"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fear Of Shopping–A Nasty Phobia In A Consumer-Driven World

   Shop Phobia is an irrational, intense and persistent fear of malls, sales racks, dressing rooms, department stores and all other activities having to do with shopping.

Shopping is as American as apple pie.  Most people consider it fun, therapeutic, and even exciting. Although women and men go about it differently and buy different things, the experience for the most part is rewarding.

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Recent research has shown that the act of shopping is more rewarding that actually purchasing an item.  Once the dress is taken out of the box, it is a fait accompli – a dismal reminder that it is already going out of style, depreciating, and losing social currency. Shopping, on the other hand, is all expectation, fantasy, and imagined rewards. 

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There are hundreds of dresses on the rack, hundreds of shoes waiting to be tried on. Thousands of scarves, perfumes, necklaces, and sweaters. Innumerable shades of lipstick, eyeliner, and blush.  ‘Images of sugarplums dancing in my head’ are nothing compared to entering the Ladies Department of Saks – scents of perfume, fabric, leather; high lighting, bustle, and promise.

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Women appreciate shopping for clothes more than men who know exactly what they want, are disappointed when the style they want has been upgraded or is out of stock, and are just as happy buying nothing.  Women take their time, anxious for the right fit, color, line, and shape.
Moths had made a mess of friend’s sweaters, and after putting replacement off for weeks, he finally made it to his local department store where he knew he would find the same brand he had been buying for years. He was the Men’s Department’s first customer, and by 10:10 he had four sweaters on the counter.  The clerk smiled at him and said, “You’re the reason why I work in the men’s department”.

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My friend had a very mild case of shop phobia.  In fact his reluctance to shop for new sweaters was more a function of his busy schedule, his reluctance to spend even a half-hour on Saturday morning in a store, and the pain of having to negotiate early weekend chore traffic than it was abhorrence or neurotic aversion.  Yet, even given this reasonable rationale, he still felt impulsive, anxious, and impatient days before. He so hated having to go through the experience, that once he finally made the decision to do it, feelings of nervousness began immediately.  Buying online was no help and just as anxious. He never got the sizes right.  The teal was far bluer than the photos suggested, and the little flecks of stylish Aztec piping were far more pronounced than he had thought.

A real fear of shopping – wearing shoes down to the nub; and living with frayed cuffs, stains, and limp collars long after most people would have bought new – is paralyzing. Jeb Harkness not only was immobilized by the thought of buying new clothes, but every purchase was dreaded.  The night before the computer geek was to come to help him buy a new computer, he couldn’t sleep. Was it worth it? Would the geek misread his intentions and negotiate something inappropriate? What if his old programs didn’t convey? What if all his data were lost? “Why am I doing this he shouted in the middle of the night, ready to cancel the whole affair, deal with screen freezes and error messages for a while longer, just to put off the inevitable, crippling, and frightening experience of purchase.

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“Mr. Harkness”, said the mechanic at Locust Valley Exxon, “I can fix your car, but I can’t guarantee it.  Don’t you think it’s time to buy a new one?”.  Coming from an employee of a gas station that had made thousands on  Jeb’s old cars, this should have made him realize that his shopping phobia was endangering his life and others.  Yet he couldn’t bring himself to even look at Toyota’s website, and every time he passed a dealership, he shuddered.  Just the thought of predatory salesmen, hundreds of choices, and tens of thousands of dollars in play, made him speed up and look the other way.

Everything in his house needed fixing.  The fluorescent light over the sink was down to one tube which flickered and glowed orange. The faucet in the sink had been super-glued do many times that it was misshapen and warty-looking after so many applications to stop new leaks. There was duck tape on lamp cords, thick grouting around an old and cracked bathtub, and industrial adhesive layered under warped tiles. He lived with creaky ceiling fans, immoderate air-conditioning, sticky doors, and a rattling dishwasher. 

When the roofer told him that he could no longer patch the leaks coming down the woodwork and through the ceiling and that the roof would have to be replaced, he froze. The entire top of his house would have to come off, hundreds of mistakes, overruns, and code violations were probable. “Later”, he replied. “I’ll get back to you.”

Although Jeb’s shop phobia had begun as a small irritation, it had developed into a major neurosis.  No longer did he just put off shopping for underwear and socks, but let everything around him go to rack and ruin.


