Is there someone in your life who is spending compulsively, and you feel frustrated and angry with him or her? You don’t understand why they do what they do, and you can’t understand why they can’t just use a little more willpower. Perhaps you have tried bribery, threats, punishment, rewards, pleading, or trickery, to no avail. You may have decided to simply ignore the problem and hope it will go away in time.
The person you love who gives in to urges to spend is pretty much like you. He is not bad, nor is he acting purposely to harm you. Every time he goes on a spree it is because he is unable to cope with overwhelming feelings. He may be a college graduate, but he doesn’t have the life-skills to deal with his problems or the intense negative emotions that result from feeling powerlessness over them.
Although you may find it easy to live within your means and not abuse your credit cards, your friend or loved feels great self-hatred every time he tries and fails. When you put him down with insults or look disapprovingly or disappointedly at him, he feels even worse. Nothing you can say or do will make him feel worse than his inner critic is already doing.
Compulsive spenders, like alcoholics, often lead family or friends into acting the role of either persecutor or rescuer. When you accept the challenge to change the one with the problem by acting like an authority and policing her behavior, setting up punishments or simply yelling at her or belittling her, you will be the loser because the she will rebel against your power play. Sometimes the person who acts like the parent keeping the child in line can make the spender “shape up” temporarily, but the spender will feel resent¬ment toward you and will find ways to go against your wishes.
Beware of becoming a rescuer. Don’t do for the spender what he can do for himself, if he chooses to. When you try to protect your loved one from suffering the consequences of his compulsion, you are merely postponing things. Eventually, the victim may grow to resent being cared for. That was the case with a couple I counseled.
Gary’s wife Gail put him on an allowance. At first he was delighted that she was in charge, but soon he began to borrow money from friends to pay for things when his allowance ran out. Then he started using the credit card he had secretly hidden from her. He felt like a bad little boy doing a naughty thing behind mommy’s back. Instead of learning to control his urges, he waited for his wife to do it for him.
After a while, however, Gail became angry because Gary didn’t change. Gary felt angry too because he had to keep striving to please Gail in order to feel loved. His resentment of Gail’s control triggered spending sprees that were really temper tantrums.
Gail was unaware that martyrdom had become her way of life. She unconsciously enjoyed hearing her friends and family saying, “How can you live with him? You are wonderful for putting up with it!” She finally realized that she had her own problem and acknowledged that Gary was not the first man in her life that needed to be rescued and cared for in unhealthy ways. The marriage was in chaos until they sought help for their relationship and their addictive and codependent behaviors.
If you are going through what Gail and Gary did and have decided to stand by your loved one, here are some things to think about and practice:
•Remind yourself that you can’t “fix” the other person.
•Recognize compulsive spending as a sign or symptom of other conflicts in the person’s life that he or she isn’t coping with.
•Encourage the spender to find professional help or a self-help group.
•Involve yourself by reading about the problem.
•Stop discounting or belittling the other’s feelings.
•Stop policing the person’s actions or punishing the other.
•Stop rescuing the other or backing down when there is conflict.
•Practice unconditional acceptance and love.
When you allow yourself to let go of expectations and fantasies and accept your loved one as he really is, flawed and imperfect, you do not have to walk away from him. Support him in a new way, free of criticism or rescuing.
Gloria Arenson, MS, MFT, D.CEP specializes in using EFT to treat stress, anxiety, trauma, depression, phobias, and compulsions. Her extensive knowledge of eating disorders and compulsive behaviors led her to write How to Stop Playing the Weighting Game, A Substance Called Food, Born To Spend, the award winning Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing, and co-author Freedom At Your Fingertips. Her latest book is Procrastination Nation. She is Past President of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP).