I read something interesting today:
“Abundance is the experience of plenty, often called prosperity…You are prosperous to the degree that you are experiencing peace, health, and plenty in your world….In our culture, however, abundance is often equated only with money, the pursuit of which may throw our body, mind, and spirit out of balance, and, therefore, threaten our creative flow.” The Twelve Secrets of Highly Creative Women, Gail McMeekin
What stood out to me immediately was the use of the word “experience” implying that we could possess peace, health, and plenty, but if we are unable to experience it, then we would not live prosperously. Isn’t that interesting? This might be the result of “scarcity thinking”. Gail McMeekin, a life coach, calls “scarcity thinking” a saboteur–the voice that says that you do not have enough even if you do. She goes on to say that “scarcity thinking…worships lack rather than plenty. [It] comes from fear and a lack of trust that your needs will be taken care of.” Scarcity thinking is a form of anxiety. I’m very familiar with it. I’ve always called it the Poverty Paradigm, and it’s plagued me for most of my life. It’s completely irrational, and it is indeed an enemy to our peace of mind and forward progression.
I recently realized that I grew up with little to no resources, but my mother did a fairly good job hiding it. My father grew up in poverty, and, during my parents’ separation, he cleared out their checking account and left us with no financial resources, hightailing it to California. My mother was too proud to ask her parents for help so she turned instead to my beloved pickle jar. I had been literally saving all my pennies hoping to fill the jar to the brim with coins. Instead, my mother used my spare change to buy food insisting that I help her count out the coins. It was powdered milk and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for weeks after that. After their divorce, my father refused to pay child support leaving my mother in a consistently precarious financial position, and I became the pawn in bitter fights over money. There was never enough. I was always wearing clothes that were too small and worn or hand-me-downs from some family my mother knew. I always felt guilty. I was the reason we never had enough. If only I would stop growing or needing something.
My mother didn’t handle finances well either. When she married a second time, her new mother-in-law set up a savings account for me. She deposited money into that account on my birthday every year. After that marriage ended I discovered that my mother had drained that account; it was empty. When my grandfather passed away a few years later he left me a specific amount of money with instructions to invest it. My mother took half the money for herself against the execution of the will. When I was living in France, I injured myself in a rather embarrassing way and was forced to stay overnight in a French hospital. It took two years for the hospital bill to pass through my insurance company and reach me. As it turns out, the insurance company paid the bill directly to my American address, and I was to directly pay the French hospital using those funds. My mother essentially stole that money and never told me that the insurance company had paid the bill. She left me with a $1000 bill that I had to pay out-of-pocket. Due to my mother’s behavior around money–more specifically my money–I developed a scarcity complex around money and finances. As soon as I had money, my mother would steal it. At least that’s what I came to believe.
Combine growing up with an impoverished life experience and a mother who steals with a captivity experience, and I developed a major scarcity complex. If I even felt remotely trapped, I panicked. These feelings were very specific to feeling trapped financially–out of options. Some people might relate to this more on a physical level as in a sense of claustrophobia. There are those who don’t like tight spaces like elevators and MRI machines. They are suddenly overcome with panic and a strong urge to flee. I can tolerate elevators and MRI machines. I could not, however, tolerate emotional tightness. I suffered from emotional claustrophobia. What triggered it? Ironically, abundance triggered my panic more than anything else. Income tax refunds, bonuses, and inheritances caused enormous panic attacks. Why? In my mind, abundance of resources attracted their devouring. I never held onto anything extra for long because someone–my mother–would always steal from me. So, what did I do with the surplus? I couldn’t save it. That would attract attention. You have to get rid of it as quickly as possible so I spent it. I paid bills, repaired the cars, registered my girls for classes, donated it, whatever needed to be done…Just get rid of it. Does this make sense? Nope. Not at all.
Lack also triggered panic. Not having enough, of course, made me terribly anxious, but I always experienced my life as lacking so I lived on the edge of panic for years. This is why I have credit card debt. I was always trying to pre-empt a crisis of scarcity particularly where my children were concerned. I didn’t want them growing up as I did with old, ill-fitting clothes and powdered milk. So, I made all my choices from a place of fear. This way of life, however, is not sustainable. How did it change?
