Debt-Reduction and Anxiety

DH = Dear Husband

Anxiety without a compass

When I was a teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s, mental health was a taboo subject. Nobody said things like, “I had a bout of depression that year,” or “I avoid that situation because it makes my anxiety spike.” I knew something was “wrong” with me. I was full-on petrified in most social situations, and public speaking put me into an absolute panic. Other people didn’t seem to experience the tension that I carried with me almost constantly, and I felt utterly alone in it. I didn’t have the language to define what I was going through, and efforts to talk about it met with responses like “Everyone feels nervous when they have to give speeches,” or “All you need to do is smile,” or “Oh, you’ll get over it when you’re older.”

Not true. What the passage of time allowed me to do was to develop coping strategies. I had my strategies for social gatherings – like going to the periphery of the room and finding one or two other people to talk to. And I had my strategies for public speaking – like prepare, prepare, prepare, and practice, practice, practice. But as the years went by, the culture changed. Mental health issues came out of the closet, and words like “anxiety” were spoken with intelligence, respect, and compassion. For me, it meant that I could talk with some people about what I experienced – a select few – without being subjected to platitudes.

Quiet

In 2012, when I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, it was like receiving manna from heaven. I devoured those pages – those words that described situations my teen self thought she was alone in living. Although I had come a long way by the time that book was published, it was still an incredibly cathartic read. Cain gave context to the prevalence of anxiety, which became more and more widespread as Western society changed from agrarian to urban. People’s social circles expanded and changed as they moved from the farm to the city. Public speaking was a must as people had to “sell themselves” to get jobs, connections, opportunities. Personality became more important than character. Extroverts flourished in this societal shift. Introverts often faked it or withdrew.

I could go on and on about Cain’s book, but I won’t. I’ll just say that I think everyone should read it – extroverts as well as introverts. Cain did a great TED talk, and it’s well worth a listen. There. I’ll stop.

Anxiety and debt

My point in taking this look at anxiety is that I believe it plays a part in many people’s problems with debt.

Anxious to fit in = susceptible to marketing

It’s generally accepted that everyone wants to belong. Marketers, who are extremely good at tapping into human longings, use the “belonging” angle to sell. Keep your eyes open for it and you’ll see it everywhere – in ads for travel, for clothing, for the latest tech innovation . . . “If you buy this, you will be loved,” is the implicit message. Or “Once you have this, you’ll be accepted.”  Introverts who are anxious provide fertile ground for that kind of marketing. We hate feeling isolated. We want to belong. So we’ll buy it – and finally be one of the cool kids!

Anxious about options = susceptible to confusion

In Quiet, Cain mentions a study in which 4-month old babies were subjected to stimuli like noises and flashing lights. The babies were divided into two groups: those who responded placidly, and those who reacted with sudden movement – like twitching legs and pumping fists. Guess which ones turned out to be introverts? The fist-pumpers. Extroverts are more comfortable with a bombardment of stimuli. Introverts are sensitive to it and feel an alarm. When we’re subjected to a range of financial advice – some coming from banks and credit card companies, some coming from financial planners, some coming from “experts” in the media, and some coming from friends and family – we get overwhelmed. There’s a chaos, and it all blends into an obnoxious, noisy mix. So when really good advice comes our way, we don’t recognize it. It’s just more white noise, and we block it out to keep our peace.

Anxious & overwhelmed = susceptible to emotional purchases

Last week, Shannon Ryan from The Heavy Purse wrote the post “7 Emotions and Their Affect On Your Finances.” Everyone experiences feelings, but there’s an intensity inherent to anxiety that makes emotions particularly powerful. Purchasing as emotional self-medication is a popular addiction these days. Feeling stressed from a tough week at work? Go out for dinner to relax and unwind. You need to take care of yourself! 

Anxious to make things right = impatience

DH and I started our journey out of debt in June of 2012 after reading Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. That book broke through the white noise of my financial confusion, and once I got the message, I was psyched to get out of debt. One of the things Ramsey said was that solving your financial troubles had almost nothing to do with your money. I didn’t believe it for a minute, but once we started our journey out of debt, I came up against a recurring obstacle that had nothing to do with money: my impatience. Anxiety screams, “The problem has to be fixed NOW!” But it takes the average household 7 years to go through all of Ramsey’s steps to financial health. “7 years? Ugh!” And it’s not a smooth ride. All along the way there are roadblocks, like unexpected expenses, and they test your patience every time. 7 years is a long time for anyone. For a person with anxiety, it’s an eternity.

