According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, eight out of 10 Americans say that the steep decline in the economy has become a major source of stress in their lives. That stress goes far beyond family finances. At every level of society, people are overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, depression, and shame. The collateral damage from the economic breakdown is a breakdown in our self-confidence and self-worth.
Indeed, many people have told me they are so intimidated by the scope of the challenges they face that they have no plan in place to deal with their difficulties and get themselves going again. Losing money, jobs, and houses is one thing. But because they don't know how to cope, they are also losing the relationships they most care about.
I believe that it is possible to maintain a sense of calm in the midst of this storm. You can stay emotionally healthy no matter how sick the economy gets. In the end, you can choose how to handle the way this crisis affects you and your family. In fact, it may even make you stronger. Let's talk about how.
Forgive yourself. First, you must remember that you aren't suddenly stupid or inept because you have financial problems. You got caught in a "perfect storm" of conditions, most of which were beyond your control. You still have the same ability and talent you did before your business failed or you were laid off or your mortgage escalated out of range.
You're not alone. One of the biggest mistakes is to withdraw into an emotional cocoon, stewing with resentment at your unexpected misfortune. Such a withdrawal should be a warning sign that shame and guilt are controlling you. If you need help, ask for it. Reach out to friends, extended family, church members, and others. An unexpected benefit that came out of the Depression was that neighbors bonded and helped one another in all sorts of ways. That's exactly what can happen now.
Focus on the present. You may feel an almost inconsolable grief at having invested so much of your life in your work, only to see it fall apart. Maybe you wish you could have a "redo." But this is the time to live in the here and now and put the past in the past. There's just no time for playing the victim.
Make the hard decisions. My father used to say, "Spend 5% of your time deciding if you got a good or bad deal and 95% of your time deciding what you're going to do about it." That's especially true when big-time money problems hit. You have to think with verbs in your sentences and do whatever it takes to keep you and your family afloat.
There is nothing--and I mean nothing--that you shouldn't consider when you're in survival mode. You've got to be ready to give up your nice car, your vacations, your child's designer jeans, and, yes, even your house. Reordering priorities also applies when it comes to finding a job. I've listened countless times to people tell me that, despite their attempts to find work, they can't find anything commensurate with their skills. Come on now. If you're out of work and need money, you've got to get the best available job as soon as you can, even if it's not what you hoped for.
The silver lining. Now let's play "What If?" for a moment. What if this financial crisis we're all facing is not all bad? What if it's like a forest fire, which consumes whatever is in its path but also sets off the beginning of something new--a rebirth?
Let's focus on that rebirth. The question is whether you will seize the opportunity to use this experience to improve your life, your family bonds, and your feeling of self-worth. Will you get the right attitude? Because that's what all this is about: attitude.
Are we going to have to live smaller? Yes. But if we're honest with ourselves, we never really needed a life where we were living large. We didn't need those huge, gas-guzzling SUVs that were poisoning our environment. We didn't need to "attack" the mall to get our acquisition "fix" every day. We didn't need to buy a house we knew we couldn't afford. That in itself caused stress and conflict. Maybe we should be thankful that we're being forced to stop the madness. Along with the economy getting a cleansing, we too get a chance to fix our values.
Coping as a family. Financial pressures are among the top complaints cited when divorces are filed. What happens, of course, is that couples get wrung out from all their money problems and turn their fears and frustration on each other: "How did you get us in this position?" "Can't you find a better job?" "Are you crazy, spending so much on clothes for yourself?" "Why did I ever think I was going to be happy married to someone like you?"
But by venting at your partner, you're jeopardizing what can be your greatest anchor in times of crisis--the love of a spouse and family.
What if, instead of turning your anger on your partner, you looked at your own fears? What if you resolved to put your relationship on a level above blame and vindictiveness? You could just as easily turn to your spouse and say, "Honey, we can get through this together. We can come up with a plan. Even if we have to give up most of what we worked for, we can always start over."
In fact, if you recognize that it is financial pressure rather than your spouse that has you on edge, this crisis can be glue that welds you together rather than a wedge that drives you apart.