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Why You Must Forgive Your Financial Failures and How to Start

Why is Forgiving Financial Failures is So Difficult?

Some of the most profound struggles we can experience are the unseen. Emotions like regret, guilt and the inability to forgive are stubborn and painful. The mass of information available online espousing mindfulness, stress management, letting go of past regrets and self-forgiveness attests to the fact that people are struggling. This stuff is in demand precisely because people are in pain. It’s not easy to forgive others who have slighted you, but it’s even more difficult to forgive yourself for your own mistakes, especially when it comes to forgiving financial failures.

Regrets:  We All Have Them

I know I am not the only one who sometimes lies awake at night watching a never ending reel-to-reel of “if only I had/hadn’t.” Some of them are really harsh. For example, “if only I hadn’t been cruel to my mother as a teenager. Now she is dead and there is no turning back.” But I find that, with practice, I can learn to forgive myself for many of the foolish things I have done in the past that have hurt others and myself.

I know I am not the only one who sometimes lies awake at night watching a never ending reel -to-reel of “if only I had/hadn’t.”

I know I am human and humans sometimes make grave mistakes. We acknowledge them, learn to forgive ourselves, and are often able to eventually move on over time. But financial mistakes such as “if only I hadn’t been so irresponsible with my credit cards.” or  “if only I hadn’t taken out that student loan my last semester,” are much harder to get over. And there are valid reasons for this.

I find that the difference between personal regrets and financial regrets is that many personal regrets are only kept alive in our minds. If we learn to practice self-compassion, this can lead us to self-forgiveness. And this, in turn, can allow us to let go of the past. Our regrets fade and fall off of our radar as something that we have already dealt with. Time and distance allow us to mature beyond them.

The difference between personal and financial failures.

Of course, this is much easier to do when there is nothing around you to continually remind you of your wrong doings. If someone is in your face repeatedly reminding you of your past mistakes, it’s a hell of a lot harder to move on. And this leads us to the problem with financial regrets and why they are so hard to get over.

Financial regrets usually have to do with debt. And debt has this nasty characteristic of popping up every month when we have to make a damn payment. Many of us are already suffering daily in a very tangible way because of our past financial mistakes. And then, to add insult to injury, we end up re-living the pain of our financial failures each time we have to pay our bills. So it raises the question:   How can we learn to forgive ourselves for our financial failures when they are always in our face?  

Financial regrets usually have to do with debt. And debt has this nasty characteristic of popping up every month when we have to make a damn payment. How do we move on?

I know the feeling well. Sitting there each month, doling out your salary in chunks that barely put a dent in your credit card balances. The student loan balance that just seems to increase no matter how long you’ve been paying it. The feelings of desperation, frustration, shame, and regret. We tend to feel that we alone are financially suffocating while beating ourselves up for it. But here’s the thing, we are not alone.

You are not alone. Half the country is barely making it.

We try to say, “what’s done is done.” We try to say, “oh well, there is nothing I can do about it now.” But it doesn’t seem to lessen the pain we feel each month when our debts take a bite out of the salary we have traded hours of our life for. If this strikes a chord with you at all, I just want you to know that you are not alone. 50% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and just as many Americans are “concerned, anxious or fearful about their current financial well-being” on a daily basis. Why are so many of us suffering from this?

We are forced to use the credit system to be able to obtain basic necessities. We really don’t have a choice.

We are virtually a nation of debtors, and it is somehow wrong. We have to have a good credit score to do anything in our modern economic system, from gaining employment to renting an apartment. And in order to build a good credit score, we have to get a credit card. We are literally trained to use credit – ie to become good debtors right out of the gate before many of us even understand what the terms APR and interest actually mean. We were just not taught about this in school. And once you’ve gotten sucked into the debt web,  it’s a really hard trap to escape.

The stigmatized financial failure is incorrectly identified as a social deviant, sinner… In other words, the fiscal failure is a misrecognized cultural creation of a credit-debit system that supports the accumulation of wealth and depends on the existence of debts. – Beyond Failure and Forgiveness: The Debtor’s Place in American Fiscal Identity, Bankruptcy, and Capitalism

Car payments, mortgage payments, credit card payments, student loan payments. When wages haven’t increased in years but interest rates and the cost of living most definitely have, we end up struggling to stretch our earnings. We end up struggling for time. Time=money=chunks of our life. We truly are fighting for our life.

Depression and Anxiety are the most Common Illnesses in America

I sometimes wonder whether the explosion in the antidepressant pharmaceutical market isn’t related to the fact that living this way can make people depressed. Nearly 20% of the adults in America suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Why? We live in a first world country with conveniences people in developing or war-torn countries only dream of. What is wrong with us? Could it be that our financial system is contributing to depression and anxiety –  the most common illnesses in America? I think about this a lot.

