I declared bankruptcy when I was 28 years old.
It had been a long time coming, to be honest. Like most private catastrophes, it was the product of a long line of poor decisions and even worse reactions to the consequences of those decisions. When things started to go wrong, I doubled down instead of folding. My ego wouldn’t let me do anything less.
When the subject comes up in conversation these days, I usually summarize the whole affair by saying that “I was young and stupid.” That’s partially true. I’ve sometimes said to others (and myself) that I suffered from the delusion of invincibility all too common in youth. But, truth be told, I didn’t exactly feel invincible.
I just felt like I was smart enough to fix whatever I messed up.
I used to believe that I could best solve problems on my own. And by that I don’t mean “without assistance”. I mean “in secret”. I believed that if I publicly admitted that there was a problem there would be all kinds of judgment and unhelpful input. As long as I kept my problems to myself and maintained the illusion that everything was just fine, I could solve my problems quickly and efficiently.
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. The thing is, I fully admitted to myself that I had a problem. I cried many, many tears over it. I lost sleep trying to figure out how to make it the rest of the way to payday without any money left. I was fully aware that any time the phone rang it could be a creditor. I knew.
But until I admitted it to others, nothing changed.
What I eventually learned the hard way is that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, actually fixing mistakes comes at the cost of ego. When I finally hit the point where I really had no choice but to wipe the slate clean and subject myself to ten years of cash-only living I realized that doing so was, in fact, fixing the problem. That was me, finding a solution.
The illusion of control had to crumble. I couldn’t pretend that I was good at managing money. I couldn’t use credit cards to cover the fact that sometimes I couldn’t afford something. I had to ask for help from others, and to do that I had to admit to them that I’d messed up.
The first step wasn’t admitting that I had a problem, but realizing that I couldn’t hide the problem.
All of the effort we put into concealing what is wrong is effort we could be using to make positive change. In fact, all of the effort we put into concealing what is wrong is effort we are using to resist positive change.
It seems silly in retrospect to realize that if I wanted people to think I was good with money, it would have been so much easier to learn to be better with money than to keep spending and pretend everything was fine. We can pretend to be a lot of things. At first, the pretending seems easier than the doing. The problem is that pretending only gets harder as time goes on.
Doing? The learning curve on that goes the other way.