Navigating anxiety and finances – with a compass and light

If you recognize yourself in this post, here is what I recommend:

  1. Read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. There is nothing more effective in bringing about change in your life than self-knowledge. Shine a light on your anxiety by learning about it. Knowledge is power, and it will equip you to navigate your path with much greater confidence.
  2. Find a personal finance guru and stick to his/her plan towards financial health. Mine is Ramsey. I know someone else whose guru is Gail Vaz-Oxlade. Find an expert who cuts through the “white noise” of your own financial confusion. You’re under no obligation to read up on every expert out there. Find the one who speaks to you, and move forward. Clarity is a fabulous antidote to anxiety.
  3. Develop an awareness of your vulnerabilities as you take what will be many, many steps towards financial health. Emotional turbulence? Impatience? Recognize it for what it is as it’s happening; challenge yourself to say “Not now,” in response to any desire to buy that might come out of a vulnerable moment; watch it pass. I promise you, the “Not now,” part becomes easier and easier with practice. (“Not now” is way more effective than “No” – “No” tends to invite rebellion.)
  4. Step back for periodic perspective. 7 years IS a long time, and you’re more likely to make it to the finish line if you take stock of the milestones you achieve along the way.

Do you think that introverts and extroverts face different challenges in making their way out of debt? Do you recognize anxiety in yourself or in someone you know? Your comments are welcome.

 

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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Yeesh, anxiety! I know the coping strategies so well. I still tend toward social anxiety. At times I’m just fine, but other times I really struggle with it. I get overwhelmed easily and need to retreat. The internal tizzy that comes with something as seemingly simple as shopping alone can really be a struggle. I’ve never associated it with finances, but you’ve made the connection clear. I remember as a teenager how susceptible I was to marketing. After all, Seventeen Magazine would name off all of your flaws, and then how to fix them. I needed bouncier hair, less full lips (this was the 70’s, thin lips were in), a tan ~ fake or otherwise. Just some examples, but I know I spent a ton of money trying to correct my “flaws”. Truly something to think about, Ruth! Thanks for sharing your own challenges so freely, Ruth. Your honesty is so refreshing. 🙂

    • Thank you, Kay. I remember Seventeen magazine! Wasn’t it good of those magazine people to let us know the ways in which we fell short – AND the solutions to our failings? I appreciate your comment, Kay. I felt *anxious* about posting this : )

  • “Develop an awareness of your vulnerabilities as you take what will be many, many steps towards financial health” Great advice! I’m very introverted and sensitive, but don’t consider myself to be too anxious. I find that being an introvert is actually helpful when it comes to saving money because I don’t feel this social pressure to go out. lol! I’m perfectly happy with my yoga pants and netflix. However, I read Shannon’s piece too and I have been guilty of spending during ALL those emotions! I do think if you don’t have a good grip on any emotion (even happiness), you will be susceptible to over spending.

    • I’m glad you said you’re an introvert who isn’t anxious, Tonya. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand. And anxiety is not the only connection to not having “a good grip” on emotions – there are plenty of those. Keep on enjoying your yoga and Netflix! (We’re watching Scandal now. Have you seen it? We’re hooked!)

  • I recently read somewhere that relatively small slices of the population are introverted or extroverted — most of us are some level of ambivert, meaning we have traits of both. I read Quiet recently, and found that a lot of it rang true for me, even though I ID as a more extroverted person. For whatever that’s worth! 🙂 And, you’re right, anxiety does make a difference in money matters — thank goodness anxiety is more recognized and understood these days, so at least folks suffering know they’re not alone.

    • There is definitely a continuum between extroversion and introversion. You make an important point in saying that most of us are somewhere in between the two extremes at either end. I believe that there is some confusion as people try to identify where their place on that continuum. Some of us have put our “strategies” into place so effectively and for so long, that we and the people around us believe that we’re more extroverted than we truly are. Thanks for your comment, ONL : )

  • I can be very impatient at times. It has gotten better over the years. Getting out of debt taught me to focus on a goal for 4+ years. We stuck to it never getting off course. That determination has carried over into other areas of our lives. I see the difference now and it has nothing to do with money.

