A friend of mine recently told me about a cousin who had scraped by for years, then came into a multimillion-dollar windfall from a business that he'd all but given up for dead. And guess what? The relative still lived in an impoverished model of reality, counting every penny before he spent it.
The story took me back to a time when, I too, lived in fear of falling off a personal fiscal cliff. I was just out of college and moved to Boston from Athol, a small mill town in western Massachusetts. I had $60 in my pocket and grabbed the first apartment I could find -- a dumpy studio with a bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling and horsehair plaster hanging out of cracks in the walls. I shared the bathroom with four other tenants in the building. The only positive thing about the place was the absence of cockroaches -- apparently, they have limits, too.
Perhaps the dismal digs made sense for the first few months before I got a teaching job, but after that there was no excuse for not at least attempting a modest upgrade. Yet I stayed; something within me refused to consider a decent apartment, even though I could afford it. I sweated during the summers and shivered through the winters, all because I was still caught in the economic model of reality that I'd constructed during my childhood.
After three years, I finally allowed myself to enjoy the luxury of a tiny one-bedroom apartment (private bathroom included), located in the same crummy neighborhood. I hadn't let go of my inner fear of poverty, and I needed to reflect my insecurity externally. What better way than to voluntarily live in a place that I'd be too embarrassed to show my friends?
Seventeen years later, when I got up the nerve to leave teaching and start my own business, I got a taste of financial success. But the old model of reality still seduced me into living much more modestly than I needed to. I also began making foolish business choices that cost me a lot of money.
Fortunately, I woke up and pulled back on the stick before I went into a financial tailspin. I began to understand the disconnect between the world view I'd walked in with and the reality of my new economic situation. I saw how I was sabotaging my success as a means of validating a model of reality that was no longer appropriate for me. Fear drove the sabotage, and the sabotage drove more fear. It was a nice vicious circle that served a lot of purposes, not the least of which is that it made my suffering feel noble.
I think many of us engage in "sustainable suffering" because it justifies whatever inappropriate model of reality we're struggling to maintain, whether the issues are about relationships, health, well-being or, in my case, money.
Why do we do this? There are as many reasons and ways as there are therapists and pop-psych books. I personally pledged my allegiance to my mill town's version of economic reality in spite of the fact that it made no sense for my new world. From the outside, I was financially flourishing. But on the inside I still felt poor and that I was, in fact, an imposter.
I've since learned that I'm not the only person with these feelings and there's even a recognized "imposter syndrome." One expert on this problem, Dr. Valerie Young, says that deep down, many of us feel like we're frauds, not at all deserving of the success we've achieved. She points to Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou, and other prominent people who have stated that they feel like they're pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, just waiting for the truth about them to be revealed. By doing so, they rob themselves of the dignity that they've so rightly earned.
It took me 20 years to let go of my old economic model of reality and feel authentically prosperous on the inside. Why wait? How about using this coming holiday season to do something outstanding for yourself? Give your inner Scrooge the boot and give yourself the gift of honoring yourself by upgrading your model of reality, whether it's a better relationship, better health, better anything that you deserve. That's a gift that truly keeps on giving.
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