A few weeks ago, I took a call from a woman who was concerned that her bankruptcy would turn off any man she dated, thus creating a “no-fly zone” in her chances of remarrying.
Her second marriage had lasted 11 years and she ran a successful company during that time. Since she bore much of the financial burden, when the company eventually went under, she felt like somehow all of that personal success got reduced. She felt that her declaring bankruptcy negated the achievement of having built from scratch a once-profitable, 25-employee company. Ouch!
I’ve also spoken with women hanging on by their manicured nails; they still had the BMWs, but their refrigerators were empty and they rented out rooms to keep the wolves of foreclosure away.
They kept their weekly nail appointments and stretched out their monthly hair coloring to six weeks instead of four. Keeping up their appearances helped them manage the stress and fear they endured day after day. But eventually, when the financial earthquake started to rumble, away went the BMW, the house, and the illusion that they were managing OK.
The number of women who had financially fallen down prior to 2005 was under the radar. However, since the 2008 recession, the housing market crash, and the rise of unmanageable student loans, even women who seemed to have it all together took a hit. In spite of the increasing numbers of people who have sunk into debt or been forced to declare bankruptcy, these are not clubs people willingly admit they’ve joined.
The silent emotional toll fostered by carrying debt around like an empty wallet can really become a hard burden to bear. The hidden shame tattooed on our psyches controls how we move through our lives, impacting our relationships with others in a variety of ways. These are just some of the habits clients have shared with me:
They never discuss money with their siblings or parents.
When out with friends, they order only soup.
They shop at the 99-cents store when they could afford more.
They check their FICO score every day.
They bristle when others call them cheap, instead of frugal.
When dating, they get anxious about sharing their bankruptcy.
They often feel trapped by their debts.
They get self-conscious when others talk about how well they are doing.
There is a difference between hiding something and having boundaries; it’s no one’s business what goes on in your financial world unless you borrow money and are asked your capacity to repay the loan. However, if you find yourself feeling hostile or ashamed any time the subject of finances comes up in your closest relationships, you may need to acknowledge that you’ve gone beyond setting boundaries.
Here are some steps to help you manage your self-consciousness about your history:
Gain confidence. Give off the energy that you are in control and take steps to make that real.
Take stock of all of your debts and income and create a debt payback program you can sustain month after month.
Commit to a payback schedule. Even if it’s $25 per month, fulfilling your commitment will give you a sense of control.
Start bringing your own lunch to work. Make your own double espresso latte and bring it to the office in a thermos.
Acknowledge that debt is often a way of expressing feeling unworthy.
Release your feelings of shame by sharing them with someone you can trust.
When dating, the money conversation should happen when it looks like it’s serious and how you talk about it is the key: You need to exude that it’s a shrinking problem, not an expanding one.
As you set about conquering your debts, make sure to keep in mind that your feelings are your feelings; they only have power over you if you give it to them. If you allow your feelings to define your self-worth, you have just surrendered your inner compass.
People need to feel full, think clearly, and then take action once they are calm. Ultimately the only control we have is over ourselves. Choose wisely and you will keep your self-respect.
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