The Need to Steal (aka Kleptomania): Dealing with Shame & Identifying Root Causes

Jane is dirt poor and she never knows where her next meal is coming from. For her, shoplifting is an essential survival tool. Whenever she goes into a store, she tries to pocket as many items as she can while she actually pays for as few as possible. Jane’s thievery is driven by financial desperation. This is an entirely different issue than the one I’m going to discuss here.

Unlike Jane, Sarah has a decent income and can afford a few luxury items with her shops. And yet every time Sarah goes into a store to buy something she feels she actually needs, she finds herself filled with an overwhelming desire to take things she doesn’t need. She stealthily slips things into her large purse, she craftily switches price tags about so that items will ring up lower than they should, and she goes through the entire checkout process acting cool as a cucumber. And yet whenever she scores another victory and walks out with a bunch of items she didn’t pay for properly, she is so wracked with guilt that she ends up returning to the store and slipping the stolen goods back onto the shelves, or else making up phony stories about how they got missed as she returns them to store personnel. Undoing her crimes doesn’t ease her guilt, though. Sarah still feels awful about what she’s done, and she doesn’t understand why she keeps on doing it. And yet every time she’s in a store for a legitimate reason, she’s overwhelmed by a desire to steal again. Sarah’s situation is the kind of addiction I’m going to address in this post.

Elements in Conflict

Your mind, body and soul would prefer to get along as much as possible, so they will often make little compromises to keep the peace between them. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where your soul is feeling terribly upset by the immorality of something you’ve done, and yet some other part of you is insisting on doing that same bad thing over and over again. Usually in these cases, your subconscious is the part of you that is insisting that you keep doing that bad thing. Your subconscious has a lot more sway over your body than your soul does, which is why your subconscious can force your body to do things that go against the will of your soul. This sort of dilemma is very common among humans, so if you’re struggling in this way, you’re not alone. But you do want to be different than most people who struggle like this. Instead of just grinding forward with a tormented soul until the inner turmoil trashes your health, causes you to feel utterly despaired in your relationship with God, and sucks all of the joy out of life, you need to take steps to address this problem. Surprisingly, “just stop” is not one of the steps I’m going to give you. In cases of psychological addictions, it is usually quite impossible for you to suddenly stop doing whatever immoral thing it is that you’re doing. By now you know this, because souls that are feeling tormented with guilt do everything they can to take control over the mind and body and force both elements to walk on the moral high road. And yet in most cases, souls simply don’t have enough influence to pull off this kind of takeover. Instead, they end up feeling like the underdog in the group: forced to have to come along and witness activities that make them feel disgusted and ashamed.

So far the strategies you’ve been trying to use to help yourself aren’t working. Souls usually use some sort of self-punishment to curb immoral behaviors, and that often results in you giving yourself long speeches about what an immoral worm you are for doing such despicable things. Self-shaming is never helpful. It just makes you feel ugly to yourself when you look at your own reflection in a mirror, it crushes your self-esteem, and ends up making your mind and body feel more stressed than they already are. If we’re going to actually help you, we need to get your soul to change its response to your addiction. We need it to go from a hateful response to a compassionate response.

But your soul is not the only part of you that needs help. Your subconscious is the part that is currently obsessed with stealing. It’s important to realize that your subconscious isn’t rebelling against your soul’s moral code just to do it. Remember this key principle of human psychology: where there is stress, minds obsess. A mental obsession with anything is an indication of internal distress and such distress should always be considered logical and valid. You cannot possibly argue that you have no valid reason for stealing until you understand why your subconscious is pushing you to do it. When you honestly don’t know why, it’s because your subconscious is refusing to share it’s true motives with your soul because your soul is currently acting like a bully. If your soul changes its response and stops attacking your mind and body, then your subconscious will consider sharing its deeper reasons for stealing. And we need your subconscious to share what’s really going on with it before we can help it feel better about whatever it’s currently stressing over.

