Breaking Through Shame

Possibly the worst things about being a brokeaholic is the shame of it all. I was ashamed because I knew what to do and had all the skills and resources to pull myself out of the same old hole – and still didn’t do it. I was stuck and frustratingly blind to what kept me there.

I was ashamed of being broke and resistant to asking for help. I thought I was able to hide my state and my stress, but friends saw through it. But since I was clearly so uncomfortable with the whole topic, they didn’t know how to bring it up and didn’t feel that they could. So my friends just sat by helplessly as I struggled. I would only turn to them when I was absolutely desperate, and in those moments I felt like an idiot, full of shame and regret, and totally incapable of being the person I wanted to be. They would hold me as gently as possible and offer to help. But since I was in such a stuck place I had a hard time receiving it. I know that I made it hard for them to give because I couldn’t receive (and this is a different kind of issue that I will explore in another post).

Right now I want to share with you a conversation that took my by surprise and shook me out of the deepest layer of shame.

Billy and I were in a class together and just getting to be friends. We decided to go out to dinner and he picked out a place. I hadn’t heard of it but said, “I love trying new places! Sure!”

When the day came, I looked it up online to get the address and saw the website. It was swank. My heart sunk. I looked at the menu and realized that there was no way I could afford this dinner. I could feel my face flush and my stomach tighten. Now (thanks to Brene Brown) I can describe what was happening: I was in a shame spiral. At the time all I knew was: PANIC!

Dinner was only a couple hours away. I had to do something. There was no credit card to drop this onto and I lived only on what I had in my bank account, which wasn’t much.  I could see no options. I had to call Billy and tell him what was going on.

As I dialed, my heart raced and my stomach got even tenser. Billy answered, “Hey sweetie! What’s up?” I stammered out that I had looked at the website and and and… I paused. He asked what was going on. I tried to figure out the least embarrassing way to tell him but everything felt awful. I blurted, “This place isn’t in my budget. I can’t afford that.” He immediately said it was no problem, that he would cover dinner, that he just liked that place and wanted to share it with me.

This is the point when most conversations stop, when an issue is raised and a solution is found. But the class that Billy and I were taking was about communication and learning how to understand another person’s world. He could sense that something was still wrong, that there was a deeper cut to this for me. He said, “What did you think I was going to say?”

I told him that I was deeply embarrassed that I couldn’t afford it and scared to reveal that to him. I thought he would think less of me for not having my financial world together, that I felt unqualified to be an adult, no matter how many other things I did well and have handled. I said it made me feel like a total f**k up and was sure he would judge me harshly once he knew.

In the gentlest and most loving of voices, Billy asked me, “Do you want to know what I actually thought?” I felt tears rise and I choked out a yes.

“I was so impressed that you’d call and tell me that. I know so many people who don’t have money but try to hide it and act like they do. They end up overspending and stressed out and it makes me crazy. The fact that you told me this wasn’t in your budget let me know that you’re trying to take care of your finances. I’m so happy that you told me. And it’s not a big deal to me. Actually, it makes me proud of you.”

As he spoke the tears turned into a full-bore cry. I sat in my car on the side of the road and let his words sink in. I could feel that I really was trying to tackle this problem of mine. Even if I wasn’t out of my hole, I was at least trying – possibly for the first time.

Looking through his eyes, I saw myself in a different way. I wasn’t pathetic and incompetent. I was struggling and in that struggle I saw a kind of strength. Without strength, there’s no struggle; there’s only giving up.

I also saw that I was going to have to have more of these painful conversations, that it was necessary to reveal what I was actually experiencing in order to get out of the grip of my money shame. I didn’t look forward to that, but I made a resolution not to run away from it any more because now I could see that some part of me was strong enough to confront this.

Before that conversation, I was unable to recognize the shame that I was living with. Without confronting that shame, I would never have been able to see the fear and stories that polluted my financial mindset. This was the first necessary step to quitting being a brokeaholic.

My hope is that by sharing my story someone else won’t feel so alone and they’ll be able to get out from under the grip of money shame. It makes us feel like less than, filled with fear people will find out and then turn away from us. But if we can talk about it, we can get through this and make it end.

I give thanks to Billy – and to myself – for sticking it out through that dark place. There’s light on the other side of that rock. I know, I’ve seen it.

“True Art” & “Selling Out”

This whole brokeaholic thing started because I was taking a look at some of the crazy ways I think about money stemming directly from being a creative.

