When you can’t control when to start or stop a substance or behavior, you have a compulsion. Compulsive overeaters have the urge to gorge until they feel sick, shopaholics can’t control the urge to buy all sorts of stuff they don’t need. Many don’t even open the bag once they get home but toss it into the back of the closet. Internet addicts can’t stay away from porn sites or blogs, and compulsive exercisers can’t stop either.

After counseling people with eating disorders for many years, I saw that at least sixty percent of those clients were also sober alcoholics or addicts, usually in Twelve-Step programs for drugs or alcohol. They had given up the deadlier addictions, but they were stuck in the thrall of food. As time passed I began to notice that many were also compulsive spenders. At first they usually did not talk about these behaviors, not because of shyness but because they didn’t consider them a problem compared to alcohol, drugs, food, and “love too much” relationships. Some described themselves as “compulsive personalities.”

The problem is not alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, sex or exercise. These are the solutions. The real problem is that most of us do not know how to cope with the ups and downs of our lives. We run away from discomfort and mask our pain and fear with temporary escape or longer-term oblivion. We keep doing this until the solution becomes a full-fledged problem with a life of its own.

When many of my eating disorder clients stopped compulsively bingeing or purging, they often turned to other compulsions. I remember a woman who began to get her eating under control and then resumed smoking after having given it up for years. She had begun to work in a stressful new job with a boss that was hard to please. She was terribly angry and frustrated. Instead of dealing with her job problem, she took up smoking again.

Another binge eater began to buy clothing, six of a kind at once, after she quit stuffing herself with food. Other clients revealed that they resorted to different compulsive urges at different times. Paul overate most of the time, but when he was emotionally distraught he sought sex compulsively. Norma Jean binged or shopped. Stephanie got drunk, used drugs, drank huge amounts of coffee, loved too much, binged and purged, smoked, and maxed out her credit cards.

Switching from one compulsive act or substance to another is sometimes called “switching deck chairs on the Titanic.” It became evident to me that the urge to use pleasure to mask pain is the outward evidence of inner turmoil. Most compulsive people who give up one destructive habit will find another way to medicate their pain unless they deal with the underlying problems that are creating the emotional pain.

Thus, most of my clients had more than one behavior or substance that they abused. Why does a person overeat sometimes and overspend or drink too much at other times? Cora was a compulsive spender who decided to study her destructive behaviors. What she came up with is something I call the Hierarchy of Compulsions. Cora made a list of all the behaviors she couldn’t control. In addition to shopping she listed working too much, list making, washing the floor, movies and popcorn, gardening, overeating ice cream, sex, watching TV, and cutting her toenails. For each behavior she rated the feelings that triggered her urges and rated the intensity of the feeling from one to ten with ten being the most intense.

Compulsive spending occurred when she felt the most helpless or hurt. Feeling helpless also led her to wash the floor, garden and cut her toenails. Feeling overwhelmed was associated with list making, movies and popcorn, TV watching and escape into reading, while anger led to binges of sex, ice cream, and moving the furniture around. As she became conscious of how she used everyday activities in a compulsive manner to avoid feeling her feelings, she was ready to deal with the experiences that triggered the feelings. Then she was able to focus on solving the underlying problems rather than try to just stop the behaviors.

The common denominator for all compulsive behaviors is that they provide a distraction from painful problems. The need for avoidance can be so strong that some people turn spending, jogging, cleaning, reading, masturbating, watching soap operas, or gardening into addictions. One way to find out is to make a list of your out of control behaviors as Cora did and look for the situations or relationships that you are running away from resolving. You will learn new ways to think about yourself and new ways to curb compulsive behaviors.

Author's Bio: 

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).