Stealing can result in some pretty significant social punishments. Your subconscious really cares about your social standing because it wants you to stay safe. Prison is definitely not your subconscious’ idea of a safe environment, nor does it like the idea of you being socially ostracized by people who find out you’re a chronic thief. It’s vital for you to understand how important your safety is to your subconscious, because then you will do a better job at recognizing when your mind feels there is a serious crisis going on. Whenever you see your subconscious intentionally putting your safety at risk by pushing you to do crimes which could result in some nasty consequences, that tells you that your mind feels it must sacrifice its priorities to try and deal with a pressing problem.

Suppose you see a woman with a dazed expression step out into moving traffic. Under normal circumstances, no human wants to be hit by a car, and yet here you see this woman putting herself at risk of serious physical injury. What would cause her to act in such a way? It turns out she just received some heartbreaking news and her mind is in such a state of shock that it simply doesn’t have the resources to spend on monitoring her physical safety. In real life, you wouldn’t need someone to explain to you that the woman is terribly upset. Her behavior and the zoned out expression on her face instantly tell you that she is in some sort of crisis. When she explains that she just found out her fireman husband was burned alive trying to put out a house fire, what will you then think about her walking out in front of speeding cars? You won’t just stand there thinking she’s an idiot, will you? No, you’ll feel compassion for her, and suddenly her foolish behavior will make sense given her circumstances.

The kind and sympathetic response you’d give to that woman is the sort of response you need to start giving yourself regarding this stealing issue. For you, the chronic thieving is like that woman stepping out into traffic: it’s dangerous and foolish behavior which you’re only engaging in as a response to a very serious concern. In the woman’s case, her mind was so overwhelmed by the terrible news that it had to yank resources from other departments just to try to cope with it, and that left her without her usual safety instincts about when to cross a road. For you, the situation is a bit different. You’re not bumbling into theft because you’re too mentally distracted to pay attention to what you’re doing. In your case, the stealing feels like a way to try to manage a serious dilemma that your mind is grappling with. The thieving is symbolic and it is an attempt to address a bigger issue which might have nothing to do with material things or finances. Let’s look at some examples.

RACHEL: Proving Intelligence

Rachel grew up being constantly told she was stupid and couldn’t do anything clever. To deal with the pain of those cutting words, Rachel started to steal. To her, shoplifting requires stealth and strategy. A person as dumb as people think Rachel is could never successfully get by all of those security cameras and watchful guards. Every time Rachel successfully pulls off another mini-heist, she feels she has proven to herself that she isn’t the dunce cap everyone says she is. With such influential people always talking her down–such as her parents, siblings, and teachers–one successful theft isn’t enough to keep Rachel’s pain and fears under control. Everytime she has to absorb some new volley of insults, the desire to steal something becomes overwhelming. She’s not only addicted to theft, but she is obsessed with pulling off bigger and bigger jobs. It isn’t the price of the item that she cares about; it’s the level of security that she is able to beat. The tougher the security, the smarter Rachel feels when she manages to walk away with her crime undetected. For Rachel, theft has nothing to do with gaining material things. She’s really using shoplifting as a symbolic way of trying to repair her battered self-image and give herself some hard proof that she isn’t as stupid as everyone says.

EMMA: Finding Meaning

While all of her friends are constantly going off on adventures and doing things that really seem to matter, Emma feels like a hamster in a wheel: going through the same motions over and over and getting nowhere. Every day is the same boring, meaningless routine. There’s no stimulation, no excitement, no thrill. Until she steals.