I’m not a full-time artist. I would say I never have been, but I suppose that depends on your definition of “artist.” I say I’m a creative. I have spent most of my life doing creative jobs, and I sometimes make art on the side. Right there you see that I’m making a distinction between “true” art and “what I do for money.” This is part of the problem.

I remember my dad once saying to me in a voice filled with regret, “It’s too bad that the world will never pay you for what you do.” I also heard comments from other people about how I was “never going to make any money” and “art doesn’t pay.” I read about great artists and other creatives who died penniless, ranging from Schubert to van Gogh to Poe to Tesla. The phrase “starving artist” is so common that it’s not even questioned. It seemed a given that since I’m by nature a creative, I was also destined to be broke.

I’m definitely not alone in this. In fact, when I talk about being a brokeaholic, other artists and creatives are the first to start nodding knowingly. It seems that we’re all raised with this, that the separation between doing art and making money are fixed in all of our minds.

But here’s the crazy awful truth that I learned the hard way: I am at my least creative when I’m broke and hungry. Whenever I get stressed about paying rent or realize I have to make whatever is currently in my fridge last until the next time I get paid, there’s no way I have enough mental space to be creative. I can’t invent anything, feel inspiration, or even choose a color if my mind is filled with thoughts of bouncing checks and angry creditors.

It was in one of these desperate moments that I made the decision to be done with being broke. I had a lot of writing to do and I couldn’t think of anything but money. I decided I had to do whatever I needed to do to have enough. I had to stop stressing about money 24/7.

This might be the moment when I could be described as “selling out.” To me, however, it felt a lot more like taking care of myself and doing something in service of my art. What was really in conflict with creativity was being broke.

I started to think about the documentary filmmakers I know who direct commercials so that they don’t have to rely on their documentaries to make money. I thought about a theater lighting designer I met who does lights for theme park rides and lives off that money for the rest of the time he’s working in small regional theaters. I thought about Michelangelo having patrons, the Globe theater selling tickets, and Warhol making fun of all of it.

I also thought about one theatrical artist I worked with who felt he had lost his ability to choose which plays he directed because he had to accept whatever jobs paid him well enough to cover his mortgage – and how he started to get bitter and jaded about his once great passion: directing. I remembered burnt out painters and sculptors who grew tired of struggling and stopped doing work altogether. And I definitely didn’t want to go down that path, because a world in which I no longer get joy from making things is a very dark one.

Now I have a job that pays me well at a company that celebrates my being a creative as well as my organizational skills. And I make stuff on the side. Yes, I have less time to do art, but when I do have time I now have enough mental space to let the creative thoughts flow.

Making art, being creative, inventing something new – all these require that you have enough time and mental openness to let your thoughts wander. And those thoughts get easily crowded out by stress and hunger. It’s easier (happier, better, lighter, freer) when they’re not around.

Some days – many days – I don’t make any art at all. But it’s not for lack of ideas or because I’m in a panic, and for that I’m deeply grateful. Now I just have to deal with my lack of focus… which is a topic I’ll have to write about at another time.

I’m not trying to be rich

There are a lot of books out there about money and personal finance, many of them with really good advice. Most of them have titles about being “rich” or a “millionaire,” like Courage to be Rich (Suze Orman), Secrets of the Millionaire Mind (T. Harv Ecker), Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert T. Kiyosaki), Millionaire Next Door (Stanley & Danko). I didn’t resonate with these titles, was embarrassed to be seen reading them.

Oh, I did buy them. And I read them. And I would sometimes start doing what they suggested. But in the end, I didn’t like the premise and I didn’t keep it up.

See, I didn’t want to be rich. Having that as a goal in and of itself just doesn’t inspire me.

The newer books that talk about “financial freedom” are more in line with what I’m interested in: being freed from stress around money. That could mean equally choosing a simpler life that fit comfortably within what I earn now, or finding more ways to make money.

“Financial freedom” also suggests to me the possibility of ending the obsession around money, whether it’s background noise when I’m doing OK, or a loud migraine-causing alarm bell when I’m feeling strapped. The thought of working towards a sense of freedom feels motivating and inspiring. It also points to the idea that much of what I need to do has nothing to do with the logistics of making more or spending less. It has everything to do with how I’m thinking about it. I’ll be posting more in the future about how to defuse old toxic ways of thinking and replace them with new thoughts that lead to a more settled place.

This language thing seems like a little shift, but it’s one that really matters.