Before I took action and started paying down my debt, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to get out of debt. I looked at my meager income (at the time) and saw a wide gap between what I earned and what it would take to pay off the loans. I thought it was impossible to earn more in my field, because I kept reading that full-time jobs were scarce.
I looked at other industries and applied for jobs at places that I thought might be interesting to work for. When I received rejection letters for field interviewer positions, I was devastated. I've been a journalist! Aren't those skills transferrable? When I never heard back about a secretarial position at a historical center, I threw my hands in the air. Sure, I was overqualified, but my experience orbited what they did at the facility. Why wouldn't they want someone with a humanities background?
I was constantly aggravated and always a victim – of the system, my parents' choices, or my choices. And let me tell you, that is not a pleasant way to live.
During that time, a friend reminded me of something Albert Einstein once said.
He said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Identify Broken Thinking & Your True Motivation
I remember being a little bit dumbfounded the first time I heard Einstein's quote. I looked at my problems and thought about my thinking and found a pretty unhealthy pattern between the two. I was locked in the past. I kept looking back in anger at choices I'd made (or let someone else make for me) that led me on the path to a life in which I was deep in debt, angry about it, and flailing around desperately for a way out.
At one point, I was hoping to start a business that made at $80,000 a year. I chose that number because I thought that it would take $80,000 to pay off my $48,000 in student loans in one year. I wanted to demolish the loans in record time so I could focus on other things. In the meantime, I was spending money on training, coaching, and marketing tools, when I wasn't even 100% sure what my business was.
I ended up broke and no clearer on the business. When I looked honestly at the situation, though, I could see that the aim was always to pay off the debt. Why did I think that going deeper into debt would help solve my problem? Because my thinking was toxic. All along, I thought things would change if I figured out my business. What I really needed to do was identify my true motivation. I wanted out – of the pattern of toxic thinking AND out of debt.
Gerald Jampolsky and Diane Cirincione, the authors of Change Your Mind, Change Your Life, wrote, “Most of us want to change the world, but only a few of us are willing to change our own minds.” I did want the world to change. I wanted the system to change (because student loans debt is out of control) and I wanted MY world to change (because my student loan debt felt unmanageable.) Well, I didn't want to wait until the world changed, and I felt powerless to do much changing of the world – beyond my own. To be honest, I felt pretty powerless to change my own world, too. But, I was willing to try. I couldn't be stubborn. You can't be stubborn if you want to get unstuck.
Seek Outside Perspective
Even though I had only a vague idea of what kind of business I wanted to own, I went ahead and hired a business coach. One of the best things about that experience was working with her through the Energy Leadership Index, which was a tool she used with her clients. I answered a bunch of questions in an online survey, and then we talked through the results. It wasn't surprising to me that I was deeply rooted in victim thinking – which is the most basic and stands at a low number one. I sometimes managed to rise to a two, which was conflict thinking. I was trapped in a pattern of “I lose. You lose.”
The coach explained that there were seven tiers. The highest was non-judgement, where we realize that everything is an illusion, in the sense that we create our world through our thoughts. If that seems woo-woo, it is. But, it helps to think about everything humans have created: housing developments, high-rises, automobiles, the Internet. Someone had to think of these things and then work to make them happen. Our intellectual and emotional lives work in similar ways.
It was good to hear that I was stuck in victim and conflict thinking. It confirmed what I already suspected. It was also good to hear that I could rise above it, and that the third type of thinking was acceptance. I had something to aim for. I had a ladder to climb. I would not have figured out what to do next without that outside perspective.
I needed to get feedback from outside my own head.
Do the Work
As it turned out, I didn't want a business. I wanted to pay off my debt. But, I was a broke adjunct professor at the time. My toxic thinking had manifested in a pattern of underearning. I could read through the list of characteristics of an underearner and check off almost ALL of the boxes. Did I talk as if I were trapped? Yes. Did I give my power away? Sure thing. What was I supposed to do about it?
Well, I could read the book about it. Barbara Stanny wrote Overcoming Underearning. Could the title be any clearer? If I wanted to overcome my underearning tendencies, it didn't hurt to learn a few tips on how to do it from someone who has been there. The book had more than just personal narrative, though. Stanny offered worksheets and exercises to help you figure out what was keeping you from earning more, from wanting more, and from expecting more for yourself.
Another helpful tool in the book was the quotes peppered throughout. For instance, Dr. Barbara King said, “The moment you move out of your own way, you make room for miracles to occur.” Or, as stated in A Course in Miracles, “What you do comes from what you think.” Any one of the quotes could serve as a daily mantra. Many of them did from time to time.
The work didn't stop with my first reading of the book. I read it again. I did the exercises again. I studied. Then, I enlisted support. I read it along with a trusted friend, and we met weekly to discuss the concepts – and our epiphanies. That support was key. It helped greatly to have another perspective on underearning, and to watch the evolution of my friend's changing thoughts.
The work of changing your mind can take many forms. Read. Study. Meditate on the quotes that resonate. Enlist support. That IS the work. It wasn't always easy to do. The toxic thoughts popped up often. They shouted doubts and bullied the new thinking. But slowly, the new thoughts learned to ignore the old ones. The new thoughts created new behaviors. The new behaviors created lasting change.
Disclaimer: Although changing your thinking can make a huge difference, if you are experiencing the very real symptoms of depression, you may need the assistance of a mental health professional to help you make the first leap. They can also give invaluable outside perspective.
It takes time to change your thoughts. Paying off debt takes time. Losing weight takes time. Writing a novel takes time. Preparing to run a marathon takes time. The things worth doing in life take time. Doing them well takes even more time, because you need to practice. Practice takes time. There will be relapses. Be patient.
In some cases, it might take years. And, you may have started long before you think you did. I may have started a personal finance blog in January, and paid off $38,047 in debt in ten months, but the process of paying off that debt started YEARS prior. It started way back when I was struggling to start some sort of business that would provide me with an $80,000 annual salary. The only reason I wanted that salary was to PAY OFF THE DEBT. Then, I was going into more debt in order to create the business. Talk about a toxic pattern. But, I was trying to solve my problem with the same thinking that created it.
It doesn't work.
What does work? Changing your mind. Rising out of victim thinking and aiming for a default pattern of thinking in which you and others are all always winning together. After working at it for a few years, I see that helping others win helps me win. The more I win, the more I can help others.
You might think that changing your mind changes who you are. It can. But that can be a good thing. It can change the parts of you that hold the better parts back. I changed my mind, but I'm still a reader and a writer. I still love puppies and hiking. I still prefer comic books to superhero movies (but I'm willing to consider opposing opinions.) I'm still fundamentally me, but with a better outlook and a much healthier bank account.