Emma’s first theft occurred the day she got home from her best friend’s wedding. With her main social companion caught up in the thrill of a new marriage, Emma knew she’d be more alone than ever. She was standing in the cosmetic aisle, feeling sorry for herself, when suddenly she reached out and pocketed one of the mascaras. The immediate rush of adrenaline she felt in doing her first real crime was shocking. It also made her life feel more exciting than it ever had. Sure, she felt very bad about it afterwards, and she even threw out the mascara as penance so she couldn’t enjoy using it. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the rush the whole experience had given her. In those few moments, she’d finally felt alive the way she imagined her friends always felt when they went on their exciting adventures. Soon Emma was stealing again on another day when she felt particularly down. Then again, and again. Today she has expanded from just stealing from businesses to stealing from her friends as well. Everywhere she goes, she’s constantly looking for an opportunity to take something that doesn’t belong to her. It fascinates her how easy people can be to distract and she spends hours looking up tips online for how to pick pockets successfully. Her secret goal is to become the best pickpocket in the world. And while she privately develops her thieving skills, it helps her feel less embarrassed by the way everyone thinks she is “boring Emma who never goes anywhere or does anything.” Now the reputation that used to depress her is providing her a useful cover. No one would ever accuse boring old Emma of pinching the wallet out of their purses at work. When items are discovered missing and accusations start to fly in every direction but hers, Emma smiles inwardly, thoroughly enjoying this new exciting world she has created for herself.

Identifying Your Own Dilemma

As the previous examples show, minds can associate all kinds of concepts with the act of stealing. The challenge for you is to figure out what kinds of associations your mind is making. When you’re not stealing out of material need, it’s time to start looking for a very different kind of motivation. The stronger your impulse, the more likely it is that the real reason you’re stealing is directly linked to one of your core needs.

Humans have many core needs. We all need to feel like we have value and a decent amount of power and control over our own lives. We need to feel worthy of respect, and that we are not at the bottom of the pecking order among humans. We need to feel that our lives are meaningful and we need to feel that there is hope for joy in our futures. The list goes on, but these are the kinds of concepts you want to consider as possibly being associated with your impulse to steal.

When trying to figure out what your mind’s real agenda is for pushing you to steal, it’s helpful to think about the following questions:

  • What part of the process do you feel is most important? Planning the theft? Taking the stuff? Returning it? Confessing to it? Using the items that you’ve acquired?
  • What kinds of patterns can you identify in your thieving style? Do you only go after certain kinds of items? Do you focus on certain kinds of targets?
  • Can you identify certain triggers that seem to prompt the urge to steal? Do you tend to be in a certain kind of mood when the need strikes? Some people are triggered by encounters with antagonistic humans in their lives, while others get triggered by feeling lonely, envious or depressed.
  • Are there specific people or certain memories that come to your mind when you go through the process of stealing?
  • Do you find yourself roleplaying a certain kind of character when you are in theft mode? If so, what is that character like and how does he/she differ from who you really are?
  • When you feel the impulse to steal rising up inside of you, what do you feel would be the negative result of NOT stealing? Are there certain thoughts or emotions that come to mind when you think of successfully fighting the urge to take something? Do you feel you’d be missing out on something or failing or proving some negative theory about yourself?
  • The surge of guilt that occurs after you steal is your SOUL talking. To resolve this issue, you need to focus on the thoughts that come before your soul starts laying on the guilt. Try to listen to what your MIND is saying and see if you can pinpoint certain arguments it is making for why you ought to do what it wants.

Writing out some answers to these questions would be a good place to start. Don’t focus on using proper grammar and complete sentences when you make these notes–just try to write down any thoughts that come to mind when you think about each question. If you are concerned about your notes being seen by others, use a password protected file or a memo app on your phone.

Involving God

To figure out what’s stressing your mind, you need to do some self-analysis. But it’s vital that you go at this with a compassionate attitude towards yourself while assuming that you actually do have a logical reason for behaving the way that you do. Try not to do any self-criticizing while you’re thinking about the questions I listed. Focus on uncovering your own logic because it is there, and being critical towards yourself will make that logic harder to uncover.

When you already feel ashamed of your addiction, it can be very hard to do this kind of analysis without feeling like you’re just trying to justify your immoral behavior. And yet this isn’t about making excuses for you–this is about understanding yourself better. Humans always have logical reasons for what they do. The fact that your own logic isn’t obvious to you at the moment doesn’t make it cease to exist.

You cannot fix any psychological addiction until you identify and deal with the root causes of that addiction. Simply putting surface patches onto the problem by trying to come up with effective ways to reward or punish yourself into lasting longer before you crack is just skirting the real issue. There’s no value in putting off self-analysis, because the sooner you understand yourself better, the more easily the self-compassion will flow, and the more relaxed your soul will become.

