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The Heavy Toll of Serial Returning
By Meredith Gordon, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 3 P. 18

Consider it to be the lesser-known flip side to compulsive shopping.

Judging by the overstuffed return bins and long lines at the UPS store, US Post Office, Amazon Hub, and retailers, people are returning copious amounts of “stuff.”

The statistics agree with the eye test. A 2021 survey by PowerReviews found that 88% of consumers make returns at least occasionally. Research firm AlixPartners estimated that purchases that were refunded without requiring the products to be sent back—to avoid processing returns—exceeded $4 billion in 2021. Additional research by Digital Media Solutions estimated that returns in 2020 cost around $550 billion in the United States. And according to the National Retail Federation, the average rate of returns for online purchases in 2021 was 20.8%.

What is driving this massive amount of “send-backs,” aside from clothes that didn’t fit or damaged items? Compulsive shopping may be at the root for many, but there’s an interesting offshoot to that condition: serial returning.

The Return Cycle
In 2010, April Lane Benson, PhD, observed the complicated nature of serial returning in an article for Psychology Today. “A sometimes unrecognized (or unacknowledged) form of overshopping is compulsive returning,” she wrote. “Here, the overshopper regularly attempts to undo [their] habit by taking impulsive purchases back to the store for a refund. This, however, is an extension of the problem rather than a solution to it. The compulsive returner fails to understand that in shopping, as in physics, material things and energy are interrelated. Though [they] may somewhat mitigate the financial consequences of [their] compulsion, [they do] so at a very high price in time and energy.”

Benson added, “Compulsive returners combine two seemingly contradictory tendencies: They’re highly impulsive, yet they have a great deal of difficulty making up their minds.” According to a study by Rose and Dhandayudham in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, “An addiction is conceptualized as a disorder involving both impulsivity and compulsivity. Impulse control disorders are characterized by two features. Firstly the inability to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation, even if it is harmful to the individual. Secondly there is a period of tension or arousal prior to the act, relief during the act, and regret or guilt after the act.”

One of the 12 signs of compulsive debting, compulsive shopping includes being unable to pass up a good deal, according to Debtors Anonymous. In addition to impulsive purchasing, the organization cites “leaving price tags on clothes so they can be returned” and “not using items you’ve purchased,” as well as “an unwillingness to care for and value yourself,” including “living in self-imposed deprivation” and “denying your basic needs in order to pay your creditors.”

Rather than a “consuming” addiction, serial returning is one of deprivation. Keeping purchases—not only what is wanted but also what is needed—can elicit a disproportionate amount of guilt. Returning an item may temporarily assuage the guilt, but mostly from distracting the individual from both the guilt and the emotion beneath it. Those with this addiction may not necessarily be in credit card debt and may spend within their means.

While some compulsive shoppers never return items and others hoard, there are those who routinely bring back what they buy. The sight of individuals bent over the trunks of their cars in a mall parking lot, picking and choosing from a plethora of bags, then walking into the store with arms full of merchandise for credit is not uncommon. While it may look appropriate, for some, there are deeper concerns underlying the “acceptable” behavior.

While the problem of compulsive buying behavior has been explored a good deal, its counterpart—serial returning—has not garnered as much attention.

Shopping Addiction
The DSM-5 does not recognize serial returning or compulsive shopping as disorders. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, McElroy and colleagues laid out criteria to understand the problem and to consider how serial returning fits into the paradigm. They defined problematic buying behavior as “uncontrollable; markedly distressing, time-consuming, and/or resulting in family, social, vocational, and/or financial difficulties; and not occurring only in the context of hypomanic or manic symptoms.”

Like other addictions, compulsive shopping and its serial returning counterpart are attempts to cover or mediate difficult emotions.

Many of the behaviors exhibited by individuals with problematic buying behavior can be likened to those seen in individuals with other addictions. There may be a ritualistic aspect to buying and returning—certain stores or websites may be frequented, for example. Attempts to assuage, shame, or ameliorate trauma do not work, and the problem, as with alcoholism, disordered eating, gambling (which are listed in the DSM-5), and other compulsions, typically progresses. And as with other compulsive disorders, there is the obsessive-compulsive component unique to shopping and returning that gradually consumes one’s life.

