The Power of Personal Responsibility

Last Wednesday evening I lost it, really lost it. Miserable heat and humidity, smog, too much walking on too little sleep, an asthma attack, dueling deadlines, and maybe just a smidge of menopausal mood swings had me alternately raging and sniveling in a borrowed studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

A magazine editor with whom I'd met earlier that day wanted more information so she could pitch my ideas more effectively. Due to a scheduling issue the MSN Money editor requested two posts instead of one. My usual Get Rich Slowly deadline is Sunday but J.D. had asked for the piece by Friday if possible. And I had an unbreakable, business-related appointment at noon the next day, which meant leaving by 11:15 a.m.

“I can't do this,” I wheeze-whimpered. “I'm so tired. And I'm in New York, dammit! I quit! I quit!”

Then I thought of Marilyn vos Savant, the smartest woman in the world, and got hold of myself.

A while back the Parade magazine columnist had explained why self-administered foot rubs don't feel as good as when someone else massages us: Because we are constantly bombarded with sensory stimulation, our bodies dial back any stimuli we produce on our own.

“This allows you to ignore sensations that don't warrant attention, such as the pressure on your foot every time you take a step,” vos Savant wrote. “It also explains why brushing your own tangled hair hurts less than when your hairdresser does it.”

Spinning my wheels
Call it “deus ex Marilyn”: The memory of that explanation helped me cut through my seemingly unsolvable problem. That is to say, it helped me look calmly and rationally at what was going on:

Yes, there is lots to be done and I don't feel good.

But it doesn't all HAVE to be done tonight.

The only person putting pressure on me IS me.

I stopped spinning my wheels and got to work. I also thought about vos Savant's words as they apply to personal finance.

De-tangling your own hair isn't so bad, but you'll likely yelp if somebody else rakes a comb through your knotty locks. That goes for money issues, too: Self-imposed financial choices hurt less, or are at least easier to rationalize, than financial choices imposed upon us.

Nothing's certain
Ever heard something like this come out of someone's mouth, or your own?:

“I probably shouldn't have taken that cruise/bought that new car right now, but I really want it/deserve it.”

But when our finances go kerplunk, how many of us are really willing to admit culpability? We're much more likely to come up with other reasons why the books won't balance:

  • “My boss didn't give me that raise I should have gotten.”
  • “I had to spend $600 on a new water heater.”
  • “How could I have known that I'd need gall-bladder surgery and have to come up with a couple of thousand in co-pays?”

See how nicely that works? We don't have to take personal responsibility for our decisions at all!

Well, except for the fact that:

  • You should never count on a raise, i.e., spend as though you already had it.
  • You knew the water heater was old but you failed to budget for the inevitable replacement.
  • You couldn't have anticipated surgery but an emergency fund would have helped you cope.

To paraphrase Mr. Franklin, nothing is certain except uncertainty. That's why we need EFs and the ability to shift when our situations do.

Each of us also needs a finely tuned bullshit detector. As vos Savant points out in that column, “our brains have evolved to turn down the volume on input that we produce ourselves.” How many times have you muted your conscience to keep it from interfering with getting what you wanted?

The question of choice
A while back I went through some intensive therapy that taught me to look at troubles realistically. Sure, sometimes stuff just happens. What's more common is that stuff happens because of something I've done/haven't done.

This time around I had to acknowledge that Wednesday's humid crapfest was the result of choices that I had made. (More on that in a minute.)

Suppose you can't look at your own financial foibles quite this dispassionately? Get yourself a spotter. That could be a friend, relative or online PF blogger at whose feet you can lay your pecuniary peccadilloes.

If you're lucky you'll get someone who will be honest with you. “Dude, do you hear yourself? What would your reaction be if I said, ‘I can't make my rent because I needed those courtside seats?'”

Maybe you're not ready to confess all, even anonymously to a blogger. Try this, then: Use one of those budgeting software programs that spell out where your money is going — but pretend that it's someone else's cash. If it were John Doe who didn't get the raise but spent a ton of bucks on ephemera anyway, what kind of advice would you give?

Don't feel bad about needing help to stay on the straight-and-narrow. The need to justify our choices — especially the questionable ones — is pretty strong. Heck, I'm 54 and just starting to get the hang of calling BS on myself.

Sleepily ever after
Last Wednesday's solution was all about choices, too.

The magazine editor could have waited another day. Yet I decided it wouldn't hurt to go the extra mile when working with a new publication.

I decided to write one MSN Money post, then select videos and make notes for a second to be finished the next morning. After a few minutes I chose to keep going: For me it's better to sit up late and sleep a little longer than to go to bed fretting over what wasn't done.

And I chose to turn the evening's hysteria into an object lesson, i.e., the need to be honest about your own contribution to life's problems — especially financial ones. Money motives and behaviors are hugely complex. It's essential to learn to think critically about how you earn, save and spend.

This is not to say you should berate yourself endlessly over financial goofs. What I'm suggesting is not punishment, but possibility: Figure out what you're doing wrong and eventually you can stop doing it.

That is, if you really want things to change. It's much easier to blame every single money problem on forces beyond your control. Not having to take responsibility for your actions/inactions is wonderfully convenient, and it feels as good as a foot rub administered by somebody else.

More about...Psychology

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