When Debt Is Overwhelming
Thoughts and action must come together
Posted December 2, 2015
Sitting before me is a couple in their late 50's.
They are in a financial mess. Their work situation is unstable at best and they have amassed no small amount of consumer debt. They are both working part-time—he in a job he dislikes intensely, she, as a contract worker in a tight industry. To put it bluntly, their situation is dire: too much debt, not enough income.
Their mood today reflects the state of their finances. In front of “Giselle” leans a tall stack of papers enumerating each and every aspect of their financial woes. She is looking at all the numbers. He is looking at nothing. His expression? Defeated.
I start the meeting the way I do each new encounter, by asking: "How can I help?" My job now is to sit back and listen. What I hear from “Ted” is a long and self-blaming tale of defeat and how he single-handedly failed his wife and now grown children. He places all the responsibility for their hardship on his own head. If there were a club nearby, he would have bludgeoned himself senseless.
After a solid 10 minutes of this, I interrupt and ask him to pass me a plastic-wrapped biscotti from the canister in the middle of the conference room table. My request baffles him, but he hesitantly complies. I take the biscotti from him, lean forward and use the biscotti to tap him on each shoulder. Looking him in the eyes I say, "I absolve you of all your sins."
Confused, he glances over to his wife and then at me. I smile at them both. "Now that you have been absolved, are you ready to change your view from dwelling on the past to thinking about the future and possible solutions?"
Finally, they both smile.
For people with destructive financial habits who are laboring under heavy debt, that weight can become a very real and physical burden (think the chains of Marley’s ghost). Having it removed feels like a huge boulder has been lifted from their shoulders.
"Absolved? I am absolved?" he asks with a faint trace of hope in his voice.
"Yes, my son, absolved! Now, can we talk about your options and opportunities?"
For the first time since they walked into my office, they audibly exhaled.
Here’s the thing. While it is vital to face up to financial reality, it is not necessary, helpful or healthy to do so while carrying around the guilt and overwhelm associated with that burden. Emotional overload can blind you to the fact that there is always a solution. It can debilitate your ability to find clarity and move to a better place.
In the case of Giselle and Ted, they were frozen in place by their enduring pattern of self-defeating behavior. In order to get to work, they needed to leave their guilt and self-blame at the door.
By the end of our meeting, we had mapped out some strategies, isolated some questions that required research and prepared a plan to end the madness.
Feeling overwhelmed? Try absolving yourself for the past and start taking concrete steps to get out of the muck.