I feel a lot of sympathy for Therese Borchard. She wrote a piece in the Huffington Post today about How to Cope with Financial Panic and Recession Anxiety. Borchard is not a financial advisor or a mental health professional (as far as I can tell), but she has been treated for Depression and she keeps a blog on the topic. Today she ventured to share her personal strategies for managing intrusive, stressful thoughts about what would happen if she or her husband lost their jobs. She calls one of these strategies Imagine the Worst:
I remind myself that if both Eric and I can't find work, then we can sell our house and buy a very small apartment in the suburbs. We can pluck our kids from Catholic school, even as much as I would hate doing that, and move to a better school district where they could go to public school for free.
Imagine the Worst is a completely respectable strategy in terms of anxiety management. You take nebulous anxious thoughts and make them concrete in order to apply more rational analysis and problem solving. None of Borchard’s readers seem to have a problem with her recommended method. What they violently attack is the version of “the worst” that she’s imagining.
What a ridiculous piece you've written. Paying for school uniforms? Swim lessons? Are you insane?! How about paying for groceries? So if you're going to write about "coping", you might want to consider the make up of your audience. We're dealing with MORE than paying for swim lessons.
There are several other comments in this same vein, criticizing the author’s worst case plan to get a waitressing job (even experienced waitresses can’t get those) or sell her house (who is she to complain if she is so well-off that she owns instead of rents?).
At a time when many – if not most – Americans worry about how economic upheaval might impact them, it appears that we are supposed to keep the content of our worry to ourselves. Talk too specifically about your own losses and you risk being shamed by those who have it worse.
After the most basic level of survival is met, most indicators of financial well-being are entirely subjective. Social psychologists have discovered that an individual’s level of perceived poverty, his subjective assessment of income relative to what he identifies as “essential” expenses, is a stronger indicator of economic coping and adaptation than any measure of objective circumstances and events.
So in plain English, if you consider Catholic school for your kids to be an essential expense, the loss of it has the same potential “equivalence of suffering” as another person losing the thing that they feel defines their identity and security. We can all agree that not being able to buy food is a terrible thing, but does that mean that any material attachment above the level of basic survival is somehow crass and unsympathetic?
I say to my clients all the time: “Everyone in the world has either more or less money than you.” It’s easy to have compassion for those who have less. But until we can also have compassion for those who have more, I’m afraid we are all of us doomed to carry our individual financial burdens in isolation and shame.