Episode 104: Shoplifting: A Response to Psychological Distress with Alyssa Scolari, LPC
Episode 104: Shoplifting: A Response to Psychological Distress with Alyssa Scolari, LPC
Shoplifting and stealing are typically thought of as simple, yet shameful crimes. However, these seemingly simple crimes can be more complex than meets the eye. Tune into this week’s episode to learn about the psychological components of shoplifting and stealing.
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Alyssa Scolari [00:23]:
What is up, everybody? Welcome back to another episode of the Light After Trauma podcast. I am your host, Alyssa Scolari, here with you today. We have also my dog Macy, who is chilling out with us, looking out the window in this little… I bought her this cat perch. So if you haven’t been on my Instagram and you don’t see pictures of Macy, she’s a little seven-pound dog, and so she is super tiny and she loves to look out the window, so I bought her a cat perch. She’s sitting behind me looking out the window on her little cat perch. And sometimes neighbors will walk by and she’ll bark at them and they wave to her from the window. She’s like the neighborhood watchdog. So that’s where I’m at today.
Alyssa Scolari [01:12]:
It is Sunday when I am recording this and I have been having a pretty relaxing weekend. I’m feeling pretty antsy today, actually, and I have been reading this book, Where the Crawdads Sing, which I did not know this, but apparently is really trending right now and I understand why, because it is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. I am obsessed. I have not been able to put it down and I have like 60 pages left, and I am going to finish it today. I am so excited. It’s been nice to be able to read in this ridiculously hot weather.
Alyssa Scolari [01:58]:
I don’t know what the weather is like where you’re at, but it is so hot here and it has been so hot with zero relief. Normally it gets really hot, but then you’ll have thunderstorms at the end of the day and then things cool off for a little bit and the plants get a ton of water, but there has been no rain, no thunderstorms. It is just oppressive heat and humidity day after day, and it feels like… I honestly think that this is probably day eight or nine at least above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s so wild to me because people say global warming’s not a thing, but I remember being little and watching the news and people were making such a big deal of three-day heat waves. So if there was going to be a day where it was going to be 90 degrees or above for three days, I think that’s what they call a heat wave. I remember people making a huge deal about that being like, “Oh man, three days. This is so dangerous. People are going to have heat strokes and get really sick and suffer heat exhaustion.”
Alyssa Scolari [03:19]:
I don’t think anybody imagined back then, whatever it was, 25, 20 years ago that today in 2022, we would have heat waves that last for literally 9, 10 days with zero relief. It’s unreal to me. Even my plants are all wilted. No matter how much water we give them, my plants are like, “Fuck this, I’m out.” They all look like they’re dying and I feel so bad. I have no clue what I can do. So yeah, it is hot as shit outside and I’m over it. I like the summer, but come on. I need at least a thunderstorm. Give me a thunderstorm, because if not, I just have this heat and oppressive humidity. You walk outside and just start sweating.
Alyssa Scolari [04:18]:
Anyway, I digress. Today we are talking about shoplifting, which at first glance, you might be like, “Why are we talking about shoplifting on a trauma podcast?” And that is because they are related and they go hand-in-hand. Shoplifting or stealing and mental health are really closely related, and shoplifting, like borderline personality disorder that we did last week, is often stigmatized. And understandably so, right? It is a crime. It is against the frigging law to steal, but I think that this conversation today is going to pose an even greater question of how can we look at shoplifting a little bit differently and are we doing the right thing by simply finding these people or just locking them up? Is there something more that we could be doing to help these people? Because I have worked with a lot of people who have gotten in trouble for shoplifting.
Alyssa Scolari [05:27]:
Before I was in private practice and working for myself, I worked for a local police department and what one of my many jobs was at this police department was to help kids in the community to stay out of the juvenile justice system, so help basically rehabilitate them after they get into trouble. Now, as you can imagine, the majority of the kids that I saw usually got in trouble for some kind of theft or shoplifting, and it begs the question, why are these kids stealing? Because it’s not just a fun pastime for these kids. These kids don’t want to catch charges. They do not want to be caught up in the juvenile justice system. So what is going on with these kids?
Alyssa Scolari [06:23]:
Through a lot of my time, not just working with these kids through the police department, but also in going back in my own history, I have been able to put a lot of the pieces together as to what might be happening with so many of these people. And it’s not just kids, it’s also adults. And it’s not just me. There are a lot of other professionals out there who have been exploring the other sides of shoplifting to try to understand what is truly going on. Now, of course we can assign poverty and lower socioeconomic statuses to stealing. I get it. It is impossible to live in today’s age. It feels nearly impossible. So I totally understand that.
