Accepting responsibility for our lives.

thGoing 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?

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  1. amanda

    I really appreciate the comment about “friends.” I am trying to reverse a lifelong pattern of destructive “friends” who are kind of psychic vampires. They seem to thrive on taking everything I can give while pointing out all my deficiencies, making up more, and sharing them with others. I’m currently struggling with the most recent iteration of this pattern, but this time I am refusing to get back into the cycle of “apology,” more abuse, and so on.

    • Donna Freedman

      Check the self-help section of your library for books on how to strengthen your position and your convictions. I would also strongly recommend reading the Captain Awkward blog:
      Read some of the back issues, especially the ones with tags like “Friendship” and “Social Interactions.” The author (and her guest authors) have tremendously helpful scripts and suggestions for getting free of such things. Oh, and read the comments — they are thoughtful, occasionally hilarious and very, very valuable as well.
      Here’s to the new you, free of psychic vampires and able to enjoy the fruits of her labors without apologizing for them.

  2. Lisa O

    My favorite saying to my children is “with choices comes consequences” so be true to you! You and you alone are responsible for your life and the path you take on your journey. There will be many bumps cause that is life but keep faith, family & love in your life and you can overcome any bump 🙂

  3. a reader

    I’m debt free, and saving to have a house built. In the meantime, I am living in my (paid for) home and wonder if I should stay here or move due to a neighbor, who heats with firewood. We are on 1/2 acre lots in a subdivision, but are outside city limits so this is not illegal. I’ve tried everything to get her to use the propane furnace in her home, from offering to pay for its repair, buy a new furnace for her outright, pay for fuel, etc. I took her and her landlord to court, but they refused these offers in the mediation process. I would hate to be punitive, but I could hire air monitoring consultants to collect proof that the smoke I smell in my home in the winter really is from her. The thing is, she has no assets, and her landlord claims he is not responsible citing several court cases as precedence. What should I do? I like my house and don’t want to leave until I’m ready. Thank you.

    • Donna Freedman

      Boy, that’s a tough one. Is there some kind of scrubber you could ask the landlord to install on the chimney? (As you can see, I know little about such things.) Of course, it sounds as though he doesn’t want to be reasonable. But good grief, what kind of stubborn jackass wouldn’t jump at the chance for a free replacement furnace?
      If it’s not illegal to heat with wood where you are, then you might have to move if air quality is an issue. Perhaps try one more time with the landlord, i.e., a letter that says, “I’m sorry that this became so complicated and litigious but for me this is a health issue. May I ask why you refuse to accept my offer of a brand-new furnace, which would increase the value of your property? If it’s because you don’t want to accept anything from me because of the court issue, then I hope you will accept my apology — and my offer.”
      Of course, there’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t accept your offer, which would cost a bundle — and then encourage the renter to keep heating with wood anyway. Perhaps it would be best to set that money aside for your home-building fund.
      I don’t envy you your position. Good luck.

      • Gonna chime in…I have been heating exclusively with wood for over 8 years with no complaints … except from my oil man…With me it’s personal and done correctly heating with wood should not be noticeable. Obviously the neighbor is either burning trash or is not burning the wood correctly. Make no mistake wood heat is very green…leaves less of a carbon foot print…is renewable…and can save one a lot of money. Propane heat in most cases is the MOST expensive way to heat a home. Just my 2 cents….

    • ColdinMN

      You do not say why you dislike that your neighbor heats with wood.
      We heated a home with wood and coal because we could and the house had electric baseboard heat in a place where electricity was extremely expensive. Many of our neighbors also heated with wood, and no one complained.
      We currently live in a different house in a different state where wood heat is not generally used, but our next door neighbor heats with wood in the winter. We don’t complain, the only issue I have is every once in while I smell the smoke and wander around my house and yard checking for a fire before I remember.
      I guess if you really do not like it perhaps you would be happier living elsewhere while your new house is finished, since you seem to have that option.

  4. Kandace

    Thanks for the good words that I needed this morning. Sometimes I feel that I am not “________ enough”… fill in the blank with whatever inadequacy seems prevalent.