    • I think you’ve hit an important point there, Brian. No matter what our predispositions – and no matter what bad patterns they’ve resulted in – we can choose to develop new habits. And those new habits -whether they’re related to money or de-cluttering or diet or anything else – will impact our character. It’s great that you’re a more patient person as a result of your intentional focus on debt-elimination.

  • I am definitely an introvert who is prone to anxiety. For some reason this hasn’t really resulted for me in the financial outcomes you described, but I can definitely see how anxiety could. I’ve been hearing a lot about Cain’s book and TED talk lately; I guess it’s time for me to check it out. It’s been an interesting transition since having two kids because life is rarely ever quiet now!

    • I think that anxiety can lead to many different types of behaviour. My account here is probably really just about me – but hopefully it will get people thinking about their own quirks and how they impact money-management : ) I really hope that you will read Cain’s book, Kalie! I would love to know what you think of it if you do end up reading it.

  • Good stuff, Ruth! I’m an extrovert, but anxiety and the desperate need to fit in definitely gave way to my spending habits. Since I’ve lost the desire to fit in, but instead now try to impact others, the spending has gone by the wayside as well. Peace. Ahhh. 🙂

    • An extrovert with anxiety? Well what do you know! Whether introvert or extrovert, it is one of the most liberating experiences to be free of care about fitting in. So glad you’ve got that freedom, Laurie : )

  • Introvert with anxiety: present! Although I’ve gotten more extroverted as I’ve gotten older and more confident (I am capable of being in big gatherings, even of people I don’t know, and talking like a reasonably sane person, even if I hate those situations.) Anxiety, strangely, has probably been better for my money than not, though. It kept me from getting totally out of control all the years I had a low income, and a bout of career anxiety was what led to my getting my act in order, financially speaking, and also starting my blog.

    • Do we “become more extroverted”? Or do we gain confidence as introverts? I think the latter – but there’s plenty of room for debate on this whole issue : ) You and Kalie (see above) both had the experience of anxiety working in your favour financially. I can only come to the conclusion that unique mixes of personality traits work uniquely for each one of us. It’s great to be able to look back and see how areas of struggle have led to positive outcomes. Thanks, C!

  • For the extroverts struggling with anxiety, I still think this is wonderful advice (except the book called quiet).

    Depression and anxiety can often overwhelm extroverts, especially if we can’t talk our way out of bad feelings like usual. Your points are great, even for the extroverts.

  • Hello Ruth:
    I follow your blog and really like it – such good insight into why we do what we do. I did make a comment back in the summer regarding our $97,000 debt and that we made our last payment at the end of August after six years of intense focus while in our retirement. We are now learning how to live without debt – a strange mindset indeed.

    Regarding the introvert book you mentioned – Quiet – as an introvert I did read it but found it a little “clinical”. I purchased another book called The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney which I found very practical and helpful, more “just the facts” and not a lot of extra “egghead” stuff. I would highly recommend checking it out. I know that I felt better about my “strange ways” after reading it and realized that I like myself just the way I am.

    Wishing you continued success with your blog – and maybe a book in the future?
    Nancy

    • Nancy, it’s so nice to know that people are reading my blog who don’t necessarily comment often. I’m so encouraged to know that you have liked it. Congratulations on your debt-freedom!! What a wonderful “strange mindset” it must be to have to learn to live without debt! I think that you have an interesting story, having become serious about your debt repayment in retirement – when many claim it’s too late to turn things around. What an encouragement for others who might think they’ve waited too long to start on a trek towards debt-freedom! Thanks for the recommendation of The Introvert Advantage. I will definitely check it out.

  • In your response to Brian, where you noted, ” … and no matter what bad patterns they’ve resulted in – we can choose to develop new habits.” Nicely stated and so very true.

    • Thank you, Savvy James. I’m glad to be able to agree that it is true – because I’ve managed to develop new habits myself : )

    • I’m not surprised that you are happy to be an extrovert, Jayson. Current Western culture favours extroversion, so it definitely comes with its benefits.

  • Another good read. For me, spending is often emotional so I can relate to much of what you said, even though I don’t consider myself an introvert.

    Thanks for your post!

    • Thanks Laura Beth. I’m really interested in learning more about the spending triggers for extroverts. I can’t help but think they would be quite different.

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