Sometimes we get so used to a certain feeling that it totally outlasts the situation that gave rise to it. So like if you’ve ever struggled with money, ever been poor, ever not had enough, ever bootstrapped something throwing all your resources into it, you might have experienced this worry about where’s the next dollar coming from. Maybe.

Who’m I fooling? That’s ALL of us, right?
Every single one with some kind of worry about money at some point.

The thing is, if you live that way long enough, in that stew of worry – if you’ve gotten used to waking up in the middle of the night and running through your mental tally of all the bills that are due, playing a shell-game of credit card balances – it becomes almost a part of you. It becomes a habit.

You know they say it takes 21 days to form a habit. Um, I’ve definitely worried about money for more than 21 days. Habit? Check.

All habits, however, are not created equal. Some habits like making your bed on the daily are what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, refers to as keystone habits – habits that have a cascading effect in your life, making the development of other good habits all the more likely. Cool. Make your bed.

Other habits though, like biting your nails or worrying about money, are decidedly not so good. They’re what I call anvil habits – cue Wile E. Coyote -- basically squashing us over and over again, reinforcing bad feelings, especially bad feelings of powerlessness and woe-is-me. 

What’s so pernicious about this particular habit of money-worry: it’s a contraction. A holding of the breath. A panic in your chest. A I’ll-just-close-my-eyes-and-do-this-anyway kinda feeling that robs us of agency, that makes us feel like prisoners of circumstance.

That habitual anxiety about money also makes us avoid looking at our numbers straight on. Which – guess what? – has the result of increasing our anxiety.

<sigh> We deserve so much better than that.

The saddest part, for me, is that even when our economic circumstances change, when things ease up a bit – we got the promotion, we cut down on cut-able expenses, we did particularly well on something -- because we’ve contracted this habit of worry (haha, see what I did there?), we are stuck there. Our financial situation is improved, but we can’t even feel it. 

Personal true story: once, when our son was little, he was on scholarship at a local private school that we loved and could absolutely not afford on our two meager salaries. A few years in, I was called in to speak with the School Administrator, around the time they were making those scholarship decisions. She sat me down and said, “You know what? We’ve reviewed your application, and you’re doing so much better than you were when your child started here. So well in fact that we think it’s time to extend this financial assistance to someone else, to someone who doesn’t have your resources.”

What? I thought to myself. It was like she’d kicked me in the stomach. I sat there a bit stunned. Like she’d turned my whole world upside down.

And then the truth of her words washed over me. Yes, we were doing a lot better. But I was so caught up in my story of struggle and not-having that I hadn’t really noticed. I hadn’t noticed! I was so used to being contracted around money that I was failing to fully appreciate this change in circumstance and what it meant to my family and to me.

So, of course, as one does in these situations, I cried. The Administrator was a bit taken aback initially, I’m sure, since making me cry was never her intention (and she was probably bracing herself for me to beg and plead). Instead I just thanked her over and over for showing me something that the habit of worry I was in had hidden from my ken.

It’s a funny thing to call your partner and happily sing out, “Guess what? We lost the scholarship today!” But that is, in fact, what happened. It’s not that we were suddenly rolling in cash à la Scrooge McDuck → but YES, our financial reality had expanded, something we needed to celebrate.

My point is this. We can get so used to struggle, to the story of us in the struggle, that we actually KEEP OURSELVES THERE in our heads long after we have triumphed over said-struggle. Our beautiful, brilliant minds can keep us imprisoned when we ourselves have already unlocked and swung open the doors to the cell. We simply get used to this idea that it’s our fate.  We just get to be anxious for life.

Not so fast, Coyote. That money anxiety is not your fate. It’s just a habit. An anvil habit. Be the roadrunner this time. Get out of there.


PS. Outraged by what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend? Please support the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fight hate. Teach tolerance. Seek justice. #smashwhitesupremacy