I locked myself in the bathroom one day, sat in the bathtub, and wept. I was taken over by panic. I’m sure I was paying the bills, perceived that there wasn’t enough for something, and freaked out. My husband, however, must have heard me. He picked the lock on the bathroom door and found me in my irrational, anxious state. “What are you doing? Why are you freaking out?” I was not going to answer that question. Clearly, I was totally fine, huddled in the bathtub, shaking like a leaf. “I paid the bills.” My husband shrugged. “So…you paid the bills. And? Did we have enough to pay the bills?” I thought about it. “Yes…” He sat on the toilet and looked at me. “So, you are upset because you paid that bills and we had enough?” I thought about what he said. “We are living paycheck to paycheck. I can’t do this anymore. I’m so tired. If something happens…If…” My husband said, “Stop. No more of that. Did we or did we not have enough? Do we have a house? Do we have food? Do the cars work? Do the girls have what they need? Is your mother coming to drain our accounts? Does she even have access to our accounts? Yeah…I know how you think. Tell me…do we right now have what we need?” I couldn’t argue. “Yes, we have what we need today.” He took my hands and pulled me out of the tub, “Then, you are okay, and we are okay. No more panic.”
That moment in my bathroom was the very beginning of my recovery from crippling anxiety. It all started with one question: “Do you have what you need today?” My scarcity complex was deeply rooted in something far more sinister than merely fearing my mother’s thievery. Feeling trapped is a common form of anxiety, but those feelings usually tie in to something else. For me, I relate feeling trapped to my time in captivity when a murderous sociopath was threatening to kill me. In my brain, feeling trapped is connected to fearing death. They are one and the same. This is why I was so paralyzed by feelings of financial tightness.
To me, financial tightness=no options=being trapped=being in captivity=threat of death, ergo, financial tightness=threat of death
When we believe that we are about to die, our limbic system kicks in and we are no longer rational. Instead, we are usually stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode. This is anxiety in action. No amount of therapy is going to reach a person who is ruled by their limbic system. The point of a good treatment plan is to stop the anxiety before escalation occurs and the limbic response hits us hard and fast. The only way I was able to break my anxiety cycle was to figure out what I was believing. Anxiety, I have learned, is the fruit of a very poisonous tree. It’s not the seed. The tree itself represents the thoughts that drive and continually cultivate the anxiety, and the seed is the belief from whence it all grows.
In my case, I was not able to experience the abundance in my life because I could not see it. A seed was planted by my parents’ actions and my abduction fertilized that seed. I believed that if I ever had money particularly a surplus, then it would be devoured in one way or another. Irrationally, I believed my mother would steal it. These beliefs manifested in thoughts like:
- “It’ll be okay when _______ is paid off.” (Any thought that begins with “It will be okay when…” is magical thinking.)
- “I better spend this now because I don’t know when we’ll have money again.” (Catastrophizing as well as failing to plan based on avoidance behavior)
- “I don’t know what we’re going to do…” (Irrational thinking as well as catastrophizing)
- “I feel like we never have enough.” (Feeling like one never has enough is very different than reality.)
- “I feel like we never have any options.” (Thinking with feelings).
All of these thoughts are cognitive distortions and prevented me from thinking clearly about my situation. My anxiety prevented me from making good financial decisions. The feelings of entrapment activated my limbic system because those feelings were tied into a traumatic experience. My brain was merely doing its job and attempting to protect me. I was stuck. So, how did I overcome this anxiety? It’s taken me a few years, but I stopped dealing with the anxiety and addressed the root of it. I looked at what my mother did and addressed specific memories associated with being in captivity. Truthfully, it was very painful, and I didn’t like it. I also realized that I had a habit of saying, “It’ll be okay…” during escalation. I changed my language to express the truth: “It is okay.” and “I am okay.” I had to tell my brain that I was, in fact, okay. It didn’t need to step in and protect me. Was I still trapped? Nope. Was my mother coming to plunder me? Not at all. Was someone coming to abduct me? No! Sometimes I had to stop and take stock of my existential state in the middle of a mall or restaurant. There were times I was on the verge of freaking out, and I would start my mental checklist. The notion that we do not have control of ourselves is not true. We, in fact, have far more control over ourselves than we think. Our brains just have to be convinced of that.
Now, someone might say that their level of anxiety is far worse than mine was. That might be true. I will say, however, that it is possible to gain ground in recovering the enjoyment of peace of mind and learning how to experience abundance–in even perceiving abundance. If I can disentangle that mental mess, then I know others can disentangle theirs. So much is possible. Sometimes it’s just a matter of beginning to question our conclusions and ask questions again to reignite a process. Do we even believe that we can minimize our anxiety? What do we believe about anxiety anyway?
At this point, I don’t think I believe that anxiety should be merely managed. I think that it’s possible to do so much more than manage it. I think it can be lessened to the point of minimization so that we experience what I might call healthy levels of anxiety. Anxiety isn’t all bad. We need it to give us an edge at certain times. Do I still feel anxious? Yes. I was anxious yesterday, but I was okay.
And, I’m okay today. Does this mean that I will never have a panic attack again? I might. But, I will still be okay when I do, and knowing that changes everything about how I feel today and my ability to perceive abundance in my current circumstances.