We live in a first world country with conveniences people in developing or war torn countries only dream of. What is wrong with us?

We are trained to believe from a very young age that we are not enough.

Acceptance, the first step in any kind of forgiveness practice, is particularly difficult when we are bombarded with messages from all kinds of media that tell us we just aren’t enough unless we have “this new thingy or that new thingy.” We can try reason it away, but the messages still get through whether or not we are paying attention to them. We are raised to be good consumers before we are even able to talk. 

Companies pay a lot of money to hire slick advertising agencies that study consumer psychology to get to us. We are no match for them if we are not vigilant. The principles of what psychologists call ‘social norms’ help advertisers to tap into our innate preference to follow the crowd. Marketers are good at making it seem like a product is already really popular. Our innate desire to be “accepted” by the status quo does the rest of the dirty work. We are driven by survival instincts that dictate our drive for acceptance by others. We are hardwired this way and marketers know this. 

Our survival instincts can work against us.

But here’s the thing. We are no longer mammals in a forest that need to cling to each other to survive. Nor will we die if we are alone. How many FB friends we have, “likes’ we get, people who admire us for our house, car, or clothes… this is a shallow and fleeting type of happiness. It does not stick.

Just look at how media glorifies a celebrity one week only to vilify them the next. People are fickle. We are living in an age where we have to turn to ourselves for happiness first. We have to learn to believe that we are already enough. Think about it this way, people are drawn to innately happy people. If we are truly worried about acceptance and we learn how to take responsibility for our own happiness first, the rest will follow. 

Awareness opens the door for self-compassion

We really need to analyze what types of messages are getting in and laying low in our subconscious. What we are experiencing from all platforms of media is, in effect, a type of war for our minds. The struggle is real, it really is. The messages we receive from media that tell us we need more, and the reminders of our own personal financial struggles every time we pay the bills can make up a strange type of circular hell. 

The messages we receive from media that tell us we need more, and the reminders of our own personal financial struggles every time we pay the bills can make up a strange type of circular hell. 

However, knowledge truly is power. So, I’m just gonna say it. Our financial system is ridiculous. Consumerism is out of control and unsustainable and most of us are deeply embedded in it, both financially and psychologically. The very fact that we have to go into debt to educate ourselves at the beginning of our adult lives speaks to this. 

Understanding this might help you be a bit kinder to yourself. If you keep this in mind, while it might not help you get out of debt faster, it may help lessen the sting of being in debt already and allow you to practice some self-compassion which can lead to self-forgiveness. And that is what we are after because the inability to forgive yourself is a barrier to your own happiness. 

Learn to believe that you are enough.

Realistically, it may take years for many of us to pay down debt. It’s a sad fact that some of us may not even outlive our debt. So, if we continue to keep our happiness pegged to our financial situation, what kind of life are we living? 

I do not believe we were born simply to stress and worry ourselves sick about money. We have to learn how to reprogram our mode of self-reflection and stop judging ourselves based upon our how many debts or assets we have accumulated. And we have to learn to forgive our financial failures by practicing self-compassion.

If we continue to keep our happiness pegged to our financial situation, what kind of life are we living?

Practicing self-compassion around financial mistakes means that we acknowledge that, in our capitalist society, the cards are stacked against us. Advertisers exploit our emotions — our need to “fit in,” our fear of exile, our unending quest for “the good life,” our desire for the perfect mate. Once we understand this, we can work to squash this mindset. We can learn to believe that we are enough regardless of the car we drive, the house we live in, the phone model we upgrade to and the clothes we wear. This is an inside job and only you can do it. 

An Alternative View

There is a movement today of people who are practicing frugality and minimalism. Frugality turns the old “keeping up with Joneses” on its head and says, quite frankly, “I give zero f^cks about what others think about my lifestyle.” And when you think about it, this is a much healthier way to live. But it takes practice. You will notice some resistance from old belief systems, but this is normal and it will pass over time. When you encounter resistance, deconstruct it. Ask yourself why it is there. You will see that it is illogical.

Breaking down our inner fears.

I remember how embarrassed I used to be when I would drop my son off at school in a 1979 beat up Datsun. It made me cringe. Personally, I didn’t care what car I drove, but when waiting in the roundabout in front of his school amidst so many BMWs and Mercedes, I felt less than. And this feeling would double back on me in the form of regret. For if I hadn’t had that massive student loan payment, I would be in a nicer car. I remember carrying this feeling with me throughout the day. It affected me deeply, but it was only in my mind.

We don’t want people to look down on us. We are terrified of being deemed a “scrounge or a loser.” These are words that were thrown at us in elementary school. As adults, we carry this garbage in our heads throughout our lives. My grandmother used to be horrified about what people would think if I wore jeans with holes in them. This stuff is handed down to us through generations of poverty-fear. It’s ironic, we are afraid to be seen as debtors so we become good consumers and stay in debt!