According to a study by Koran and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry, individuals who engage in compulsive buying behavior are “frequently preoccupied with buying or subject to irresistible, intrusive, and/or senseless impulses to buy; buying unneeded items or more than can be afforded; shopping for periods longer than intended; and experiencing adverse consequences, such as marked distress, impaired social or occupational functioning, and/or financial problems.” These symptoms resulted in negative psychosocial and financial consequences.

Koran and colleagues also state that compulsive buying has been estimated to affect 1.8% to 16% of the adult US population. With the proliferation of online shopping, it is unlikely that number has decreased. No comparable figures are available for serial returning, but it’s reasonable to assume that a portion of the individuals who buy compulsively are also returning items on a serial basis.

Self-Debt and Self-Denial
One reason that serial returning is overlooked and its compulsive nature missed is because returning items correlates to decreasing debt, which is viewed as a positive attribute. However, the concept of self-debt—often attributed to a denial of purchasing—has more to do with the denial of the self—the authentic self—than finances. This, too, is often overlooked because of the attention paid to monetary debt.

Conversely, those who self-debt may not be in monetary debt. In fact, they may have ample funds but feel guilty about spending. They may plan on returning the item even before they purchase it or may impulsively decide to return it because the feelings evoked from keeping the item enhance discomfort, making it almost intolerable.

A person in actual debt may feel likewise, but the process of returning may be with the aim to decrease monetary debt.

Restoration of the Original, Painful Balance
“All compulsive behaviors are a defense against feeling painful emotions, and often overwhelming emotions. Pain gets assuaged by the compulsion of purchasing,” says Ruth Wimsatt, PhD, a psychologist in Orange County, California. “It makes sense to view the buy-and-return cycle through the addiction paradigm.”

These individuals hold the belief, or at least the hope, that they will feel more complete following their purchase and not need anything else. This is a form of perfectionism, a belief that one purchase will solve the interior pain when what is needed is not something that can be bought, but rather an acknowledgement of an internal trauma, wound, or memory—something that the individual has been conditioned to not feel.

“Purchasing fulfills the compulsion to do something about a feeling that must be avoided,” Wimsatt says. “But the returning is a kind of undoing that restores the balance of either feeling less, feeling poorly, feeling shame, or [feeling] guilt. It is an attempt to restore homeostasis, a symbolic way of making amends.”

Some theorize serial returning is a function of the super ego trying to do what is “correct,” but, given its addictive nature, misses the larger truth that an item purchased or returned in the store will not fix the pain, fear, or memory that lingers within, or the underlying problem, she says.

Wimsatt suggests determining the following:

• What emotions, memories, traumas, or conglomeration thereof, is the client attempting to avoid?

• How is the compulsion to return exacerbating the problem?

To continue examination of the behavior outside of sessions, attendance at Debtors Anonymous meetings should be encouraged.

Living in a Fantasy Turned Nightmare
While getting “unmuddled” about spending is necessary, it tends to be difficult for those who use spending and returning to cover and mask difficult feelings. Gaining clarity applies to emotions as well as purchases.

“There’s a huge emotional component to money,” says Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert and consumer finance analyst for U.S. News & World Report. “We’re influenced by how our parents handled money. And there can also be an emotional need that appears to be met when buying things.”

This also applies to returning purchases.

“A compulsive shopper hopes for magical transformation simply by buying items,” says Carrie Rattle, CEO of Behavioral Cents, in Westchester County, New York, who is a nationwide financial coach for professional women specializing in compulsive shopping. Shopping and returning, she says, “are used to cope with emotions a person can’t bear”—and may not even know they have.

“Many overshoppers live in the fantasy of ‘I can always return.’ That is the story they tell themselves, but this signals another failed attempt to find themselves in material things,” Rattle says, adding that the impulse to seek perfection can never be reached.

Understanding the connection to poor impulse control is important when working with clients who suffer from serial returning and compulsive shopping. As with other addictions, the individual must get to the point where they realize they are harming themselves, Rattle says, noting that this awareness is pivotal.

Early signs of addiction include shame and hiding purchases. Other common traits “of almost every compulsive shopper out there include multiple parcels being delivered, boxes sitting in the home opened or unopened, and items purchased but never used,” Rattle says.

