Retail Therapy: How Therapy Works Part 2

It sometimes irks me when people talk about “retail therapy.” It feels to me like they are reducing the work of psychotherapy to a fling or an addiction. A quick fix.

I have given this term some thought, however, and have come round to it somewhat.

Retail therapy is when we go shopping because we are sad, upset, afraid, nervous, or in some other way distraught. Shopping is supposed to make us feel better.

I recognize this feeling in myself. Mostly it comes out in ordering books from Amazon when I am having a bad day. If I track the feeling closely I come to this: the desire to have something new. It is not only the thing itself that I want. With Amazon I have to wait at least a day to get it anyway. It is the satisfaction of seeing the order confirmation in my inbox. And then when the box arrives — more satisfaction. But if I’m honest, the percentage of books that gets read (i.e. used) is very low. The wanting and getting and owning is what is important.

That’s retail therapy. A search for satisfaction that ends up at Goodwill in next year’s spring cleaning.

One of the ways I think therapy works is that we are taking in something new. We take in new ideas. We also take in our therapist’s orientation to the world — in their tone, choice of words, concepts, reactions, and movements: we take in their responses to us. We take in something different than we had before.

Here is an example:
Client: I could never quit school — my parents would kill me.

Therapist: Because?

Client: Because they could never have a quitter in the family.

The client makes a statement. I imagine that the therapist feels a response — they are slightly unsettled — they don’t understand the connection between quitting school and the parents disapproval. The therapist can imagine the connection from their own experience but they don’t know the truth for this particular client. It is not a given to the therapist that parents ‘kill’ their kids for quitting school. And thus they ask for clarification.

The client pauses and then explains the family’s strong aversion to quitting. In that pause the client has digested a sliver of what the therapist was feeling — that there is not a necessary connection between quitting and parental rage and disapproval.

And so this is the similarity I see to retail therapy. The taking in something new. But unlike the book that goes unread — what you take in in therapy is experiential. You cannot help but use it because it is something you have taken inside yourself. You can reject it — but that is how you used it.

I think this is why people often leave therapy abruptly. The taking in was too much. The internal experience is overwhelming and they don’t know what to do with it and since they don’t know what is happening they quickly cut off the source of the feeling, unconsciously saying “this must not be good.” While consciously saying, “my therapist doesn’t really get me,” or “I don’t really need this.”

And you can see from the example that this isn’t about the therapist going on a long diatribe with their opinions and the client agreeing or disagreeing with their thoughts. The taking in happens in micro moments. Moments that are experienced by both client and therapist. Moments that happen before we put words to them.

This is another way in which therapy is much more than “talk” or “dredging up the past.” We are actually, physically, experientially, taking something in. We are acquiring new things. Retail therapy for the soul.

This post originally appeared on my blog, The Good Therapists. To receive my weekly articles direclty in your inbox, sign up for my email list here.