What to Know About Being Addicted to Stealing

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 19, 2023
4 min read

Stealing, taking something that belongs to others without permission, can become an addiction. The habit doesn't have to be as extreme as breaking into people's homes or shoplifting high-priced goods. Instead, it can be due to poor impulse control that leads to addictive, compulsive disorders. When stealing becomes an addiction, it is referred to as kleptomania.

Kleptomania refers to an impulse control disorder in which you develop an inability to resist urges to steal. Usually, you will pick items that you don't generally need, and they also tend to have little value. While it is a rare condition, it can cause emotional distress to you and your loved ones.

The disorder is accompanied by problems with self-control in behavior and emotions. When you have an impulse control problem, you're unable to resist the temptation to do harmful or excessive things to you or other people. In addition, the condition forces you to live a secret life of shame because you feel afraid to seek medical help.

The causes of kleptomania are not known. However, theories suggest that impulse imbalances in the brain are responsible for the condition. More research is necessary to understand these possible causes fully.

The brain’s opioid system. Addiction to stealing is more about a psychological condition than a desire to gain financially or materially. The things you steal have little value, and you could easily afford them if you decided to pay for them. 

This contrasts to criminal theft, where you steal things because they're highly priced or out of need. When your brain's opioid system is unbalanced, you develop strong urges to steal, accompanied by anxiety, arousal, and tension.

Mixture of emotions. After stealing, you get a sense of pleasure and relief. Sometimes, you may feel guilt or remorse after the act, but you're still unable to control the urge. 

When you have kleptomania, you tend to steal while alone, and the habit is spontaneous. In contrast, criminal theft is well-planned and may involve other people. In addition, after stealing, you'll hardly use the items you steal and will instead give them out or stash them away.

Addictive disorders. Stealing may cause the brain to release dopamine, a transmitter that causes pleasurable feelings. Stealing stimulates a pleasant sensation that pushes you to do it repeatedly as an emotional or psychological feeling. The more you enjoy the rush that comes with theft, the more you want to do it to fill an emotional or physical void in your life.

Problems with serotonin. Serotonin is a natural brain chemical that helps regulate moods and emotions. When the brain doesn't have enough hormone levels, it causes you to develop impulsive behaviors.

Mental health problems: Stealing can be because of low self-esteem, jealousy, depression, eating disorders, and peer pressure. Social issues like isolation and exclusion can also create an emotional void. You may look to impulsive behaviors to prove your independence or derive pleasure from the act. Sometimes, it's because you want to act out against friends and family.

You are also at risk of developing kleptomania if you have:

  • Family history: Having a significant other like a parent or sibling with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, kleptomania, or substance use disorders may increase your risk of developing kleptomania.
  • A mental illness: In most cases, people with kleptomania also have other mental illnesses like anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or an eating disorder. It could also be due to a personality disorder or substance use disorder.

If you have kleptomania, you may have recurring urges to steal and be unable to control them. Other symptoms are:

  • Feelings of increased tension, arousal, or anxiety leading to the theft
  • Feelings of guilt, self-loathing, remorse, or shame after stealing
  • Feelings of relief, pleasure, or gratification while stealing
  • Unplanned stealing done spur-of-the-moment

It's challenging to treat kleptomania alone, and getting medical help is a necessity. Treatment methods entail a combination of medications and psychotherapy to address the triggers and causes.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Therapists can help you to address the triggers that cause you to steal. The aim is to help you stop damaging behavior through systematic desensitization and covert sensitization techniques. In systematic desensitization, you practice relaxation techniques that help with the control of the urges to steal. In covert sensitization, you imagine yourself facing negative consequences after stealing, enabling you to avoid the habit.
  • Medications: your doctor may prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor to support the brain's chemistry balance. Addiction medications may also be prescribed as a way to treat but not to cure the condition.