I was on an elevator in Texas when a Hispanic housekeeper looked at me and said, “For an old man, you have nice hair.” I laughed and said, “Thank you.” I was not inclined to take her words as a compliment, but I don’t think that she meant them as an insult. I had a choice to be either a little hurt by the old man part, a little flattered by the nice hair part or pleased that someone who was not fluent in English felt comfortable enough to talk to me.
In his book “Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives,” James Hollis writes, “We have coping devices which click in automatically and protect us, sometimes by denying stories, sometimes by identifying with them. … [And we need to ask] what do these powers, these issues make me do or what do they keep me from doing.” My coping mechanism was to enjoy her engagement because I like to be relatively approachable.
But we constantly face these powers that form our thinking about money or careers. When you think about your financial decisions, what forces impede your choices? Where are you stuck?
One of our clients is still consumed by what his ex-wife is doing years after their divorce. He has built a nice life for himself, but he feels unfairly treated from the divorce. He felt that he spent too much money on the process and that she got too much of his estate. In other words, he is still married to the story of what had happened to him, and therefore is unable to fully move on. She remains a part of his past, but she also seems to hold a very big place in his present. His attention to this is preventing him from fully appreciating what he has and is probably not allowing him to completely show up in another potential relationship. We focus our planning meetings on what he has, not what he has lost, to remind him of the possibilities.
A useful coping exercise when you are feeling stress around money is to notice what you are experiencing. For example, it’s often not the volatility of the market that causes people problems, but the stories about how they feel that volatility will play out in their lives. Will they have to work longer in a job they don’t love? Will they not be able to live their chosen lifestyle? Will they feel they weren’t good stewards of their money? Could they be subject to embarrassment?
By identifying the source of the anxiety, you may be able to delay taking steps and, therefore, avoid rash decisions. Every moment is brief; if you can sit with your initial discomfort, you can decide whether the action you take will serve you. I often write notes when I sense tension from what I am experiencing. In doing so, I usually discover that my disease is not from the initial stimulus that caused it, but rather interpretations of what could happen in the future.
Hollis quotes Kierkegaard and writes, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” One of our clients won’t sell the house she hates because she’ll take a loss on it. She would rather continue to punish herself for a reasonable decision that turned out poorly than move to something that is more appropriate for her. She feels protected from her mistake as long as she doesn’t sell, yet she sleeps every night in a home that she has come to resent. By talking about what is really holding her back, we finally got her to list the home. If you don’t think that you get stuck like this, look at your portfolio and see if you are waiting to sell any stocks once you get back to even!
Since the future is in front of you, choose what will fill you up, not hold you back.
Spend your life wisely.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is email@example.com.