It’s ironic, we are afraid to be seen as debtors so we become good consumers and stay in debt!

My Wake Up Call

One year ago I began to suffer from chronic stomach problems and severe cluster headaches. I was working an extremely stressful job that paid me just enough to keep a certain lifestyle and manage my debts. Although I was terrified to let go of that job, I knew I had to change something. Stressing out over trying to maintain a certain lifestyle coupled with the haunting pain of my financial regrets was killing me. Something had to give.

For awhile I just didn’t know what to do. How was I going to survive? No matter what angle I looked at it from, it kept coming back to this:  Downgrade or die. And to be honest, in order to feel good about downsizing, I had to forgive myself for my financial failures at the same time. I couldn’t keep up the game of kicking myself for being in debt while simultaneously pretending that I was financially viable enough to sustain my lifestyle. It just didn’t make sense anymore.

I couldn’t keep up the game of kicking myself for being in debt while simultaneously pretending that I was financially viable enough to sustain my lifestyle. It just didn’t make sense anymore.

At first it was scary. It was a huge lifestyle and mindset change. But once I got used to living with less, I found it did not make a difference. I didn’t miss ‘things.” I felt that I had developed a secret insight into our inane consumerist patterns that gave me leverage and freedom. I still have debt but I need so much less. So, I don’t have to trade huge chunks of my life away toiling under duress because I think I am supposed to live a certain way.

I also discovered that nobody really gives a shit that my jacket is 10 years old. People are more concerned about whether you are kind to them than whether you look better than them. I no longer judge myself by the clothes I wear or the electronics I use. Think about it. Do you care if your friend has a brand new pair of boots? Do you really care? No, of course not. Nobody cares! If anyone actually does treat you differently because of where you live, what you wear, or what you drive, they are not worth your time.

If anyone actually does treat you differently because of where you live, what you wear, or what you drive, they are not worth your time.

People are overly worried about how they themselves are perceived in terms of the material. This can cause them to continue to spend money they don’t have on products they don’t need and then feel bad about it – for an illusion. Can you see the insanity in this?

Living with regret spoils pleasure in the moment and it prevents being mindfulWhether you are struggling to pay down debt, or are just keeping your head above water to maintain a certain lifestyle like I was, you need to make sure that it is not making you sick. Stress is the biggest killer in our country. Financial stress is the king of stress. While some economists have posed alternatives to our current economy, we just can’t depend on some outside force to disrupt our economic system and turn it into something healthier. We can’t wait for change, we have to create it.

How to Fight Back

Try to keep an open mind. Ask yourself some honest questions. Is it really impossible to change your lifestyle? Perhaps you don’t need to live where you are living. Perhaps you don’t need to pay a huge full coverage insurance premium and a hefty car payment to drive the car you are in. You have to ask yourself what metrics you are using to judge yourself. Only you know the answer to these questions. 

1 – Learn to practice self-forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a one-time event. It is a practice. Get help from outside sources if you need to. As I mentioned above, there are a ton of free resources, books, websites and forums available on this topic. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money for a therapist. Google is your friend. Know that you are not the only one suffering. This is an epidemic. A whole movement of people is trying to rid themselves of these nasty negative emotions. Again, you are not alone. 

When we are held prisoner by our own past actions, or the actions of others, our present life cannot be fully lived. The resentment, the partially experienced pain, the unwelcome inheritance we carry from the past, all function to close our hearts and thereby narrow our worlds. – Sharon Salzberg, Loving Kindness

2 – Change the way you look at consumption

Learning to live with less is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. Start by asking yourself if the things you think you can’t live without are actually worth the financial stress you are suffering. What would really happen if you let go of them? There is no “right” lifestyle anymore. It’s all subjective.

For me, getting rid of things I didn’t use was the first step in learning that I could live with very little which had the knock-on effect of changing my spending habits. And I will just add this important fact:  sooner or later we will all have to change our consumerist lifestyle en masse because the planet simply cannot sustain it. So why not start now?

It takes a while to reach this level of anti-consumption, but if you keep it up, you’ll get there…You will suddenly realize why depression and health problems so often go along with debt problems.  You learn about yourself because you’ve shed your skin of consumer culture.  You’ve taken a step back and you can finally see yourself and everything around you much more clearly.  You figure out what matters and what doesn’t.  And, you learn this much earlier than most people which means you have the rest of your life to be happy.  – Mr. Money Mustache

No matter how far in debt you are, you are not powerless.

You have the power to forgive yourself. You have the power to need less, downsize and live more frugally. It is possible. You can improve your quality of life whether you have debt or not. Don’t let your debt define you. Reclaim your mind from the status quo and detach your self-worth from the claws of our economic system. In the end, we aren’t going to care about the things we owned, we are going to care about the time we have left to live. Don’t wait until the end. 

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