Fake It Until You Make It

Often, I have seen people burdened with a financial secret; something that they have not faced head-on or have been hiding from their families, and it leads to emotional overwhelm.

Over the last month, I have had several conversations with a successful career woman who has amassed credit card debt that she cannot pay off in full.  Though she has never been late or delinquent in paying her bills, the guilt and self-loathing she carries was keeping her stuck in place – paying the minimum or a little more when she could afford to do so.  She had no idea what her balances were on each and every card, nor did she know the rates she was paying.

When emotions run high, it is easy to be reflexive and ride the wave like a piece of Styrofoam in the ocean.  But if we can just believe we can control our emotions, then we can learn to manage our responses, according to Guy Winch, Ph.D. and author of “Why You Should Believe You Can Control Your Emotions.”

Winch explains that our natural response to troubling thoughts is to either distract ourselves or to suppress what we are feeling; neither response is useful.  Yet, the simple belief that we can have control over our emotions allows us to reframe the challenge as an opportunity and can “lessen the emotional impact” of the stressful situation.

While failing to manage emotions can harm your personal life, your financial health can also get compromised along the way, even if money hasn’t been an issue for you in the past.   It could look something like this:  Rather than face your dissatisfaction with your career advancement, you decide to renovate a perfectly good kitchen (distraction).   You take out a line of credit and that makes your monthly budget a little tight, but you push down those nagging feelings telling you to hold up on the remodel (suppression).

Money complicates emotions because it represents more than just currency.  It is the yardstick that measures success, status, and prestige.  It is easy to give the impression that you have more of it than you really do.  Fake it (cross your fingers) and hope you can make it.

Posting images of a successful life on FaceBook, Instagram or other social media outlets wouldn’t be as prevalent if we didn’t care how others see us.  Ironically, our emotional response to these social media posts is to feel bad about our own lives, which fuels the need to keep up (or at least pretend to).

In my opinion, the only thing worse than living life on a gerbil wheel is to live it on someone else’s gerbil wheel (and get into debt over it).

Though not my area of expertise, I wanted to help this woman find her way to higher ground.  I could not offer her credit counseling but I was able to help her get her emotions out of the way so she could move forward.  She was then inspired to speak with an expert on the topic and has called me to discuss her progress.  As I read the article by Dr. Winch, I was struck by the fact that she and I informally covered his five questions to find a silver lining and regulate emotions.  This is how we talked through her issue:

  1. What is the possible upside in this situation?   I will not allow myself to get into further debt.  I only go shopping for groceries.  I have stopped the bleeding and have made a plan to pay this off in four years.
  2. How can I use the situation to further another goal I might have?  I have wanted to look at my budget and dig into how I am spending my money and set aside something for retirement.  I will make a place in my budget now.  I am tired of only paying other people; I want to invest in myself.
  3. In what ways is the situation not as distressing as it first seemed?  When I sat down and listed all my card balances and then wrote down the interest rates I was paying, I was sick over it.  To continue what I was doing meant it would take decades to pay off the debt and it would cost me an additional $100K.  Now I won’t be wasting any more money.
  4. What would the situation look like if I took a different perspective?  Yes, I was irresponsible in my spending.  I am embarrassed I let it get to this.  But, I have been responsible in always paying my bills on time.  Now I will be proactive in paying it off sooner.  I am making it right and this will never happen again.
  5. What potential opportunities are there in the situation?  I want to explore why I have had an unhealthy relationship with money and fix it, which will also rebuild trust with my husband.  I want to educate my children about my mistakes, so they will make wise decisions with money.

At the time of our last conversation, her shame and guilt started to shift out of the way to make room for her more important work of fixing the situation.  Managing her emotions enabled her to make her own playbook, freeing her from paralysis.

She believes she can change this situation now; so do I.

Whether you are facing an imminent financial threat or realize that you have allowed day-to-day distractions to keep you from actively planning your financial future, these five questions can help you take control and not live at the mercy of your discomfort.

You can wring your hands over past mistakes and missed opportunities, or put them to work and make your own playbook.  Then, you can get busy going where it is you want to go.


Source:  “Why You Should Believe You Can Control Your Emotions” by Guy Winch Ph.D., Psychology Today.com, September 5, 2018.

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