Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: The Best of Times or The Worst of Times

By Terrance Shulman

Are you someone who loves or hates the holiday season – or a little of both? As a recovering scrooge and as a certified addiction counselor since 1997, I know from experience that a combination of difficult memories, potentially stressful family gatherings and pressure to buy, spend, shop and “be merry” take a toll. Research shows that addictions and addiction relapses increase dramatically between November and January each year.

Compulsive hoarding, shopping/spending, shoplifting and employee theft often reach epidemic proportions during the holiday season. As with all addictions, misguided beliefs around happiness, satisfaction, abundance and fairness often drive these behaviors.

Research shows that shoplifting and employee theft spike during the holiday season for a variety of reasons. I’ve heard countless stories of people who stole during the holidays and spent Christmas in jail or who were led out the office door in handcuffs. It’s never worth it.


Not all shopaholics are hoarders, but these maladies often overlap. Some still laugh at the notion that shopping is an addiction, but studies over the past decade strongly support that theory. About 10 percent of Americans – women and men almost equally – fit the bill. Many of us go off the deep end with spending, only to feel stressed at the start of the New Year when the credit card bills come due.

Friction and conflict over money, values around money, debt and financial infidelity have replaced sex and romance issues as a leading factor in relationship conflicts and divorces. The average American now carries nearly $10,000 of credit card debt – much of it from shopping-related or non-essential purchases.

Last year, the National Retail Federation estimated that the average American spent nearly $920 on gifts in December. Online holiday shopping surpassed store shopping in dollar figures and now accounts for about a third of holiday spending. We used to recognize “Black Friday” as the official kick-off for holiday shopping, but last year more stores than ever decided to stay open on Thanksgiving.

What are children learning about the holidays and the broader issue of consumerism? Stuff, stuff and more stuff! To piggyback on a dietary analogy, we need more protein and less stuffing. What is the protein? You get to decide – but consider rest, relaxation and quality time together with family and friends.

Now is a good time to ask ourselves, “What are we really shopping for?” Is it to escape, to keep up with the Joneses or for love and approval? Have we been duped into spending more than we really need to or can afford? I highly recommend watching a great film about our hyper-consumerist culture called What Would Jesus Buy?

There are countless ways to express our gratitude and to celebrate the deeper meaning of the holidays – a time for thanksgiving, love, miracles, generosity, renewal and the close company of family, friends and community. Even if we’re going through challenging times, the holidays beckon us to focus on the positive.

The holidays can be a stressful and tempting time. Don’t wait until you’re in the midst of the holiday craze to create an action plan. If you’re not preparing for recovery, you’re preparing to relapse.

Here are a few tips to help keep you centered, grounded and safe:

If you choose to shop, shop early before the crowds hit.

See if you have any items you can regift or recycle.

Set a budget for how much you can comfortably spend.

Remember the spirit of the holidays. It’s not about the “stuff”; it’s about the shared joy and experiences with family and friends.

If you have few family or friends nearby and you’re worried about loneliness, be proactive. Find local support group meetings or other gatherings/events and commit to attend.

Stop and remember how you felt during past holidays when you were active in your addiction. Did you shoplift or steal from work, then feel guilty? Were you arrested or fired from a job for stealing, and then feel guilty? Did you break your budget and regret it later, starting the New Year stressed out? Did you feel ashamed to have friends or family over because your home was a disaster zone?

If you feel pressured to buy for your kids, stop and remember what you want to teach them. It’s likely your best memories are about the time you’ve spent together with loved ones, not the stuff you received. Be creative; get kids engaged in activities they’ll cherish forever.

Do volunteer work to put your life into perspective – here is always someone suffering more than you. Consider donating time, money and/or gifts to the more needy; have the family volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or other charitable institution.

Consider donating to Toys for Tots. Bring a smile to the lives of those less fortunate.

Don’t abuse alcohol, drugs or food. Plan for moderate exercise, fresh air, adequate sleep, healthy food and some quiet solitude.

If holiday get-togethers bring up difficult emotions, choose not to attend or to minimize the time spent in that situation. Augment your visits with meetings or calls to your sponsor or other supportive people.

Terrance Shulman

Terrance Shulman

How do you want your holidays to go? What are your keys to embracing miracles? You are the gift. I am the gift. We are the gift. No amount of money or things – whether bought or stolen – can truly bring peace. Give, but don’t overdo it and give yourself the gift of asking for help.

Simple is good. Less is often more. Your holidays can be the best of times. It’s really up to each of us to choose and create our experiences. May this be your best holiday season yet!

Copyright 2014 Terrence Shulman

Terrence Daryl Shulman is a Detroit-area therapist, attorney, author and consultant. He is the founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding. He is the author of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery (2003), Biting the Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic–New Perspectives, New Solutions (2005), Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending (2008) and Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending, and Hoarding (2011). He has been featured on nearly 100 television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show.

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