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Understanding theft, overspending and hoarding

June 25, 2012

It comes as no surprise to any therapist working in the addiction field (or any therapist who has personally struggled with addiction) that most addicts have battled multiple addictions, simultaneously and/or consecutively. Thus, it is vital that we educate ourselves about every addictive-compulsive behavior, especially those that are emerging (such as TV, video game and Internet addiction) and those that have existed for eons but remained unrecognized (compulsive stealing, spending and hoarding).

According to recent data, more than 10% of Americans shoplift, most in response to various pressures in their lives. For most shoplifters, it’s not about the money or the thing—Winona Ryder proved that. Most act out of feelings of anger, loss, disempowerment and entitlement. And many become addicted. Nearly 70% of arrested shoplifters will shoplift again absent effective intervention/treatment.

A related behavior, employee theft, is even more pervasive. The American Society of Employers estimates that 75% of employees steal in some form from their employers. Loss prevention studies indicate that retailers lose more than twice as much from “internal theft” as from shoplifting, and 55% of employee theft is committed by managers and supervisors. The FBI calls employee theft “the fastest growing crime in America.”

On another front, financial experts have been sounding the alarm about the growing problem of individual and collective debt and financial “dysfunction.” The primary culprit is out-of-control shopping and spending. In 2006, Stanford University published a landmark study that identified “compulsive buying disorder” as a phenomenon affecting 6% of Americans; a 2008 University of Richmond study put the figure closer to 10%.

Finally, unless you have been living on another planet, you probably have noticed ever-increasing media coverage of the “disorder du jour”: hoarding. Several cable programs on hoarding have garnered big ratings and endless fascination, from A&E’s “Hoarders” to OWN’s “Enough Already!” While prevalence statistics are sketchy, the latest research shows that hoarding affects about 6 to 15 million Americans, and Time magazine recently noted there are more than 75 U.S. national hoarding task forces.

What’s common about shoplifting, employee theft, overspending and hoarding is they have only recently been identified and treated as mental health issues. As a therapist specializing in treating compulsive theft, spending and hoarding, and as a recovering theft addict myself since 1990, I have had the opportunity to help thousands of people. In 1992 I founded C.A.S.A. (Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous) in metro-Detroit. Only a dozen or so such support groups exist in North America. While many Debtors Anonymous groups exist, there are few Shopaholics Anonymous groups and relatively few local Clutterers Anonymous or Messies Anonymous groups for hoarding. Many therapists fail to recognize, let alone effectively treat, people with theft, spending or hoarding disorders.

In the addiction/recovery field, it has long been noted that many addicts seem to have issues with money management. Many relapses occur when money stresses pile up. Yet we have been slow to assess and treat shopping and spending behaviors as part of a good overall recovery foundation.

As with any addiction, nobody with these issues plans to get out of control. Nobody starts off intending to become a thief, lie, hide purchases, get into debt, or become obsessed with “things.” As we know, addictive behaviors tend to happen a little at a time—they’re insidious. Our culture conspires to create “super consumers” out of all of us.

For compulsive spenders, especially, several factors make assessment, treatment and recovery more challenging: the behavior is legal; most if not all people shop/spend; it’s an activity that’s greatly encouraged by social culture; it’s easily accessible even from home; and complete abstinence is unrealistic and not even the primary goal. As with eating disorders, sexual addiction and codependency, the client who overspends needs to learn to have a healthy relationship with money, credit and things so that his/her spending comes from a place of choice, balance and appropriateness rather than a place of emotional need, escape and emptiness.

Other commonalities

Over the last decade, I’ve counseled nearly 500 clients with various combinations of compulsive stealing, spending and hoarding. A few factors stand out when working with these disorders.

On first look, all three disorders appear to depend on the acquisition of things. There also seems to be a focus on money—either saving money or having more money through stealing; spending money or even getting a bargain; or hoarding money or avoiding losing money by getting rid of things perceived as valuable.

There also seems to be a preoccupation with time—saving time by stealing, saving time by buying, saving time by hoarding and not discarding. The irony, of course, is that people who compulsively steal, spend or hoard spend an inordinate amount of time not only engaged in these activities but in thinking about doing them as well as stopping them.

There appears to be extreme boundary issues for people who compulsively steal, spend or hoard. Stealing requires a victim, a violation of the law. Spending, especially compulsive spending, often requires a victim as well: debts that often can’t be repaid, but also “financial infidelity,” the violation of budgetary agreements with a spouse, family member, friend, or business partner. Compulsive hoarders—especially when they don’t live alone—crowd out the legitimate living spaces of others, violating their physical and emotional boundaries.

These boundary violations are anathema to these individuals’ typical outward personas and values as they often suffer from codependency and “excessive empathy” as well as narcissistic tendencies, which stem from beliefs that they are inadequate and unlovable. Those who compulsively steal, spend, or hoard do so for themselves but often also for the benefit of others (i.e., stolen, bought, or hoarded gifts). It also is typical for these persons to have experienced victimization and having felt deprived materially and/or emotionally. Thus, they become obsessed with making things right, and feel both entitled to their excesses and out of touch with the outrage their behaviors evoke in others.

Another common feature is a persistent thinking, feeling and attitude of lack, emptiness, scarcity and inadequacy, which they attempt to correct through accumulation of money and/or things. Anxiety is a common feeling for these folks. They tend to feel, “I’m not enough unless I have enough.” But for them, it’s never enough.

The source of these thoughts, feelings and attitudes may be partly attributed to brain chemistry, but it is safe to say a fair amount of nurture (familial, cultural and societal) is also at play. They seem to be particularly susceptible to attaching their inherent value to money and/or things.

Reason for hope

In addressing these issues as professionals, we can hold cautious optimism because the problems of stealing, overspending and hoarding have been increasingly highlighted as true disorders that can be treated. We need to look at the roots of these behaviors, which are not merely personal or familial but also are related to increasing stress, materialism, emptiness and addiction in our society. We need more research and new perspectives.

Like with any epidemic, the longer we wait, the more we will all suffer. My hope is that with more open conversation and more resources available, we shall see a transformation in the awareness of how we view these behaviors.

Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, CPC, is a Detroit-area therapist, attorney, author and consultant. Since 2004 he has been the Founder/Director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding. He will be a presenter at the 2012 National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 28-Oct. 2. Among his four book titles is 2011’s Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding. His e-mail address is

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