Why Shame Is Our Default Response
During a tough time, a friend asked me how I was doing and I deflected with my usual disclaimer. I said it was tough but I acknowledged that some people were suffering much more than me. There was hunger and there was death and disease.
I wasn’t saying this just to be polite. In fact, I was incredibly embarrassed by how difficult things were for me. I shamed myself often, telling myself, c’mon Lisa, get over yourself. People are fighting wars and running for their lives and you have stupid X, Y, Z problems. Anyone would be happy to have your silly problems.
My friend, though, saw right through me. He said, that’s a terrible way to look at it. Acknowledging that I have problems is not the same as discounting other people’s problems. We are not in a competition for who has it worst.
His message has stuck with me. I am not in a competition for the worst life. And when I think of things that are actually shameful, they are about doing bad things, not about struggling with our lives.
How Shame Messes with Our Finances
So why was shame my default choice? As a society, we are taught that shame is good. Shame is supposed to motivate us to better things – altruism, success, exercise. But shame is meant to make us feel bad in order to correct our bad behavior. If you feel shame all the time, or if you feel shame when you haven’t done something wrong, something is awry.
In fact, after I started letting myself wallow in a carefully regulated amount of self-pity, I finally got over it. I think discounting my emotions as silliness held me back. I spent all this time shaming myself and not enough time figuring stuff out.
Sometimes I follow the same pattern when I talk about my financial journey.
I have a high income. I have quite a bit of savings. So when I feel inadequate that people younger than me have saved so much more, have higher incomes or have already bought multiple houses, I tell myself, well there are people who are worried about losing their house or their job or their kids. My worries are inconsequential, I think. But that’s the wrong approach.
It’s the wrong approach because you are entitled to have your feelings and to the extent that shame keeps you from acknowledging that you have emotions and struggles, it’s counterproductive.
It’s ok if your problems are really hard for you.
I don’t have to have the biggest problems in the world for them to be valid. I don’t have to have the best story in the world to own my story. Being honest about my floofy problems and my true story might be helpful to someone else. But nothing good is going to come from me tamping down my problems and my story.
I don’t have the biggest problems but they are my problems and I’m figuring out how to deal with them. I don’t have to compete on problems with anyone else.
But won’t treating my small potato problems like big problems indicate a lack of self-awareness? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should be ridiculed? Look, if someone is trying to diminish or one-up you on your problems, then let them diminish or one-up you and then find some other people to talk to. If someone is telling you your problems don’t matter, then they don’t care about you. My friends, who are all saints in my opinion, still care about what problems I’m going through even when they have their own setbacks. And I care about their problems so why can’t I care about mine?
This will sound very unproductive, but I hereby give you all permission to wallow in your problems. Don’t be obnoxious about it but don’t be dismissive either.
Shame isn’t the answer.
I heard this story on a podcast. This woman slept around quite a bit and she was ashamed of herself for doing so. But, she figured, at least she felt the shame. If she didn’t feel the shame, then she knew she was really far gone. Later, however, when she learned to accept herself and her actions without the shame, she found she didn’t want to sleep around anymore. So paradoxically it was the shame over doing the things that she didn’t want to do that kept her doing them. In fact, rather than preventing her from doing something worse, it was the shame that was the instigator of it all.
It’s a bit funny that all of us can feel ashamed of our finances, of where we’ve come from, of where we are or where we’re going. And maybe we justify all of it by stating that at least we know we’re wrong or privileged or a spendthrift and we feel badly about it. Maybe that’s not the right approach at all. Maybe the first step in everyone’s financial journey is saying, this is how I feel and that’s ok. I’m ok for feeling these things.
And maybe what follows is that we need to forgive the past and everyone that played a role in the mistakes that were made.
Of course, forgiving everyone includes forgiving ourselves.
Forgive yourself for having privileges that others didn’t have. Forgive yourself for not having the privileges that others had. Forgive yourself for not saving as much as you wanted, making investment mistakes, not making a high enough salary, making too high a salary for what you do, for anything unethical you’ve done, for anything unethical done to you, for any jealousy that you’ve harbored against anyone else.