Alyssa Scolari [07:19]:
There’s the poverty aspect, and then there’s also other psychological aspects to it. It isn’t just this simple act that we think it is. When we see people who steal, we write them off as bad people. Bad people. And again, yes, stealing is criminalized, but I don’t know any one of us who have never broken the law. I don’t know any one of us who have never broken the law in some way, shape or form.
Alyssa Scolari [07:53]:
If you’ve pulled out your phone to text while you’re driving, if you’ve talked on the phone while you’re driving, if you’ve never stopped or if you haven’t stopped fully at a stop sign and you rolled through a stop sign, hey, you broke the law. If the speed limit is 65 miles an hour and you’re going 66 miles an hour, hey, you broke the law. And for some reason, it’s like we talk about when people break the law in vehicles or people are acting aggressive on the road and we talk about “Well, try to think of it differently. Try to think about that person who blew past the red light or is speeding. Maybe they have a loved one sick and dying in the hospital and they’re rushing to get there.” And so we try to reframe and find these ways to have compassion for people who are aggressive on the road. And I love that reframe. It’s a great reframe. It helps. It helps those of us who are prone to road rage not be so ragey, but why can’t we transfer this over to other crimes like stealing?
Alyssa Scolari [09:00]:
And I’m not talking about all crimes. I’m not saying that we need to have compassion for murderers, but I’m talking about like stealing. Why are there no reframes for that? Why is it that when we hear that somebody steals, we think that they should rot in jail or be fined or be shown a lesson and we want to send these kids to scared straight programs. Why aren’t we looking at this any differently?
Alyssa Scolari [09:27]:
Luckily, I think that a lot of research is starting to look at shoplifting differently, and what we’re finding is that it is a coping mechanism. It is a coping mechanism, just like addiction or gambling. It is something that can give people some sense of control, and it also can help them to numb out from problems or pain. And it also can be a cry for help. I wasn’t a chronic stealer or anything. I have like two instances in my life where I remember stealing and both of them weren’t from stores because I had too much anxiety for that. They were from other people. So one time I stole… I don’t know if anybody remembers these candies, they’re Warheads and they were really, really sour when you put them in your mouth and then they were super sweet. I’m talking about them now and I really want one. I need to go find them online and see if they still exist, because they were so amazing. But they were super, super sour when you put them in your mouth, and I remember stealing a few of these from, I cannot remember who, I just remember having them in my hand and looking down and kind of having this feeling of like, “Oh, I stole something.”
Alyssa Scolari [11:00]:
At the time, I remember that feeling was like I didn’t really even feel that guilty. I felt like I had a sense of control. I was really little. I was under, probably under seven years old. I was maybe five or six and I remember feeling like I finally had a sense of control over what was going on. I did this, I took this. This is mine. And that clearly is rooted in things that are so beyond the stealing itself. This is something that a lot of younger kids will do. They steal not because they’re bad kids, and it’s also not because they don’t know right from wrong and it’s not because we don’t know consequences. We know that it’s wrong, but what is more wrong are the empty feelings that we have inside of us or the chaotic feelings as a result of living in bad environments.
Alyssa Scolari [12:09]:
Kids who live in frantic, chaotic, and even sometimes violent and abusive households, they yearn for a sense of control. They desire a sense of control. And sometimes being able to steal something, being able to have something that is totally yours is a great way to feel like you’re in control. It’s a great way to feel like you’re separate from your family for a little bit because you are the one who did this. You planned this, you did it, you have it, you succeeded. It is a great way to numb out from what is going on, regardless of the consequences. Kids aren’t thinking about the consequences. Their brains are not developed enough. What kids are thinking of is, “Hey, how can I survive? And I know that I can survive if I find some sense of control,” and sometimes that control lies within stealing.
Alyssa Scolari [13:06]:
And then I also stole something from my cousin. I stole a purse from my cousin when I was little. I cannot remember. I know I was under 10. Maybe I was like eight years old. We were at a Super Bowl party and I stole her purse from her. I totally got caught because what eight-year-old can hide a whole purse? And that, I felt horrible. I don’t know if I really did it to have a sense of control, maybe I did, but I remember feeling so much guilt and I don’t really even know why I did it. I remember being asked why I did it and I truly didn’t know then and I don’t totally know now, but looking back on it, I am pretty sure that I did it because I was just crying out for help. I was crying out for help. And that is also what shoplifting can be, a cry for help. I want somebody to catch me. I want to be noticed. I want to be seen. I want somebody to look at me and make me feel like I matter.
