Overcoming Shame

I wear many different hats right now. As with a large percentage of the population, my plans and processes have had to change as our economic situation worsened over the last two years. My understanding is that we'll really start to see those improvements that everyone has started talking about... fairly close to Christmas time. I think it'll make a great present.

One of the hats I currently wear is that of Assistant to the Director for a small rural nonprofit. Our goals range from creating and using a functional accounting system to adding nutritional education to our menu of field-trip programs we offer to local schools. Today we had our usual monthly Board Meeting.

At past meetings, I've felt a little embarrassed to be the only paid employee in a sea of dedicated volunteers. I've been coming in about twice a week for a couple of months now. The rest of the Board has worked longer and harder on these projects than I have. Most of them are older, wiser, and they all have full-time jobs. The money I earn here has helped my budget immensely, and I'm proud of the work I do and the support I give to this fledgling nonprofit. But somehow, I always felt uncomfortable and unhappy when it came time to be paid for my efforts.

When I finally noticed myself feeling this way, I took a time-out (about an hour with the phone, the computer, and the TV turned off) to really examine the situation, and my place in it. I realized that the work I do is supporting a great cause, and that my goal in working for this nonprofit is to use all my skills to help it succeed. I love my job. Even the accounting. And I work hard every day that I'm scheduled to be there. Everyone else in that Board Meeting has a regular day job that they love and are paid to do, too. They volunteer for specific events or projects. I show up twice or even three times a week, every week, to make those events happen. And when I don't look at "what everybody else is doing" I actually feel that the money I earn as the Assistant to the Director is a fair trade for my efforts and energy expended. In fact, they're getting a really good deal out of me.

At the end of my hour, I came to the conclusion that how I feel when the Director hands me my paycheck is a choice. My choice. And I can choose to feel ashamed that I am not in a position to work for free, that I need those two days a week to make my budget work-- or I can be excited that they still think my contributions are worth contracting for. I'm choosing to feel excited and proud about my next paycheck. It may not be large, but it is an important acknowledgment of my commitment and skills. It is helping put food on my table and pay for the car I drive 90 minutes out to the office and 90 minutes back.

Shifting your relationship to the money you earn-- whether deciding to be grateful for the opportunity to support your family, acknowledging that you have in fact EARNED that money and can be proud of the work itself, or seeing it as an important step toward the life you plan to live down the road-- making that shift allows us to form a positive relationship with both our earning potential and our current job.

And once we intentionally add that bit of positive energy to our paycheck, it gets ten times easier to be positive about our finances and the budget that results from that paycheck. It may not be as much as we want to earn, it may not be the kind of work we want to do-- there are so many reasons to be resentful or unhappy. Once we begin to focus our energy and our attention on the things we like and can be proud of, we find that the shame recedes. We become more attuned to the possibilities that may have been there all along. We understand that this may be the end of what we had before-- but that is because it is only the beginning of what we will have in our lives next.

The more you can do to see these new beginnings as positive ones, the easier it will be to enjoy them, and to be encouraged by the possibilities and opportunities they bring. They may not be the outcomes and opportunities we planned on five years ago. Which means they may actually become something better.

Shame gets in the way. We tend to close down, stagnate, get stuck or get depressed and overwhelmed when our primary emotion is shame. Look for that one positive thing-- or even two or three-- that make your current situation okay. Those realizations or understandings about how you got here or what you plan to do now that you are here that will let you see past the shame and the fear. Once you've cleared the way, open to possibility. Make a new plan, and incorporate your new knowledge, your new budget, your new hopes and dreams into that plan.

As an example of how this works, I have a good friend who recently called me to share the good news: She has $7.00 in her bank account. And she is genuinely excited about this. To her, this represents another month in which she managed to pay all her bills without overdrawing the account. It represents success, and willpower, and a solid income, however slight. And she had even more good news to share. Her birthday is coming up, so a bunch of her friends have plans to take her out to dinner. Rather than all go at once, she's asked them to take her out one at a time. She'll get to spend a really meaningful evening with each of the people she most appreciates in her life-- and many of her meals will be paid for, allowing that $7.00 to stretch another couple of weeks until she gets paid again.

She could be in tears-- no money to spend on something frivolous for her birthday, a lower income than most women her age and with her education earn, barely scraping by from month to month, and it probably won't get any better for a while. But instead, she's found the things that she feels good about in the situation. She didn't resort to using credit cards. She didn't overdraw that account. She proved to herself that she has the discipline live on this income if she must. And unlike the last six months she spent job-hunting, she does have an income. All these wonderful realizations allowed her to overcome her shame at being so poor and having a job that doesn't make use of her education and skills. She was even able to look for opportunities to make her birthday something special; opportunities to make her tiny budget stretch even further. And she found them. I have to say I'm excited to hear about that $7.o0, too.

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