Photo by Peng; Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we looked at the vicious cycles that keep us trapped in a financial dilemma. Feelings of frustration, fear, or discouragement feed into unhelpful coping behaviors, and then the consequences of the unhelpful coping behaviors feed into the negative feelings.

For example, consider Joe who was recently laid off from his job as a construction worker. With the  local economy floundering and winter weather moving into the town where he lives, chances are slim that he will go back to work soon.

Joe feels pretty hopeless and resentful. His perception of himself has shifted drastically in a short time. He used to think of himself as an active, productive person who was a stable provider for his family. Now, he feels passive and resigned to his plight.

When Joe feels hopeless and resentful, he starts spending more money. Eventually, when he allows himself to realize the extent of his spending, it makes him feel even more hopeless and resentful. This kicks his spending into an even higher gear.

What are the possible pathways out of the feedback loop?

(1)    Be open and honest with yourself about the difficult feelings you are experiencing. Be brave enough to look at them, name them, and share them with people whom you trust. When we avoid feelings, they start to have more power over us. But when we expose the feelings to the light of day, we minimize the chances that they will unwittingly guide our behavior.

(2)    Make a list of healthier ways to deal with your particular feelings. For instance, after Joe identifies his hopelessness, he might do some informal research to find out what other people do with this feeling. His friends might tell him that when they are feeling hopeless, they make an action plan, identify what they are grateful for in their lives, or start hanging around with people who are upbeat and optimistic. Not all of these strategies may be a good fit for Joe, but there may be something on the list that he is willing to try.

(3)    When you catch yourself coping in an unhealthy way, forgive yourself and start over. If Joe keeps beating himself up for his overspending, he will never escape the vicious cycle. He can only escape the cycle if he looks at his setback as an opportunity for growth, rather than perceiving it as a failure. For instance, he can remind himself: “I don’t like the fact that I responded this way, but this is a chance to learn something about my habits and to experiment with new coping strategies next time.”

What else would you recommend to Joe as a pathway out of his feedback loop?