Money is a deeply emotional topic.
Not that many financial or investment advisors talk about it. Bankers don’t keep Kleenex on their desks like therapists do. But in my opinion, they should.
The idea that we should separate emotion from our money is ludicrous. Money is a stand-in for what we value. And values are inextricably linked with emotion.
Debt can be one of the most emotional financial issues because it’s so often associated with guilt and shame.
And healing the emotional strife around it is a critical step in lightening the load.
Here’s the thing: Our culture has a collective philosophy that the best way to make a change in our lives is to beat ourselves up and make ourselves feel bad enough about ourselves to inspire new behavior.
Here’s the other thing: It doesn’t work. If it did, everyone would have six-pack abs and perfect credit.
What if some of the critical ingredients for lightening our debt load, before we even make a single payment, were things no financial advisor will ever mention, and very few personal finance books bring up?
In my experience, the emotional weight of debt is often way heavier than the numerical load. It’s frequently how we feel about our debt that’s the most problematic aspect of being in debt.
When we feel bad about ourselves we feel bad in general. And when we feel bad it’s nearly impossible to take positive steps in the direction of change. Instead, we feel weighed down and depressed, and we often justify continued bad behavior, because if we already feel bad, then what’s the point anyway?
But if we start with the emotional impact of our debt, we can lighten the load in order to free up our energy to actually make positive, lasting change.
So how do we do it?
The first step is telling the truth. One of the most common ways of dealing with debt is not dealing with it or, in other words, avoidance. When I was in debt I avoided totaling it up for a long time. I stuck the credit card statements in a drawer and never opened them. I thought if I just ignored them then somehow, magically, it would all just disappear.
But when I sat and wrote down the totals of what I owed, to whom, by when, and what the APR rates were, it was tremendously freeing. Taking this single action of telling the truth made me feel like a superhero. Hanging out in the fog of vagueness was emotionally draining. Knowing the truth and having it all written down in one place was surprisingly energizing.
Just like when we’re using a GPS, we can’t get to our desired destination without first knowing exactly where we’re starting from. Telling the truth and knowing your numbers may not seem like it will make you feel better, but trust me, it will.
Next up is forgiveness. Carrying around a load of guilt around past financial decisions isn’t helping you get out of debt. It just makes you feel bad.
Let’s just decide for now that you’ve spent long enough feeling bad about whatever “mistake” you made in the past and that you’ve paid your penance for it. Now, don’t you want to do something that will ensure you make a better decision in the future? Of course you do.
Even if you’re not a particularly warm and fuzzy type, I think you’d probably agree that holding yourself hostage to decisions you made in the past that you have no power to change in the present isn’t productive. That’s exactly what you’re doing if you won’t forgive yourself for past mistakes.
Forgiveness is simply a way to free up your energy in the present so that you start making better, more positive decisions. There are some great resources out there to help you dive deeper into the topic of forgiveness if you’d like, but for many, the simple decision to do it is enough.
And while you’re at it, if there’s anyone else you’d like to forgive who’s connected to your debt, now would be a good time to do that too. Holding them hostage to the past doesn’t help you create a brighter future either.
And finally, gratitude. Every decision and experience we’ve made in our lives up until this moment has created our current life.
Your debt could be in the form of student loans, credit card balances, back taxes, or unpaid medical bills.
Whatever type of debt you have, you have it because at some point in time you received something of value and you simply haven’t repaid the value back.
So the final step is appreciating what you’ve received in exchange for the debt that you’re currently carrying.
Go back through your statements and identify all the things you’ve received that resulted in the current balances.
- Think about your favorite professor in college who you wouldn’t have known if you’d not incurred those student loans.
- Relive that trip to Miami with your sweetheart that brought you closer than ever, which you happened to have put on your Visa.
- Focus on the medical treatment you received that has massively increased your quality of life.
These are the valuable things your debt represents. Isn’t that a powerful perspective shift from feeling bad, resenting your debt, and beating yourself up?
Next time you’re looking at your debt and you notice that you don’t feel so great, return to telling the truth, forgiveness, and gratitude. These three practices will lighten your emotional load immediately so that you can free up the energy you need to get your debt paid off and create true freedom, financially AND emotionally.
What about you? Was there ever a time when you weren’t telling the truth about your debts? Have you been able to forgive and be grateful in the face of your debts?
Kate Northrup is the author of the new book, Money: A Love Story. She’s leading a live online event called A Course in Having Enough with guest teacher Marianne Williamson. The course is free when you purchase Money: A Love Story. Get details at www.moneyalovestory.com.
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