

I am here to tell you that this is rarely, rarely the case.  In the short time you might feel better.  By short term I mean 5 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day.  But in the long term, it’s rarely the case.


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Retail therapy – what is really going on in your head?

Consider now the situation around retail therapy.  Say you take yourself off shopping because you’ve had a hard day at work and you need a little stress relief.  You walk in to a shop after work.  You spy a beautiful silk dress in your size, your colour.  It’s a little pricey but it looks great when you try it on.

So you buy it.  It’s a little treat to yourself.  A luxury item. You deserve it.

The dress gets folded into tissue paper, you hand your card over, the card transaction goes through, your card and receipt are handed back to you.  And then the beautiful store bag, with the tissue wrapped dress is handed over to you.  You leave the shop with a spring in your step and can’t wait to get home to unwrap your purchase.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  I’m persuaded by this scenario myself.  But is it a healthy situation?

Negative consequences of retail therapy – what we don’t want to know we know

Let’s take a closer look at what is happening outside of the fact you have just bought a beautiful dress.  The dress by the way is not the problem.  You just bought a dress.  No biggy.  But let’s look at your actions and your thoughts and what the results of those could be.

Moving negative emotions to your credit card is easily done

Firstly and most obviously you might have a hike in your credit card bill balance, especially if the situation occurs again and you repeat the process.  What you will be left with is a lot of clothes and a big bill for clothes you hadn’t planned to buy.  Then you will have to sort out how to pay the bill and probably feel bad about racking up credit card debt.  So what you have done is moved the emotion that you masked by buying the clothes, to your credit card bill.  And now you feel bad about that.  You need to address the emotion first and sort that out, otherwise, it’s like water, it always finds a way out.  But with credit card debt, as I know, is that it is so easily not addressed.  And left to accumulate.

Secondly, what happens when the same situation happens again which it most likely will?  Will you go shopping again?  Will this turn into a habit?  Will it turn into uncontrollable spending?

Don’t charge the card, challenge your brain!

What if the reason you’ve had a hard day is that the job isn’t right for you?  Or you are putting up with behaviour from a work colleague, or unreasonable work practices.  You might feel that you can’t address these situations because the salary is good, it’s a prestigious company, it looks good on your CV, it’s a stepping stone to the next job (which will be better).  Or again, it could be that you are in the wrong job or career.  Or it could be that you are at home all day with the children and it’s not where you want to be and you feel guilty.  Or, it could be that the children are grown up, your spouse is out at work all day and you are left wondering what is left of your life.


Faced with emotions we need to address, we’d rather indulge in a little retail therapy

Instead of facing the issue of why we feel like we do, we just go shopping.  And feel better.  And hope the situation will go away.  Which it won’t.  Not without you addressing it.

How to identify whether you are over attaching emotions to your purchases.

Do you say this:

“I went out today and there’s nothing in the shops.  Very disappointing.”


“I’ve just been out to the shops and had a great morning.  Look what I bought!”

[these are pre-pandemic scenarios but you will know if that is you or not]

Do you have unworn items in your wardrobe?

Do you have some items in your wardrobe that still have their tags on?

Are you irritable when you wear certain clothes?

Sorting out our brain and the pain

It’s not just about retail therapy, it’s about your self esteem.

It’s about dumbing down emotions.

We think, or our brain thinks, ‘Get rid of the emotion, get rid of the pain.’

Your brain thinks that’s what will keep you safe.

Actually what you need to do is face the pain head on.

Sometimes we don’t know what the pain is.

We just have a slightly odd feeling that we can’t identify.

Woman with shopping bags running or skipping. background is like a cubist or futurist multi-coloured picture

So what do you do?

Well, Brooke Castillo says you just sit with it.  Acknowledge the pain and sit with it.  Eventually the pain will subside.  That’s the quick version.

Wait for the pain go.

By pain I mean fear or anger or anxiety, or whatever negative emotion you are experiencing.

And then, when the pain has subsided, then you can go shopping.

And really enjoy it.

Your purchase is not dependent on your emotions.  So the chances are you’ll make better decisions about what to buy or not buy when you have first dealt with those emotions.

So enjoy that shopping.  Enjoy every purchase.  Just deal with the pain first.

Have a great day,


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