Out of Control: When A Fun Pursuit Turns Into Compulsive Behavior

Do you shop to feel better, or surf the web when you know you should sleep? How to recognize the signs of addictive behavior.

Medically Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on June 01, 2007
5 min read

Whether it is shopping, surfing the Internet, or watching TV, a seemingly harmless indulgence can turn habit-forming faster than you think. While everyone overindulges occasionally, trouble strikes when the habit turns into an all-consuming need that must be met at the cost of everything else, including family, friends, and a career.

Jerrold Pollak, PhD, a psychologist specializing in compulsive behavior, says, "Many behaviors can become compulsive. People can't stop doing them and they do them too much."

The more you give in to the compulsion, the worse it gets until what started as a pastime has become an addiction. And that addiction comes with serious consequences for your physical, mental, and, sometimes, fiscal health.

Luckily, there are warning signs that can alert you to when a habit is becoming a compulsion. Here are the most important signs to watch for. Here, too, are tips from the experts on what to do when you realize your compulsive behavior has gone too far.

The difference between fun and compulsion: Too much of a good thing

"Behaviors like shopping and surfing the Internet meet certain needs," says Pollak. "But there is a difference between a bad habit and a compulsion when it comes to engaging in these behaviors." Bad habits, Pollak tells WebMD, can be controlled. While the behavior might be a nuisance and undesirable, he says, it is not destructive to you and the people around you. Compulsive behavior is similar to addiction -- we reach a point where we cannot stop even though we know our behavior isn't serving us well.

Enjoyable activities like web surfing and shopping can become compulsive behaviors because we use them to decompress and to wash away feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. "With a compulsion like shopping," says April Benson, PhD, "people rely on it to make them feel better or help them to avoid dealing with something." Benson is author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. She says, "It [shopping] can start innocently, but build because it's self medication."

You buy something new to feel better for a while, Benson says, but then you feel remorse. And you feel ashamed. The next thing you know, in order to make those feelings go away, you have to shop again and it starts all over.

Think of it as an increased tolerance. It is similar to what happens with addiction to alcohol or to drugs. The problem behavior starts to increase because the compulsion becomes harder to satisfy. You need more shopping, more Internet, more TV to make you feel satisfied. But as your tolerance continues to rise, you feel less satisfied, and the need comes on even stronger than before. Like any other addiction, it is a vicious circle.

Clues that it's compulsive behavior

When the circle starts spinning out of control, it is important to know the telltale signs that signal trouble is ahead. As with other types of addiction, you know you are in trouble when your behavior is controlling you rather than the other way around.

"Where is that proverbial line in the sand between a bad habit and compulsive behavior?" asks Eric Zehr, vice president of the Illinois Institute of Addiction. "One of the first clues is that you've lost the control to stop." One of the easiest ways to decide if a behavior has become addictive is to ask yourself whether it has led to negative consequences and whether you have continued to do it anyway. When shopping becomes addictive, it can get you into debt, while compulsive surfing or use of late-night chat rooms can sabotage both your sleep and your personal relationships.

"When it's an addiction," says Benson, "it is really seriously impairing your life -- personally, professionally, spiritually, psychologically."

Here are some questions to ask yourself to check whether an activity is becoming an addictive behavior:

  • Do you use shopping or surfing the Internet as a quick fix for your feelings?
  • Do you spend more than you can afford to support your behavior?
  • Do you feel guilty about your actions and try to hide them?
  • Do you lie so others don't know what you are doing?
  • Is the behavior getting in the way of personal and family relationships?
  • Is your job at risk because of the behavior?
  • Have you tried to stop and discovered that you can't?
  • Do you really use what you buy? Or does what you buy remain unpacked and hanging in the closet?

When a compulsive behavior starts to take over someone's life, friends and family might be the first to notice. Those who love us may be more alert than we are to signs that an activity is damaging other aspects of our life. "One of the first signs friends and family should look for is a change in the person's typical way of relating to the world," Pollak tells WebMD.

For example, a formerly friendly and outgoing person might become isolated or withdrawn, or it might start to feel as if a friend or family member is keeping secrets. "With compulsive shopping, your husband or family might notice shopping bags that are tucked away or extra bills that are not getting paid," says Benson.

If you think someone you love might be developing an addictive behavior, look for these signs:

  • He frequently cancels plans to spend time alone.
  • Bills don't get paid, or credit card debt mounts.
  • She denies or rationalizes her behavior when you ask her about it.

"When a person rationalizes her compulsive behavior," Pollak says, "she says things like, 'I can stop at anytime,' or 'It's not a problem - I'm just having fun.'"

Compulsive behavior - Getting help

Once you have realized you or a loved one needs help, it is time to seek outside support and professional assistance. If you still doubt that your problem is serious enough to require attention, remind yourself that you tried to stop on your own and couldn't.

"Because you've lost control, the only way to get it back is to move into a form of recovery," says Zehr. "You need therapy ― group therapy, or a 12-step support group, or a sponsor."

Once you have identified the source of your addiction, use the Internet to find resources and support for those with this issue. For example, Debtors Anonymous can help compulsive shoppers.

Stay focused on the positive. And remember that getting your life back from a compulsive behavior is not only possible, it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. And it's more common than you might think. Experts see people recover successfully from addictive behaviors every day. The secret? Benson says, "These are authentic needs, and we have to find healthy and productive ways to meet them."