    I am enough, imperfect as I am. Living with the consequences of my actions may be difficult, but I choose to stand up for myself rather than back down. I am living in #4 of your realizations and am trying to figure out what is the supposed to part and what I can learn from it.

    • Donna Freedman

      I have no doubt you will learn from the whatever-it-is, because you are approaching your life with eyes open. Sometimes being an adult is so hard.

  5. SherryH

    There are two things I try to do when I’m in a lousy situation, whether it’s my own doing or something life threw at me.

    First, Rather than focus on how I got into the situation, I try to address the question, “What are we going to do about it now?” In other words, what steps can I take to undo/mitigate the damage, and how can I keep it from happening again?

    The second, related question, particularly for those curveballs life throws at you, is, “Where do I want to go from here?” Lost your job? Well, now you can look for a new one anywhere you want to go. True, the new path will have its own set of obstacles, but it’s an option you didn’t have before.

    Thanks for the reminder, Donna. It came in handy this morning.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Sherry, for your advice. “What are we going to do about it now?” and “Where do I want to go from here?” are good alternatives to OMG WHY MEEEEEEE…..!

  6. I try to think of it as a journey, I couldn’t be me if I didn’t go through all of the struggles. It’s just hard to realize that this life is about the struggles and what you learn from it when you are in the middle of a mess and are suffering. Feelin’ all zen!

    • Donna Freedman

      I agree with you, Zen Master Sonya. One of my childhood friends went through horrific times during her young womanhood. Yet she once told me that these were the things that made her who she is, so she couldn’t say she’d change them.
      Thanks for including me on your current journey. Dammit, I need to fly to Chicago so we could get thrown out of a couple of mall food courts, or something.

  7. Betsey

    Right now I am going through an arthritis flare up. Not fun, but it is making me rethink home ownership. I have a lovely apartment in a quiet building, handicap accessible, and have all repairs and outside work done for me. Should I buy a home at 64, I wonder if I will be able to keep up with it if this gets any worse.
    I never complain about what I cannot do. I have taken everything life has thrown at me with faith, friends, and a sense of not taking anything personally. I have made my own way with no help from the government, parents, etc. Oops…I had to borrow $1,000 from the folks once when I left the house in the middle of the night because of an abusive husband. After the divorce, I was left so I do not have to worry about money thankfully!!!
    So I am in a quandary about home ownership. Big deal. If the worst thing that happens to me in the future is staying here in the apartment, then I have it made.
    The mantra I have lived with my whole life is this: everything is temporary. Learn to live with change, accept it, and move on.

    • Donna Freedman

      “Everything is temporary. Learn to live with change, accept it, and move on.”
      Okay, now that would fit on a bumper sticker or T-shirt. Thanks for sharing that, and I’m sorry to hear about the worsening of your condition. Even if it’s temporary (and I do hope it subsides), it’s gotta hurt like hell and impede movement. Glad you’re keeping that in mind and making an informed decision vs. rushing to buy because “everybody” does so. (Hint: Lots of people in New York live their whole lives as renters.)
      Sending positive thoughts/prayers your way for improvement. Thank you for reading.

  8. I have learned to focus on action: rather than allow my anxiety to drive me into depression, I list the options open to me, choose one, and then do that. It defuses the anxiety like nothing else.

    I too have a tendency to blame myself, but I have lately begun challenging myself to see things more wholistically: what part others play, what part my choices and actions have played. You’re right: choices are better than blame, because I can change my choices. I cannot change some amorphous “personality” or other ill defined trait. I am not merely my personality, I am also my actions, my decisions.

    • Donna Freedman

      “I have learned to focus on action: rather than allow my anxiety to drive me into depression, I list the options open to me, choose one, and then do that. It defuses the anxiety like nothing else.”
      Bravo! I have spent far too much of my life spinning my wheels due to anxiety. Action definitely beats inertia.

  9. I have cultivated a habit of accepting responsibility for ALL the less-than-optimal situations that occur in my life, because it’s just that: my life! Outside events or other people can sometimes drop obstacles into it, but if I allow those obstacles to remain, I will be the one that suffers, not them. Of course, I do my best to avoid those people and situations that continually cause me strife, but sometimes, the only way out is through.

