pain shopping by checking husband's phone

Are You Addicted To Pain Shopping?

8 mins

If you’ve checked out your partner’s exes on social media, look at your work emails on days off or even secretly record your work colleagues when you’re away from your desk, you could be addicted to psychologically hurting yourself. Here’s how to cure your need to go pain shopping

When Devinder discovered her husband Austin had been unfaithful with an ex-girlfriend before their wedding, she left no stone unturned in her research. As well as quizzing Austin at every opportunity, often waking him in the night with a question, she cyberstalked his old girlfriend on social media, drove past her apartment to check his car wasn’t outside and deliberately made mutual friends so she could learn more about the woman she thought her husband had preferred.

‘Even though it had happened years earlier, it became an obsession,’ confesses Devinder, 48, a legal executive. ‘It was as if I had a physical and emotional need to find out about her, and about them. Every new nugget of information felt like a win and drove me on to find out more. In the end I could have written her life story.’

What Devinder didn’t realise is that her obsession was causing her more angst and she was, in fact, ‘pain shopping’. Comparing herself to her husband’s attractive and successful ex-fling was not only taking up all her spare time, it was also affecting her self-esteem and dragging down her mood and energy levels.

But pain shopping isn’t just about stalking our partners’ exes. This kind of obsessive, compulsive behaviour extends to doom-scrolling on our phones, watching the news for disasters and checking emails on days off just to be wound up by a micromanaging boss. If you’ve gone through your partner’s phone to see what they’ve been up to or left your phone on record at work to hear what colleagues say about you, you’ve gone pain shopping.

Pain Shopping 

Life coach Amanda Davies, who runs Pinnacle Life Coaching in Dubai, explains that pain shopping is when we seek out information that could hurt us.

‘The person isn’t seeking pleasure or satisfaction to help ease suffering or sorrow, or to make themselves feel better,’ says Amanda. ‘They’re effectively punishing themselves or looking for some kind of self-validation for their pain. 

‘It’s like picking at a scab. It can give a temporary sense of relief or control, even though it ultimately prevents the wound from healing. Re-opening the wound will prolong the healing process and that prevents us from moving on.’

woman checking husband's phone while he is asleep as she's pain shopping

Julia Chi Taylor, a therapist and relationships coach, says we can become addicted to pain, especially when it’s based around a psychological drama, in which we feel we’ve been wronged.

‘Pain shopping doesn’t arise if we’re feeling happy and content with our life. It’s a martyr complex that’s driven by a sense of self-punishment or a need to validate and justify the suffering we are going through’

‘The story of how we were wronged becomes our narrative,’ explains UK-based Julia, who’s also a motivational speaker and mentor. ‘We repeat this story over and over. 

‘We ask how he could do this to us after so many years of marriage, or how work could treat us like that when we’ve given them our all for so many years. We get into a loop of feeling bad and worked up, and – instead of finding a strategy to make us feel better – we look for more pain.’

Addicted To Pain

And while our experts agree that people of all ages can go pain shopping, they concur that those with a victim mentality are more likely to indulge.

‘Pain shopping doesn’t arise if we’re feeling happy and content with our life,’ continues Amanda. ‘It’s a martyr complex that’s driven by a sense of self-punishment or a need to validate and justify the suffering we are going through. We might also even be seeking sympathy or attention from others by dwelling on our own misery.

‘Neurotics – those who experience frequent and intense negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression and anger – might go pain shopping,’ she adds. ‘Perfectionists who have unrealistically high standards for themselves and others may use it to fixate on their own flaws and shortcomings.’

woman holding camera and hiding in foliage as she is spying on husband while pain shopping

Others likely to indulge are those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, people who have suffered trauma or have low self-esteem, and anyone who has difficulty coping with or expressing their emotions.

But once we’re caught in the loop, how long do we stay there? For some people, it could be a relatively short time until they’ve resolved the issues, by leaving their soul-destroying job or their marriage, or finding a new set of friends, for example. But for others, it can last a lifetime. And sadly, that’s a lifetime of moaning, misery and bitterness.

