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Understanding theft, overspending and hoarding

June 25, 2012
by Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, CPC
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Terrence Shulman

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 terrenceshulman@theshulmancenter.com.