Worry is essentially a response to things that are outside of our control.
We worry about our kids, world events, the economy… and certain money troubles.
Shifting our focus to specific obstacles in our path can help move us from worry to genuine peace of mind.
Worry is what we do when we don’t know what to do, we don’t have enough information, events are outside of our control, or we’re avoiding what we really need to do.
Think about something that you do well. Do you ever worry about it? Sure, you think about it, prepare for it, act on it. But do you worry? Do you sit there, helplessly thinking about all the things that could go wrong and how awful it would be if they did go wrong?
I doubt it. You probably just get to work.
Sometimes worry can come from avoiding possible solutions that we don’t want to consider. We are creatures of habit. We like what’s familiar and go to great lengths to keep things the same – even if what we’re used to isn’t working. Our habits can blind us to opportunities for taking effective action, leaving us to worry instead.
We can do this with money very easily because what we spend is often based on habits and expectations – living in a certain kind of home, driving a certain kind of car, wearing a certain wardrobe, or enjoying a certain level of dining, travel and entertainment.
These all become our “normal,” and when we think of solving our money troubles, we often take this level of spending as a given.
There are very tangible things we can define – how much income we make per month, what our known expenses are. We can have clarity about what things cost and what we expect to earn… if we choose to look at them.
But when our expenses are greater than our income, our investments aren’t doing well and our debts are beginning to pile up… it can be painful to look at the facts and easier to become lulled into a kind of denial, hoping that things will “work out.”
That denial provides us with immediate, short-term relief. Meanwhile, the problems continue to build, making it more painful to face them and making the relief of avoidance more attractive.
But even when we avoid looking at the trouble, we can’t completely fool ourselves. Part of us knows that it’s there, waiting… so while the relief feels good in the moment, the stress and anxiety are there in the background, undermining our peace of mind and causing us to worry.
It can help to think of financial peace of mind as a big goal that will take energy and time – perhaps years – to accomplish. We know from the work of Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking, that spending time dwelling on the positive image of having achieved our goal actually undermines our motivation to reach that goal.
Imagine you have a big goal that means a lot to you and you’re willing and expect to work very hard for it.
Let’s imagine for fun that it’s a mountain that you want to summit. You’ve trained, prepared, and struggled physically and mentally. And on the day of your climb, you think you finally made it to the top.
Hooray! You’ve done it!
Now, what if you realized at that point that you’ve only just started the climb and you still have a very long ways to go?
I think most of us would feel disheartened, disappointed, let down. We also would have a hard time gathering up the same intensity of desire and focus that we initially had. We may still get there, but it would be more of a hard slog at that point and less of an invigorating triumph.
This is exactly what we do to ourselves psychologically when we spend time just imagining what it will be like when we’ve already reached our goals. When we dwell on images of positive futures, our blood pressure goes down and we feel less energized. We feel lower levels of motivation, and we don’t have the energy or desire to overcome the real challenges that any meaningful goal requires.
When we deny our money troubles… when we imagine that they aren’t so bad, that it’ll all work out fine and we can relax and continue our familiar spending habits…
That’s the equivalent of just imagining we’ve already reached the summit of that mountain.
We’re imagining we’ve solved our money troubles, enjoying the momentary relief that fantasy brings, before we’ve done the actual work to bring about the solution.
The more we do this, the harder it can be to find the motivation to solve the problems. We worry because part of us knows the truth. But that worry keeps us passive, avoiding the hard work and tough decisions ahead in order to actually make things work out fine.
What we need to do instead is identify the obstacles to reaching our goal and then focus almost entirely on what we need to do to remove those obstacles.
Have you ever watched the downhill skiers in the Winter Olympics before a race? You’ll notice they’re visualizing the run, moving and swaying their bodies as though they’re on the run itself. They aren’t picturing themselves with the gold medal and the national anthem playing. They’re crouched down in a skiing stance, imagining how they’ll negotiate the challenges of the run, practicing the specific skills that will get them the best shot at that gold medal.
If you find yourself worrying about money troubles but not acting on them, ask yourself this: What are the obstacles to my financial peace of mind, and what are the actions I need to take to overcome them?
Then define the very first action you need to take… and take it.
Then define the next action, and take it…
Maybe you’ll need to downsize your home or cars, eat out less, or dial back the travel; maybe you’ll need to find a way to earn more than you currently do; or maybe you’ll need to be more active with your investments.
But in the end, you’ll be able to get your financial ground beneath you again.
Focus on the specific, tangible actions that will solve your money troubles. Use your imagination to come up with concrete solutions that will lower your spending and increase your income until those two lines cross back into the black. Then establish the habits to keep them there.
If you find yourself worrying, focus instead on what can be done to make a better outcome possible.
This won’t bring the immediate relief that denial does – but it will, over time, bring the solid peace of mind that can come only from facing and solving the problem and reaching your goal for real.