Compassion is based on understanding, which is why it’s so hard to scrape up when you don’t understand what is going on. To dig out from under a truckload of shame, it is vital that you gain a better understanding of your own unresolved issues and coping strategies. Happily, the same God who you feel so awkward talking to knows all about why you do what you do. To God, your addiction makes perfect sense. He sees it as the logical coping method that it is, so when you invite Him to help you identify the root causes of your addiction, He is going to be your Ally in the situation, not your Enemy.

God is much easier to succeed with than you are. Unlike your soul, which frequently demands the impossible of you, God’s expectations for you are reasonable and adjusted to match what you can actually do given your current problems and resources. There is a very common and very wrong view of God that portrays Him as having one golden standard which He demands that all humans rise to meet. Yet in real life, this is not at all how God operates. What God expects from you in the area of theft is quite different than what He expects from someone who is not currently grappling with your kind of addiction. It is humans who expect an alcoholic to resist a drink with the same ease as a man who has no interest in alcohol. Humans are generally not well-educated on their own limitations and inner mechanics, which is why they go around demanding absurdly impossible things from people who simply don’t have the resources to meet those expectations.

Deepening the Bond

So if God is such a big fan of morality, why would He stand by and let you develop this terrible problem in the first place? Addicts of all varieties often feel that the very existence of their addictions proves God is either disgusted with them or keeping them at a distance. Yet the truth is that every addiction comes with an exciting opportunity to get to know God better. You see, how God judges humans is a critical topic in your relationship with Him. Misunderstandings in that area that cause endless grief and all kinds of other misconceptions about how God views you and what He expects from you. Gaining a more accurate understanding of how God judges you will vastly improve your personal relationship with Him, and nothing brings up the topic of Divine judgement faster than grappling with some ugly addiction. It’s when we are certain we are guilty of being God’s definition of “bad” that we get all stressed out and start leaping to conclusions about how His patience with us must be exhausted, and how He must be finding our prayers annoying and our confessions insincere. And yet is God really the ungracious Tyrant that we make Him out to be when we start cowering and groveling and making our prayers as short as possible?

While you start feeling squeamish around God when you are failing to meet your own idea of moral perfection, God isn’t the least bit uncomfortable being around you. When you are struggling with moral issues, the instinct to talk to God less is the wrong instinct. You really need to talk to Him even more than you normally do, and you need to talk about all of the subjects you’re trying to avoid. God already knows how wretched you feel about stealing, and He can see what should be obvious to you: the only reason you feel so bad is because you care so much about doing right. God is very pleased when we desire to do right, even when we are utterly failing at actually doing it. With God, soul intentions are always more important than external actions.

When you steal, your true feelings about the morality of thieving are quickly revealed by your soul’s response to what you’ve done. When you feel ashamed, that’s your soul expressing its strong disapproval of your actions. Humans don’t tend to count soul responses for much; instead, they say it’s what you actually do that matters. But God is not a human and He uses a very different system of judging. With God, soul attitude is everything, and since your soul is obviously on the side of morality (hence the intense shame), why should you feel ashamed to talk to God? You and He are obviously on the same page when it comes to the principle that stealing is bad. It’s not like you’re trying to say it’s good. You agree with God 100% on this issue, you just need help to figure out why you are feeling so driven to engage in this behavior. You also need to get a better understanding of how God judges you so you will stop imagining that He’s angry with you when He’s really not. God is the perfect One to help you with both of these needs that you have, so the sooner you invite Him into your analyzing process and ask for His wisdom, the better.

We all have problems, but every problem can be turned into an opportunity for growth that will lead us on to a better quality of life if we take the right approach. So many fantastic lessons can be gleaned from wrestling with addictions. Right now you have a fabulous opportunity for growth in front of you. Ask God to help you use it well.

For more about Divine judgment, see Your Soul vs. God: Two Different Judges. Also see Soul vs. Mind & Body: Why God Is So Easy To Please.

This post was written in response to a request.

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