I will let you in on a little secret.  Despite nearly 15 years of being a personal stylist, I still get a little nervous when I go shopping with a new client.  There is a little voice in my head that wonders if this is the client I am going to fail.  The voice is a lot quieter than it was when I first started my business, but it’s still around.  I don’t want to necessarily get rid of this voice.  I believe it keeps me sharp and on my toes.  If I am going to fail a client it will likely be due to complacency and thinking I can just dial it in, not because I am not good at my job.

Admittedly, I’m also a bit of a people pleaser (God, I hate to admit that out loud) and am someone who will often take too much responsibility when things don’t go right.   I do this in all areas of my life.  Therefore, it took me a really long time to look at situations with clients that weren’t perfect and not look for signs that I wasn’t necessarily the problem, they were.  I’m glad to say that I have never had a client appointment go so far south that there were any huge problems, but I have definitely dealt with a fair share of times when something with has been off and I wasn’t the problem…or the solution either.

My friend Lisa Dolan is the owner of Lee Lee’s Valise, a plus size and lingerie boutique in my Brooklyn neighborhood.  She is one of my favorite people on the planet and the only person I will let size me in a bra.  She has served many of my clients and you may remember her when she had her own show Big Brooklyn Style on TLC a few years ago.   Recently, she wrote a post on her own blog called Are You an Extensive Therapy Girl? that I wanted to share and expand on.   As a boutique owner, Lisa has had her fair share of experience working with women who didn’t need retail therapy, they needed extensive therapy.

Retail Therapy or Extensive Therapy?  How to Know When Shopping Won’t Solve It

A little retail therapy can be fun, but let’s not mistake a trip to the store to buy something pretty as a coping mechanism to deal with the hardships of life.  Looking for some signs that a shopping trip isn’t the answer?  Here are some things to keep in mind.

You’re never satisfied

As a stylist you need to be a bit of a chameleon and learn quickly how to temper your behavior to work with each client.  Some clients I share a deep emotional connection, some I can curse like a sailor around, some know a lot about my personal life and vice versa, and others like to keep in strictly professional.  I need to know who I can push, who need a lighter touch, who don’t trust easily and who do.  I get the job done with each client I work with, it’s the approach that varies.

However, I have had some clients where no matter what I do they aren’t happy.  Similar to my friend Lisa, I could put 5 things or 500 things on them and it wouldn’t matter.  Nothing would satisfy them.  I can recall one client in particular where this happened.  She is the only client in 15 years where  I decided if she called me again I would tell her I couldn’t work with her.  When we worked together, no matter how good she looked in what I put on her she managed to find something wrong with it.  And these things were unrealistic and ridiculous, like the fabric creasing when she folded her arm.   Then, if she did buy something, she would call or email (sometimes call and email me) afterwards with a laundry list of second guesses, again all terribly unrealistic.  Most things she returned.

Wondering what I was doing wrong, it took me a bit to figure out that the problem wasn’t with me, it was with her.  She didn’t have the ability within to be satisfied and, worse, actually looked for ways to throw obstacles in the way of achieving it.   She overthought everything, looked for problems, couldn’t find a way to be settled, didn’t know how to relax, how to trust, or how to let go.  Basically, she was stuck in this painful state of indecision and unrealistic expectation that was coupled with a great deal of personal unhappiness and a need for perfection.  A few more trips to the store was hardly going to solve this problem.

The saddest part about her wardrobe was the fact that it full of stagnant mediocrity, which was quite symbolic of her life in general.  With such a fear of getting it perfect, she basically paralyzed herself and, worse, I was never able to help her.

In no way am I encouraging you to buy things that you hate, but if you find yourself nitpicking every little thing you try on or put unrealistic expectations on how clothing should look when you try it on, you might be dealing with something more than retail therapy can solve.

What are you running away from?

Retail therapy, while often satisfying, can often be used as a form of escapism.  It’s instant, requires very little work in terms of inner-work and provides a temporary high.  But, really, it’s no different than the pint of Ben & Jerry’s or that drink after a long hard day.  It’s a temporary fix that has the potential to cause even greater problems down the road if it isn’t monitored or used responsibly.

I always picture a screaming girl in a horror film when I think about running away from problems.  You know the one I mean, she’s the panicked girl (strangely, always in a nightgown), hyperventilating as the predator is draws near.  The next time you are in a store using retail therapy as a quick fix, I want you to ask yourself what you think you might be running away from.  Rare is it that the monster doesn’t eventually get its victim and using retail therapy will only last so long before what is chasing you catches up.

What are you running to next?

The next question to ask yourself is if you are a jumper, a person who jumps around from one distraction to the next.  I know people who get obsessed with one thing, lose interest and then jump to another new thing.  Imagine it like a person jumping stones across a pond in order to not fall in when, in reality, falling into the pond and actually dealing with the problem might be the best thing to happen.   I equate this to retail therapy because don’t think I don’t get calls from women where it is plainly obvious to me they think a wardrobe makeover is going to solve what they are dealing with.

If you are looking for external solutions to internal problems, like taking another class, reading another self-help book, finding a new distraction, or for retail therapy to satisfy this urge to fix what’s wrong, you are likely looking in the wrong place.  It’s likely there is pain right beneath the surface begging for you to deal with it.

Clothing won’t cover unhappiness

Clothing can do a fantastic job of connecting the inner and outer you.  It’s similar to the Michelangelo quote about sculpting marble: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  This is what a stylist does, we set free that which is already inside a client.  We don’t cover up or hide what is underneath.

Retail therapy, if used as a substitute for inner work and healing, is like putting concealer on a blemish.  Sure, it’s covered but it doesn’t really work.  It just minimizes the redness and swelling as a temporary fix.  But the blemish is still there, painful and ugly.  Don’t use retail therapy to deal with what is really troubling you.  It will only mask the problem and most likely make it worse.

Shop when you are happy, never when you are sad

Pain hurts, and nobody wants to feel pain.  I’m human, I get it.  I’ve gotten my fair share of bad haircuts and regretted rash decisions in an attempt to not want to feel hurt and experience anguish.  Retail therapy can definitely be used as a numbing agent to not deal with pain.  I understand this.  Retail therapy when you are in need of inner healing can often be like shopping for groceries on an empty stomach.  It’s hard to make smart, helpful, insightful decisions when your stomach is growling.  While the urge may be there to escape into a store, try to make a deal with yourself that you will never go shopping to mask pain.  Your mind is not in the right place to make rational decisions and, while you may come home with full bags, you’ll likely still come home feeling quite empty.

Instead, consider retail therapy for times when you are happy, when you’ve reached a milestone, achieved a goal, made progress, or kept a promise to yourself.  You may not only see your relationship with shopping, but your relationship with yourself, change over time.