Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Shoplifting

By Terrence Shulman

People who steal, hoard, overspend or shop usually feel empty inside. The same could be said of many addicts; their lives are cluttered with stuff, food, drugs, busyness, relationships and chaos. But nothing fills the void deep inside. This emptiness may result from an absence of: love, a sense of purpose, community or meaning, spirituality or self-esteem, or the sometimes elusive essentials of fulfillment and self-realization.

From ages 15-25, I tried to fill those empty places with stealing, particularly shoplifting. My parents divorced when I was eleven, primarily due to my father’s alcoholism and its byproducts. My early issues were about losses: security, my childhood and my innocence. Though I took pride in helping my family, I also suffered the shame of coming from a broken home.

I stumbled upon shoplifting as a teen. I was a good kid, but curious enough to test some boundaries and rules. I never realized I could get hooked! Soon enough shoplifting not only filled the voids in my life, but seemed to give me a sense of power as I “made life fair” by taking. It was as if I was symbolically taking back – item by item, piece by piece – everything I felt was stolen from me: my childhood, my trust, my family, my life.

Stealing was this incredible rush…it was like getting something for nothing! — Addict

There’s no such thing as something for nothing. — Napoleon Hill

Cluttered Lives Empty Souls

I lived a secret life for ten years. I didn’t exactly lie or cheat. I didn’t think I stole from any one – just from stores or work. I dabbled in employee theft, taking product and sometimes small amounts of cash.

Though I knew right from wrong, I convinced myself I wasn’t hurting anyone; I deserved a break, a freebie. I now see my stealing was a cry for help. A part of me wanted to get caught, perhaps in hopes my madness would stop. The few times I was actually caught were some of the lowest, most humiliating experiences in my life. Despite my conflicted feelings, I couldn’t stop myself until I was ready to change.

I recently celebrated my 24th year as a recovering shoplifter. Though I haven’t had any shoplifting relapses in many years, I still have occasional temptations to get “something for nothing”. I have worked through personal issues underlying my shoplifting addiction and have made positive changes that keep it in check. I know addiction runs deep and I have so much to lose if I slip up.

As a chemical dependency counselor from 1997-2004, many of my clients asked if I was in recovery. When I told them I was in recovery for shoplifting, they’d almost always react in shock: “Really?” They’d often share how they’d “boosted” to support their alcohol and drug addictions; and even after they got sober, it was difficult to stop stealing – not just for the financial ease, but because of the rush they got from doing it.

Interestingly, I’ve heard many shoplifting or theft addicts lament, “Why couldn’t I just have been an alcoholic or drug addict because at least that’s socially acceptable. When an alcoholic or drug addict says, ‘I have 30 days clean,’ people applaud. What do you think people say when a shoplifting addict says, ‘I have 30 days with no stealing’? They don’t say anything.”

A glance at the headline news on any given day reveals countless stories, low- and high-profile, about thievery. The recent recession brought a wave of retail fraud. Some of it is petty, but more of it is perpetrated by professional shoplifters or rings. Countless stars, athletes, politicians and dignitaries have been arrested for pilfering.

So, why did Lindsay do it? Why did Winona do it? Why do people shoplift? It isn’t usually for the lack of money. High profile shoplifters typically protest their arrests with initial cries of “I didn’t do it,” or “It’s all a mistake.” With the exception of Winona Ryder, who took her case to a jury and was found guilty, virtually every case ends quietly and often, as with Ms. Lohan, with a “no contest” plea.

I fantasize that one day a “famous” shoplifter will hold a press conference or release a statement saying, “I’m sorry for my actions; I take full responsibility for them. I offer no excuses, but am not entirely sure why I did what I did. I plan to do some soul-searching and get the necessary help.” We could use a positive poster child for stealing addictions.

Through my own recovery and work with thousands of people, I have found that people with this addiction have certain characteristics in common. They tend to be codependent caretakers or over-givers; they have a pervasive sense that life is unfair; they have unresolved money issues; and they have trouble speaking up or “treating” themselves. The Core Beliefs of Shoplifters illustrates the common core beliefs of most shoplifting addicts and those who compulsively steal. Most of my clients typically relate to at least five of these core beliefs.

What about you? Have you shoplifted? Have you stolen from an individual? Have you stolen from work? Have you ever used someone’s identity, credit card or other personal information without that person’s express consent?

If you recognize that you might have a problem with stealing, take a few moments and circle the core beliefs in Core Beliefs of Shoplifters which might apply to you. If you need help, contact me.

Core Beliefs of Shoplifters:

Life is unfair.

The world is an unsafe place.

Nobody will be there to take care of me.

No one is really honest.

I’m entitled to something extra for my suffering.

Nice people finish last.

There’s not going to be enough money to live.

It’s a “dog-eat-dog world” out there.

No matter how hard I try, things never work out.
It’s not worth my speaking up about anything.

Terrance Shulman

Terrance Shulman

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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