Freudians would have a field day with him; but he never considered his phobia a disease.  He was simply finicky and ornery.  Early on in the course of his phobia, he expressed pride in his practicality and good sense.  He among few stood fast against materialism, the American throw-away culture, and greed. Later when he realized that his was no reasoned response to a social phenomenon – a good intellectual response in other words – but more of a dry-mouthed panic at purchase, he considered therapy; but it too fell within the orbit of his paranoia.  The very idea of shopping around for a therapist, worrying about cost, cost-benefit, probability of cure vs. limping along, was just as paralyzing as any other consumer purchase.

He even convinced himself that he was a good exponent of game theory, which postulated that life’s winners were the ones who in any competitive situation were the last to commit themselves.  By putting off decisions until it was absolutely, positively necessary to do so, he was beating erosion and disrepair, saving money when others were spending theirs.  He relied on ingenuity and practicality when others were simply expedient.

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“Eventually this house will fall apart”, his wife said to him. “Not if I can help it”, he replied; and when his wife’s back was turned, mimicked a soldier lobbing a grenade into the living room, and imitating the sound of an explosion.  His children laughed.  “It isn’t funny”, said his wife.
Yet, blowing the whole bloody place up and all its duck tape, bandaged table legs, grouted bathtubs, wobbly fans, sketchy lamps, and creaky doors might be the only way out of his neurotic box.  It was the individual purchase decisions which were crippling. Starting again from the rubble of a worthless house and everything in it might actually be sensible.

He had read enough about phobia therapy to know that baby steps were the only way out.  There are many people who have such acrophobia that they cannot drive over the Bay Bridge, a long, high bridge between the western and eastern shores of the Chesapeake.  An Uber-like service has sprung up at both ends of the bridge.  Drivers are available for a small fee to drive you and your car across the span. The service does nothing for your fear of heights or bridges.  It just gets you to where you are going. Real therapy takes patience and persistence. Taking the bridge in small bits until you can make it across on your own.

Jeb made a list of the purchases which did not trouble him.  Books he could do, filling up the car with gas, and shopping.  He was quite a gourmet cook, in fact, and never balked at the price of New Zealand lamb, Swiss gruyere, or Sicilian blood oranges.  He never looked at his bill, never comparison shopped, and always found the best ingredients for his increasingly complex and sophisticated cuisine.  What was it about Whole Foods that if anything calmed him?

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“Aha!”, he said. “Pleasure and enjoyment.  That’s the trick.”  There was always a good end in sight when he bought fresh, never-frozen Gulf shrimp, or Comice pears from an organic orchard in Oregon; or the best aged cut of beef.  Buying a book by a familiar, trusted author was equally satisfying and trouble-free. 

“Fine and dandy”, his wife replied when Jeb told her of his epiphany. “Go ahead and cook your rognons de veau à la crème while the roof caves in.”  His life was so simple and so circumscribed with so few satisfying pleasures, that there was no way to expand the perimeter.  There was no way that new tiles or showers could possibly co-exist with Ibsen, Chekhov, and  soft-shell crabs.
“Now what?”, he asked himself.

Here is where family, love, and the economy come in. Every Christmas, despite his objections, his sons and daughters bought him things he needed.  Every article of clothing he wore had been gifted.  His son stepped in to buy him a new computer.  His daughter bought him hoodies, jeans, and jackets which were a tad too Mission hipster for his taste but did the trick.  A younger daughter even bought him shoes, and said she would go with him to the store in case they didn’t fit. As far as his personal wardrobe was concerned, he was fine.  Shopping had been practical and direct.   Good for Jeb, bad for the economy.

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Old age solved the rest of the shop phobia.  Jeb and his wife moved to a retirement community long before their friends, but little did the friends know that the Harkness classic house in their tony Washington neighborhood had been a curse, a relic, and a demonic reminder of purchase.

The Harknesses moved into Laurel Village.  His circumscribed life was exactly the same as it always had been, except that nothing outside the perimeter was falling apart, leaking, or making noises. He still shopped at Whole Foods, made it to Politics & Prose for books, was grateful to his children for their Christmas gifts, and lived happily, well, and long.

Jeb Harkness had applied game theory and won the event. He put off the inevitable until he had only one card left in his hand, and it was a good one. No doubt his house sold for less than it would have had he kept it up; but in these days of flipped homes, the developer who bought it at above market price, gutted it, replaced all appliances and fixtures, put in track lighting and a big kitchen, and made a handsome profit.  His paralysis was uncomfortable and eccentric, but Jeb had negotiated its Scylla and Charybdis and come out the other side.

It was a behavioral solution.  Jeb never got to the bottom of his phobia, but simply avoided the occasion of it; and finally opted for a life without occasion at all.

Shopping is terrible. Phobias are bad but a way of life, and the modest neurotic could do far worse than Jeb Harkness’ Avoidance and Game Theory.

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