    Within the past few years, my husband and I have worked diligently to pay off our debt and fully fund our emergency fund with a six-months bare-bones reserve, and those two things have transformed the way setbacks affect us. We have recently weathered a death in the family, an unexpected job loss, and a cross-country move, and having savings meant that these personal crises have not also been financial crises, which removes an enormous amount of stress.

    It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve prioritized our basic well-being over the requests and demands of others, which has also helped us discern our true friends and supporters. The people who care about us and want to see us succeed have understood and encouraged us on our journey, and as gently as possible, we’ve allowed the others to recede into the background.

    The advice I would offer is: decide what matters most to your well-being, eliminate from your life those behaviors (and people) who conflict with your path, seek out like-minded people to spend time with, and accept that ANY new way of being will feel very uncomfortable… until it doesn’t, anymore!

    • Donna Freedman

      “I have cultivated a habit of accepting responsibility for ALL the less-than-optimal situations that occur in my life, because it’s just that: my life! Outside events or other people can sometimes drop obstacles into it, but if I allow those obstacles to remain, I will be the one that suffers, not them.”
      A little bit long for a T-shirt or bumper sticker, but still: This!
      Thanks for leaving a comment, and I’m looking forward to meeting you in Austin.

  10. Our biggest issue is my partner’s series of bad jobs. Two very promising jobs ended due to circumstances beyond his control (not due to performance). A third seemed to have potential but never panned out, which he left after 3 years. The most recent became highly toxic due to the boss and we made the hard decision for him to get out sooner rather than later. I honestly do believe all of these have been beyond our control.

    But I do accept I have a partner who doesn’t have a clear path, one who has no formal qualifications, and while highly successful at any job he’s taken on, is not as career driven as I am.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m glad you acknowledge that not everyone approaches work in the same way. Some are very career-focused (as you are) and others are more about having a decent job vs. an absorbing career.
      Sorry that his jobs haven’t worked out, and hope a more suitable (and less toxic!) one becomes available.

  11. That’s why, if there are bad things that happen in my life, I always put it in my mind that everything happens for a reason and there are still good things that will come. If I am depressed or something, I paused for a while and think of positive thoughts.

  12. This might be my favorite piece on your blog so far! On my (almost complete, 8 more months!) journey to debt freedom I’m realizing a lot of times I had alternative options but didn’t realize it, and the role depression/anxiety play in my spending.

  13. I believe that I have experienced both of these situations. I am in the financial position I am in because of poor financial choices in the past and circumstances beyond my control. Regarding the poor choices, I try to learn from my mistakes so as not to repeat them as well as share them with anyone who will listen in an attempt to save them a little heartache. Regarding the circumstances beyond my control, I look to God for comfort, peace, and hope. He is my rock and my refuge, and in Him I find peace that allows me to not worry (too much!) about my future. I know that He will provide for me. He always has. Thanks for the great post!

  14. Interesting post!

    I try not to think in terms of “blame,” either of others or of myself — although of course, realistically, some things happen because we or other people do things that are ill-informed, unwise, or downright immoral. Even then, it strikes me as a waste of energy to dwell on that aspect of a setback but instead to devote energy to figuring out how to cope as best as one can and then to moving forward.

    That sounds glib…it’s not at all easy and often requires years of persistence. But most times you can achieve some degree of control over your circumstances, even if it’s not the kind of “control” you might have imagined.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. That’s why I’m avoiding blame and reframing it as the consequence of choice. If I stay up very late then the logical consequence is being tired the next day and thus getting less done. I don’t judge it as a good or bad choice, but just as a choice.
      If there’s anything I’ve learned is that we have very little control over what happens. We can only control our reactions to what happens.
      Thanks for reading, and for being such a consistent commenter.

  15. My mom taught us that when life kicks you in the head, it’s perfectly acceptable to lay down and let yourself have a good cry. But then you dry your eyes, blow your nose and move on to dealing with the situation.


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