So, if we find ourselves lurching towards Facebook’s search icon, waking in the night to Google a name we spotted in our partner’s Inbox, or parking outside someone’s apartment to keep watch, how can we put a stop to it? Amanda and Julia share their tips.

Acknowledge Your Pain

It’s natural to feel pain if your partner has suddenly upped and left you, if someone has died or you’ve lost your job, reassures Julia.

‘If you have had a shock, this can cause terrible pain, and there is a process of grieving, so you can let your pain out,’ she says. ‘You need to be able to face pain to properly feel it, so do whatever you need to do to get it out – cry, exercise, have a massage, talk to a friend, or seek professional help.’

Write It Out

Get a pen and some paper, and start writing down your feelings, says Julia.

‘Do this every single day if you need to,’ she says. ‘Get out all the vitriol, all the misery, all your complaints about that person or that job, everything. But don’t read it back, Burn it! Do this as often as you feel the need, and you’ll find pain leaves your body.’

Shout About It

scream in your car to let out your pain while trying to cure your addiction to pain shopping

Let rip about how you feel, but do it in a safe space, suggests Julia.

‘If you’re angry, instead of scrolling through Instagram and X for more information to wind you up, get out into the countryside and shout about it,’ she says. ‘Let it all go. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, sit in your car and scream. As you do, tell yourself you’re doing this because you want to free yourself of the pain.’

Think About Your Thinking

Challenge your thoughts, advises Amanda. If you imagine the worst possible outcome (catastrophising) about your situation, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

‘When you have a negative or distorted thought, ask yourself if that information is truly helpful, or if you are catastrophising,’ she says. ‘This alone can put things in perspective.’

Switch It Up

Feel your pain, then change your state, recommends Julia.

‘You can consciously change your state so you’re not constantly going down, down, down,’ she says. ‘Allow yourself to be angry and cry about being abandoned or deceived for ten minutes, then agree with yourself that you’ll go out and have a nice coffee and a chat with a barista if you can’t meet a friend – anything to take you out of pain shopping mode.’

Reap The Benefits

Although you might not realise it at the time, your pain is an opportunity for you to grow, says Julia.

‘Whether we lose someone or we have been wronged, it’s a chance for us to learn about the true essence of who we really are, and see this is part of our journey,’ she says. ‘When you pain shop, you’re closing off the chance to grow.’

Practice Mindfulness

Amanda suggests we practise mindfulness – this will stop us having those obsessive, on-a-loop thoughts.

To do this, be aware of the five senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. Experts say that when we’re being mindful, we use a different part of the brain to when we ruminate, and the two parts can’t both work at the same time. 

Breathe Yourself Better

woman in front of waterfall in forest practising mindfulness and deep breathing

Practise the ujjayi breath and imagine your pain leaving you, advises Julia.

To practise ujjayi breathing, breathe in and out of the nose with the lips sealed. After a deep in breath, breathe out through the nostrils, with the emphasis on your throat. You might sound as if you’re beginning to snore!

‘This lets out all the tension, and when you breathe out, imagine all your pain going through that space in your throat,’ says Julia.

Train Your Brain

Create new neural pathways that work for you, suggests Julia.

‘When we do something on a loop, we create new neural pathways in the brain, so constant pain shopping will forge new ones, especially if it’s done over a long period of time,’ she warns. 

‘But once you’ve worked through that pain, those pathways become redundant, creating a space. Try and fill this space with new positive neural pathways. Tell yourself: “It’s okay. I know I will find my way through this,” and “I am where I am. It’s okay.”’

Create A New Vision

Use your pain as an opportunity to create a bright, new future, says Julia.

‘Work out what brings you joy, happiness, fulfilment and success,’ she says. ‘Then start building a new life based on that. Join a gym, go to the theatre, immerse yourself in culture, sign up for a half marathon – do anything that will bring some positivity into your life.’

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