Going on two years ago I read a column on Consumerism Commentary called “Nothing bad is my fault: Toxic financial attitudes.” The author, Luke Landes, urges us to look at our personal philosophies, “to determine how they are helping or hurting you.”
I left a comment (more on that in a minute) and always meant to write about it. Better late than really late.
As a young man, Landes looked for “external reasons” (i.e., excuses) when things didn’t go his way. Ultimately a boss called him out on it, suggesting he examine his own thoughts might prevent him from succeeding.
Landes applies the same principle to money mindsets that might hold us back, such as:
- “I’m in debt because of a financial emergency.”
- “I keep getting charged fees by my bank, and it’s due to their policies.”
- “I lost money on my investment.”
Rather than be stunted by these attitudes, he asks that we examine “the effect your choices have on your success and failure.”
Understand: Landes is acutely aware of the very legitimate reasons some people do not succeed. He’s written about why poverty is a bit more complicated than laziness or lack of motivation.
But he’s also convincing when he calls on us to recognize what we could be doing to help ourselves, even – and especially! – if we don’t know quite how or where to start. This advice applies to life situations other than wealth-building.
In my case, I’m looking back at some of the more difficult parts of my life and the poor choices I made. The first two things I recognized were unfortunately common:
1. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, which kept me from seeking solutions.
2. I was clinically depressed for many years.
Can’t tell you how many people I’ve met and/or interviewed who suffered from both conditions – only that it’s a fairly large number.
Just the way life goes?
Simple ignorance is not necessarily a function of youth and inexperience. I’ve encountered people in their 30s and beyond who, for example, didn’t know you shouldn’t take out payday loans or use a check-cashing place instead of looking for a fee-free checking account. I’ve also met plenty who believe, truly believe, that debt is normal and you’ll never be free from it, so why not have a little fun along the way?
A whole subsection of the Internet likes to call such people “stupid.” But if it’s what you grow up seeing, it’s normal to you. If you’re raised in a paycheck-to-paycheck, moneydrama-to-moneydrama household, then you might shrug off your own financial misadventures as just the way life goes, even if it almost costs you your home.
As for the second: Depression and anxiety are twin bitches. I still fight them, except that these days I generally win. And on the days when I don’t? I have a loving partner and caring family and friends who are there for me.
But this success isn’t the result of the GoodFeelz Fairy showing up one day to wave a glittery rainbow wand over my life. That probably won’t happen to you, either. However, competent and compassionate therapy can set you free if you’re willing to realize you have a legitimate illness.
In the bootstrap-happy U.S., the shame of needing help can keep you from asking for it. Instead, you may berate yourself for being “self-indulgent” or “neurotic,” or for feeling bad when so many other people have it worse than you do.
But that’s like saying, “I only have a broken leg – plenty of people in the world have two broken legs.” You’re still hurting, and the condition prevents you from living your life the way you should.
No easy answers
Plenty of unwise money behaviors are the result of depression: overspending or anxiety over spending at all, hoarding or compulsive self-denial, gambling, self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs, the inability to think about the future (and therefore plan for it).
No easy answers exist for either No. 1 or No. 2, as self-education isn’t always as simple as people think. I hear a lot of dismissive scorn: “Well, everybody knows that you should go to college/save for retirement/have an emergency fund.” Fact is, everybody doesn’t know. The whole world doesn’t look like you and your experiences.
Besides, it can be hard to do any of those things if you have major family issues and/or live on a very low income. Some weeks you feel you’re doing well just to keep the lights on. Retirement? Ha! I’ll work until I die. (Except, of course, that you might not be able to do that.)
Curing/learning to cope with depression or other mental health conditions is another thorny issue. Just getting some people (ahem, me) to admit that something is wrong is hard enough. Addressing it can be tougher still, and that’s assuming you have access to care and the support you need to take advantage of it.
(Hint: A partner or spouse who isn’t on board with this can subtly or overtly undermine the process. Ask me how I know.)
Are we ultimately responsible for our own lives? Ideally. Some are born into privilege while others blindly stumble into solutions or have the lifelines we need thrown to us. Others struggle their whole lives through without ever believing that things could be different – that some people get all the breaks. In a sense, they’re right.
Something I needed to learn
A combination of therapy, my university studies and cumulative life experience helped me make two additional observations, both much more abstract:
3. There was something that I needed to learn from a bad situation.
4. Things happened in a specific way because they were supposed to happen.
I’ve been in bad relationships, bad jobs and bad friendships. At the time they felt horrible, yet oddly deserved. Rather than thinking “I deserve better,” I tended to blame myself and try to be better. That is, I thought I was the problem and if I could just fix what was wrong with me, then surely I’d get the love and approval I needed.
(Hint: That’s exactly what abusive partners, bosses and “friends” want you to think.)
What did I learn from all that? At first, I learned…how to seek out more people who would treat me poorly. Some prize, huh? Yet ultimately that backlog of bummers added up to “here are the sorts of people to whom I don’t want to give up another hour of my life.”
And while my marriage was a mistake, I have to admit that it brought me to Alaska – which is where I became a real writer and where I met three people who were crucial to my current happiness:
- Linda B., my best friend and staunchest supporter;
- Liz Weston, a newspaper colleague who eventually moved on to MSN Money and urged me to write a guest post that led to my being hired there
- DF, the love of my life
In other words, I was supposed to be here. Depending on your personal belief system, the fact that I did get here – all the way from South Jersey! – can be attributed to fate, chance or Divine Providence.
Consequences, not punishment
The best part of education + therapy + life experience? I’m learning to accept responsibility for my choices rather than to blame anyone — including myself — when things go wrong.
If I find myself whining, “I can’t believe (X, Y or Z) happened,” I take a brief but extremely focused look at X, Y or Z. Then, sometimes reluctantly, I remind myself of any choices I made that might have contributed to what happened.
Sometimes that means reframing the situation: I chose to attend the midnight movie, which means I was up really late, which means I got a very late start to my workday. That, in turn, means that I’m not finished by 6 p.m. and that I might have to spend part of the evening hacking away at a deadline.
The key word is “chose.” It’s not my “fault” that I’m running late, but rather the logical result of a conscious choice. Much like author John Steinbeck, who saw his hangovers as a consequence rather than a punishment, I am now holding myself accountable to the ripple effects of my choices. Some are good, some really stink. But I own them all.
So, readers, I’d like to paraphrase Luke Landes’ question: How do you accept responsibility or place blame for the less-than-optimal situations in your life? If the conditions truly are out of your control – illness, layoff, unpaid child support – then how have you coped and what advice can you offer others?