Alyssa Scolari [14:25]:
Kids and adults alike, sometimes when we go without this and we feel like we aren’t seen or heard, we will make efforts to be seen and heard in any way possible, and that includes breaking the law. Now, luckily it was my family and everybody was super forgiving. I think, I assume so, because I still had a relationship with these people. I didn’t steal from any stores, it was just people and it was awful. I gave it back and there was no harm, no foul, but still, it was terrible. It was terrible when I look back on it because I realize that I was in so much pain and so are many people who steal and shoplift. It’s just a way to numb out, because in doing it, what happens?
Alyssa Scolari [15:25]:
Anybody who has stolen anything, I can imagine… I don’t really remember feeling like this when I was little, but I can imagine that what you feel is an adrenaline rush. An adrenaline rush, anxiety and you’re just so focused on not getting caught that you’re not really thinking about anything else. Then when you get away with it, it’s a dopamine hit for your brain. And it is very similar with shopping, buying things. When people are sad, they will spend money, call it retail therapy, and then they get it and they feel great for a few days or maybe a few weeks or maybe even a few minutes, depending on what you get, but that wears off and then you’re left with those same chronic feelings of emptiness. This is very similar with shoplifting. You steal something and then you have this dopamine hit like, “Oh my gosh, I did it. I got away with it,” and then all of a sudden that emptiness comes back and therefore you need to steal something again, so then you get that little dopamine hit in your brain again.
Alyssa Scolari [16:37]:
Sometimes all of this stealing can mount into a much more serious mental health disorder like kleptomania, which is where you just cannot resist the urge or the impulse to steal things, whether you need them or not. Just because it’s there, you have to steal it. And sometimes that’s what this can turn into. It still can be a cry for help. It still can be a reaction to psychological stress or trauma and that begs the question, are shoplifting charges good? Is that actually going to teach anybody anything, or do what we need to do instead is teach people better coping skills for how they can deal with their pain, or do we need to be looking at, if it’s a child, do we need to be looking at what is going on in the home? Is there trauma? Is there abuse? Is there toxic stress on this child? Should we be checking off all of those boxes before we make the decision whether or not somebody’s going to be charged with shoplifting?
Alyssa Scolari [17:52]:
I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I know this is kind of tying into criminal justice reform, but here’s the thing, even if you never got caught, that still doesn’t mean that your shoplifting doesn’t have a psychological impact or isn’t rooted in psychological-based issues. It doesn’t mean that you’re not numbing out just because you’ve never been caught. If you have had a history of stealing or if you currently have a history of stealing, a lot of times people feel shame about it. And if you feel shame about it, this episode is really to help you put that shame aside and try to look at it from a different lens. Is it that you are a bad kid? Is it that you are a bad person or are you a person who is hurting and is coping by stealing?
Alyssa Scolari [18:57]:
Ultimately, I don’t know the answer. That’s something that you can only find within yourself, but I will say this, I have yet to meet a person, child or adult, who steals truly because they just love it as a sport. I have yet to meet somebody like that. Now, my sample size is biased because I see people that come to me for therapy so I’m sure people like that out there exist. In fact, I’m positive people out there like that exist, but those kind of people I don’t think are listening to this podcast. So if you are listening to this podcast and you have a history of stealing, I think it begs the question, is there any kind of compassion that you can give yourself? And if you’re still actively in your shoplifting or stealing phase, ask yourself what you need. What void is stealing trying to fill for you and how can you fill that void in a safer way?
Alyssa Scolari [20:09]:
I know for me, I never learned to fill the void, but I was lucky enough that shoplifting didn’t become my addiction. Food, eating disorders became my vice, so I ended up filling that void in another way, but a dangerous way as well, but one that was more dangerous to me. So be careful not to fill, not to replace one vice with another vice. What do you need that is going to be healthy for you and the environment around you? I love you. I hope you have a good week and I will be holding you in the light.
Alyssa Scolari [20:58]:
Thanks for listening, everyone. For more information, please head over to lightaftertrauma.com, or you can also follow us on social media. On Instagram, we are @lightaftertrauma and on Twitter, it is @lightafterpod. Lastly, please head over to patreon.com/lightaftertrauma to support our show. We are asking for $5 a month, which is the equivalent to a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So please head on over. Again, that’s patreon.com/lightaftertrauma. Thank you and we appreciate your support.