Returning items can be another way to maintain vagueness. As a result, the focus gets placed on the items and not what is going on inside. Their world becomes smaller. Their focus narrows to how to stop the undesirable feelings, but, as with other addictions, shopping becomes the greater problem. Yet they do not stop. When viewed through the addiction model, this is understandable—something is needed to soothe emotions, but they don’t have a proper way to address them.

Perils of Online Engagement
Serial returners may also turn to social media for connection only to find they are drawn to influencers who perpetuate the message they’ve internalized: that a product alone will enable them to find wholeness and completion. It is this internalized belief that makes serial returners susceptible to poor impulse control that makes them act, and a lack of awareness that perpetuates the cycle. According to Rattle, dark patterns online perpetuate this dynamic. Dark patterns include bait and switch, disguised ads, hidden costs, and misdirection.

“We are surrounded 24 hours, seven days a week, by the message that we’re not good enough,” Rattle says. Shopping and returning are coping skills to assuage and mitigate feelings of inadequacy. It is important to help clients become educated on the triggering effects of dark patterns. Rattle suggests the following when working with clients:

• Become discerning and even wary about advertisements, even those that are affirmative.

• Help clients recognize that even ads that appear to be affirmative convey the message that you are not good enough without the product or service.

• Separate the product or outfit from the person using or wearing it.

• Strongly consider quitting social media and online shopping.

According to Rose and Dhandayudham, low self-esteem, low self-regulation, and relief from a negative emotional state contribute to the creation of an online shopping addiction. So does the social anonymity component, which lowers accountability and makes individuals believe that their compulsive behavior can remain a secret.

Self-Debt and Feelings of Worthlessness
Traysi Chong, LCSW, a therapist with Reproductive Mental Health and Wellness and formerly with the University of Southern California School of Social Work, uses the term “add-to-cart therapy,” which serves the need to numb and distract when a person is experiencing a difficult or undesired emotion. “The initial rush of the purchase may feel good, but it never lasts. As soon as the item is received, the thrill is gone,” Chong says.

Self-debt and withholding point to feelings of being “not even worthy of consuming anything,” Chong says. After the purchase is made, the return affirms the worthlessness the individual may feel, which may be the residual effects of trauma and conditioning. However, Chong cautions, it’s still a coping skill that has been used to mitigate an internal wound. “But if you’re going to take a client’s coping skill away, you have to replace it, as there is still a wound of that inner child,” she says.

Chong advises to cognitively work with clients to understand their triggers and to aid in recovery from this stagnant and demoralizing cycle. The focus should be on intentional buying, which requires a deeper understanding of one’s own true needs and desires. A deeper self-connection—greater access to the authentic self—shifts the focus from the material to the spiritual. “If the individual does not have access or interest in their own depth, they are dissociated from soul,” Chong says.

When working with clients, Chong suggests the following:

• Educate about online triggers that are presented in nuanced ways that urge people to buy for fulfillment.

• Be aware of one’s own relationship to shopping and returning and the feelings evoked when listening to clients talk about the topic.

• Utilize cognitive behavioral therapy to help make manageable, measurable changes over time.

• Explore the true meaning of self-care as opposed to one focused on material and consumption.

For Further Therapeutic Consideration
There is a dearth of information about serial returning and its role in addiction. Most information on the topic is limited to sensationalistic exposés designed to draw attention to its oddity without appreciating the problem. Many therapists may also miss the issue’s significance.

Therapists with clients who struggle with shopping addiction should inquire whether returns have become a habit, a necessity, or a behavior they’ve grown dependent on. They may not see the issue as the same as shopping since returning puts money back in their wallet, at least in the short term.

Suggest abstinence from returning items—coupled with intentional, accountable shopping. This creates space to examine and process underlying emotions, which can be brought to therapy sessions. While returning items certainly makes sense if an item is not needed or wanted, serial returning is different. If a therapist works with an individual who they suspect has problematic shopping behavior, it makes sense to explore their attitudes and use of returning.

— Meredith Gordon, LCSW, worked in health care for two decades and maintains a strong interest in the expressive arts. She is the coauthor, along with Kim Hooper and contributor Huong Diep, PsyD, of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss..