Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How to Overcome Your Economic Fears

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself. “

We could use a little of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era grit right now.

This so-called recession is actually a systemic crisis that covers the entire world economy. We will all be deeply affected, if not today, then next year or the year after. All signs are that things will get worse – probably much worse – before they start to get better. No debating: change has come.

We’ve had a pretty long run of peace and prosperity, so long that we have taken them as reality itself. Most of our personal coping strategies were honed in this favorable environment. Ironically, many of us learned to cope with stress by spending the money that seemed to be plentiful and unending.

So how do we cope now? The problems are tougher, and we don’t have the money we once did to make pain go away.

Fear makes people do strange things – go on spending sprees, take impulsive action to stem losses (like selling stock abruptly), drink to excess, rail against the “stupidity” of our leaders, get absorbed in blogs and twitter to the point of distraction [my personal favorite] and so forth.

There is a strain of denial in all of these strategies; denial that something has been lost, and that it isn’t coming back. Scrape back that denial, and our old enemy, cold hard fear, is not far from the surface, with its cold fingers tight around our throats. Many of us are literally “frozen in fear.”

How can we best handle ourselves as this economic crisis unfolds?

We can’t bring back the past, but we can create the future. I’ve found a strategy that works, regardless of the nature of the loss, because it is the deepest possible antidote to fear. It is soft, tender even, so it is probably the last thing a fearful person would think of.

It worked for me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer early in 2008, when 9/11 crashed the foundation and charity world, source of my clients, when I lost everyone close to me within a few weeks in 2003, and now as I cope with my fear about this economy and what it means to me, my new husband, our family, and my friends.

It starts with a basic principle of human nature: If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you fail to do so, what is within you will destroy you.

“What is within you” is what you will use to create your own future. The key question to ask is: What opportunities are there for me to become stronger, more true to who I really am, in this crisis?

I doubt very many of us will become homeless or lack for meals. I expect that many of us will see significantly worsened financial situations now and perhaps for the rest of our lives. I am suggesting that this question, what is within me that I now have the opportunity to bring forth, is the foundation for your own effective coping.

I don’t mean this trivially. I don’t mean trading dinners out for strolls in the woods if that is not your thing. I don’t mean rediscovering the joys of homemade meals and crafts (these are tedium to many, me included).

I do mean a rigorous, continuous, and honest look at who you are, what you really want, and how you can be even more of who you really are, as this crisis unfolds. And I mean applying that deepening knowledge on a moment to moment basis as you make decisions. You won’t be chasing dollars quite so hard in the years ahead; what else is there to being you in the world?

Such a strategy gives you two advantages:

First, it makes it far more likely that the decisions you make will result in personally satisfying outcomes (e.g., happiness) for you. You will likely enjoy watching your choices weave into something new.

Second, it gets you used to finding your own rewards, and insulates you from being manipulated by advertising- generated rewards and separated too readily from your money. There will be less money to go around, that is one certainty. There already is.

I’ve done this, focused on bringing out what is within me when a crisis hits, and it works.

When, through death and desertion, I lost the 5 closest people to me within a month, what I found within me was a deep desire to connect, to relate, to not be alone in the world. This was new – I was a single woman who liked being single. But something changed. I am now married with 4 step children and part of a large extended family.

When I lost my job at a dot-org that lost its funding after 9/11, and the DC economy tanked, I reluctantly took a low-paying job at an SBA-funded Women's Business Center. That turned out to be the start of a new career in small business development that has brought me more intrinsic rewards, friendships, and sense of purpose than any of the work I had done before. I felt I was tapping into something deep.

More recently, I enrolled in a mentoring program to write and speak about small business. Shortly after it started, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the course of treatment (now completed), I stayed in the program as best I could.

What happened was that I began to understand my interest in small business more deeply. It stemmed from my upbringing in the Rust Belt, in a state of constant recession. I left to escape the hopelessness that a weak economy creates. In the process, I learned that life -- and making money -- had far more possibilities than the fear-soaked culture I grew up in ever imagined.

My book – and this article is part of it – will now be much deeper and I hope more useful. There are hard times and real losses ahead, for the country, for business, and for many individuals. I hope I can help people mourn the passing of one stage of our national and personal economic journey, and get on with creating the next one.

What is in you that is ready to come to the fore? I’m all ears.


popgloss said...

Great piece! :)

JoeHageOnline.com said...

Susan, thank you for inviting me to read your thoughtful and touching post.

I'm not smart enough to have advice that works for everybody, but I can tell you some steps I took to be at peace with where I am.

1. My then fiancee, now wife of ten years, insisted that I seek counsel when I was anxious. I read books about cognitive therapy (I recommend "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" by Dr. David Burns) and opened myself to the possibility that I was fallible and could use a professional ear to talk me through a tough time.

2. I accepted the possibility that The Art of Living could teach me stress-relieving skills. It worked. I encourage you and your readers to read about my experience at http://budurl.com/JDHaol.

Thanks again for sharing and I hope my words bring new possibilities for contentment.

Joe Hage

Anita Campbell said...

Hi Susan, I can identify with the Rust Belt upbringing, the constant state of recession, and the sense of hopelessness it breeds. I missed the heyday of all the places I've lived in, coming to them as they were on the downswing from their glory days.

Personally, I feel optimistic that the economy will turn around eventually. Things always look darkest before the dawn, but there is a dawn.

More importantly, I find it hard to operate unless I can approach the world with a sense of optimism. Looking forward to the positive, to improvement, to good times -- all are what keep me motivated and happy, even if I have to temporarily tighten the belt. I'm afraid I can't operate if my expectations are lowered too much.

I look forward to reading more from you.


Susan Kuhn Frost said...

To Joe Hage, thanks so much for adding resources, and love that cute pix! I've read your story at http://budurl.com/JDHaol and recommend that anyone who aspires to self-knowledge read it.

Let's go a step further with this discussion. As I read economic history, every "crisis" results in a restructured economy in which there are winners and losers. Bailouts aren't dikes that can hold back change. I am arguing that we should source our optimism, not in the return of "the way things were," but in our own ability to mobilize our best selves to live a rich and purposeful life regardless of how this crisis affects us.

I've learned to be an "early adopter" of this strategy of turning inward first in times of great change. I've also gotten better at differentiating between blips and big changes; my reading and seasoning say this is a really big one.

Bob said...

Susan - appreciate the invite to read this post. It comes at an especially good time for me, as my wife hears today if she will be laid off from her job. While I know we'll be okay, today's going to be a tough day. But like you said, we need to look toward the future. And no matter what happens, we'll be doing just that.

Susan Kuhn Frost said...

Anita, thank you for your comment. I agree about the importance of optimism (see Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism for the definitive work on the subject http://www.amazon.com/Learned-Optimism-Change-Your-Mind/dp/0671019112).

I also think, as I said to Joe above, that optimism needs a sturdy foundation; the sturdiest one has two parts: (1) commitment to growth that comes from facing the unknown, and (2) accurate assessment of the threats that a huge external change such as this recession has for one personally.

Changes in financial status are considered a major stressor; they upend everyone's sense of success, failure, place in life, even the meaning of their lives. So, this is a way to grow deeper roots for optimism, so that we are resilient in our lives no matter what happens in the economy. Those who are resilient are the ones who create the future; those who keep on going as if the game hasn't changed can't make it.

Susan Kuhn Frost said...

Bob, thanks for your comment and I wish you and your wife the best whichever way the layoff news goes. I am in DC so if I can help her network here let me know!

Elizabeth (Beth) LaMie said...

This is such a timely message and your thoughtful replies to the comments add even more substance. Keep up the great blogs. I enjoy reading them and appreciate your sane perspective.

I totally agree with your comment that crises lead to restructuring, which can be very good. That seems to be the difference between United's restructuring a few years ago & the Big 3 automakers begging for a handout to keep their heads in the sand.

I'd like to add that some common-sense measures can help people not create their own crises, such as not overextending themselves on credit payments.

That may seem logical, but I heard someone at the Mall this weekend who said she might as well charge it all because they were in such financial trouble they might have to file bankruptcy. What a horrible attitude - let's just pile on more debt to ensure the boat sinks!

Looking ahead to when (not if) the economy starts to improve, do you have any suggestions for people? I'm thinking of someone I know who finally got a job at much less pay after being laid off. The first thing he did was to buy an expensive car he didn't need, especially when he was let go in less than a year.


Susan Kuhn Frost said...

Beth, in both cexamples (running up Christmas card charges and buying an unaffordable car) your friends are (almost unconsciously, it seems) continuing to define themselves by their level of consumption.

There is less money, less wealth, during a recession. Consumption needs to decline. Those who define themselves by their inner goals and growth will be able to cut back on consumption without losing a step in having a great life.

Tara Joyce said...


This is a very refreshing take on the global economic crisis. The majority of what is published on the topic is doom and gloom, it focuses on the past, what we have lost, and what we may continue to lose. It is rare to find a writer focusing on the possibilities for change that this meltdown is creating. In my optimistic mind, all I see in times of strife is the opportunity to grow and learn. Something is only bad if you perceive it that way.

Your message, that we should all use this issue as a catalyst for change and a catalyst to evolve our consciousness is dead on. The true travesty of the economic situation is only if nothing is learned from it.

Thank you for sharing your uplifting view.


Susan Kuhn Frost said...

Thank you Tara. I didn't write this as a counterpoint to the doom and gloom; I wrote it because the gloom and doom is largely true. And as you point out, there will be gains to follow. I don't want to minimize the losses, nor discount the panic people are feeling. Nor do I want to promote the cheap optimism that says that somehow I will be exempt from the carnage (another way to deny reality).

This is the big one. I hope I can help people as the true impact of it hits home.

Dawn Rivers Baker said...

Without getting into too much detail, I can say that my life has also presented me with plenty of lessons in how to deal with fear and with feelings of helplessness.

Perhaps most important for me is learning not to try to pretend to myself that I am not afraid. Having fear - being afraid - is not comfortable but we have feelings for a reason and the reason for fear is that most important of instincts: self preservation. That is not something to ignore.

That said, here is something else my life has taught me: somehow or another, I can cope with anything the world throws at me. I can handle it.

At times like this, I take inventory of my resources. Not money but stuff like friends, information sources, things I have that financial upheaval can't take away from me. I make sure I have some kind of emotional support. I make sure I give myself the time for physical activity, which helps to keep my mind clear.

And I remind myself that, whatever happens, I always have options. That matters a lot to me. Freedom, fundamentally, is nothing more than the existence of options. Knowing I have that helps me to keep the feelings of helplessness at bay.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan, this is beautiful work and I am so delighted to have found you - thank you for replying to my tweet about the need for real reform and change in this world.
Although I have not been through the pain of losing so many close ones or faced critical treatment as you have, I did lose my father 10 years ago and as we were so close and worked together, it was a tremendous loss and I miss him dearly. I found strength in the legacy he instilled in me to create a new value system based on fundamental human needs and the incredible potential within us all to love, to share and to work together for the benefit of each other and the environment in which we live.
The business we were growing together was in its infancy as it was based on many years research. Our work represented a new concept of quality standards that were and still are difficult to 'sell' to companies and individuals tied to the drive to make instant and forever increasing profit at whatever cost. The reality of this rampade is now coming to light in the dawning of the crisis we now face.
The blog I am working on and plan to launch in March next year will provide an opportunity to share our work with a view to gaining a consensus on the values that so many of us hold dear. The concept is based on the idea that we need a sound and agreed set of principles to which we can all aspire – a common ground of truth that can be learned, taught and measured into the future.
Like you, I had nothing when my father died and had to return to a low paying job with an Enterprise Agency helping women to start or grow their own business. I discovered the value of one-to-one mentoring, sharing experiences and developing ideas in a safe and supportive environment. I am perhaps most fortunate to have lost nothing through this recession except the desire to have everything.
All I want to do is provide a starting point for people to join together and create a new world that is meaningful, loving, intelligent and true. I have had so many doors closed on me for my ‘naivety’ but through my recent work and networks like Twitter I have found others who believe it can be done – this is my greatest joy.
Thank you again, this is my first comment of any substance and I hope it will be the first of many. I look forward to keeping in touch and wish you every success and happiness with your new life and family.
Sue Cartwright

Susan Kuhn Frost said...

What does fear look like? This: One of my favorite finance bloggers is now declaring that we are in Depression-level unemployment, which he defines as 10%. Nonsense! Depression skirted 30% unemployment.

Fear mongers are themselves afraid. Step away from the keyboard, guys!

Bob said...

Susan - thanks for your comment and the offer. Thankfully, she ended up keeping her job. All of us locals should do something in Bethesda, probably after the holidays. You know how to get a hold of me. Thanks!

Michael Shedlock said...

Hello SweetSue. Good luck to you

Frugality is the new reality.
People may not like it but the standard of living in the US is likely to drop for the first time in history.

People need to be prepared for this and the loss of a job. Yes this is "doom and gloom" but it is also reality.

It is time for balance sheet repair at every level


It will be a time of tough choices.

Let us hope that Obama makes the right choices