Sunday, January 9, 2022

Paralyzed by Choices

I remember being just seven years old and winning an elementary school spelling bee.  I was beyond excited.  I had never won anything before, and was exhilarated by experiencing an academic success; perhaps one of my very first.  As the teacher called my name, announcing me as the winner, she also revealed to the class that I was also to be the recipient of a grand prize.  I would have the opportunity to select from one of two items: a brand new watch or a calculator.

The color immediately drained from my already pale, little face and my stomach was in knots.  I burst into tears, and jumped up out of the seat, running to the cafeteria as fast as my little legs would take me.  There I ran straight into my grandmother's arms.  (If you're asking why my grandmother was in the cafeteria, it's because we lived in a seriously tiny town, and she was the school cook.)  You see, not only had my teacher presented me with my first award, but unknowingly, she also bestowed upon me my very first experience with making a decision.

Sobbing, I explained to my grandmother that I was going to have to make a decision.  I had never had to make a decision all by myself before, and I was absolutely terrified!  I mean, how do you go about making a decision?  And what happens if you make the wrong one?!  Would I spend forever swimming in a sea of regret over the path not taken?  I had no idea!  My little, seven-year-old self would have much rather been told which prize I had been receiving than have to do the work of deciding for myself.  Being devoid of choice alleviates the individual of a certain amount of personal responsibility and the dreaded feeling of regret that has the opportunity to come with it.  Regret truly is a cancerous emotion, and human nature is such that it will do almost anything to avoid experiencing it.  Even if that means avoiding the element of choice altogether.  It's significantly easier to allow life to keep passing you by, handing you things that you subsequently are forced to deal with than it is to bear the responsibility of having chosen in a manner that you later find undesirable. 

In case you're curious what my grandmother said to my hysterical, seven-year-old self, she very simply stated that "You only need to make a choice for now.  You can always choose again later."  She went on to explain that I did, in fact, need to select one of these things, but that there was no reason I couldn't have both.  If I really wanted a watch and a calculator, I could have both of these things.  It just might not be at the same time.  

The truth is that I really don't remember which decision I made.  Isn't that funny?  The very, first decision I ever had to make on my own...   While I may not remember the actual prize I chose, I will never forget that pit in my stomach, the anxiety associated with choice, or the wisdom my grandmother shared with me that day.  You only need to make a choice for now.  You can always choose again later.

We frequently discuss the freedom and power associated with having a choice, but rarely address the responsibility or paralysis that accompanies it.  Along with the power of choices comes the knowledge and understanding that we are truly steering the ship toward our future.  But you see, here's the kicker:  we always were.  We've always been steering that ship, but passively. Sitting with our hands off the wheel, we could fool ourselves into the idea that the tides, undercurrent, or something else was to blame for the resulting undesirable direction to which we float.  Moreover, our successes get chalked up to simple luck as a result of our passivity.  

When it comes to our financial lives, the choices can seem overwhelming.  More and more, people are becoming aware of the need to save money, but suffer from paralysis over the endless array of choices involved.  How much should I save?  Where should I save: retirement account? Liquid savings account?  Brokerage account?  If I use a retirement account, should it be an IRA or a 401k?  Pay down the mortgage or invest more?  Sometimes, when we feel we have entirely too many choices, paralysis sets in.  But where does this paralysis come from?

 Reasons for Paralysis:

There are three primary reasons people seem to suffer from paralysis when it comes to financial choices (or quite frankly any life choices): lack of knowledge, fear of the future, or regret from the past.  Let's take a moment to address these one by one.

Lack of Knowledge:

Sometimes our financial choices are accompanied by a myriad of things we simply do not understand.  Perhaps we don't understand the jargon, rules, or details of a financial strategy well enough to feel confident executing a certain financial task.  We might also not know how to go about getting a financial professional to help us.  So, we simply bury our heads in the sand.

I have a client that struggled with this for years regarding her retirement savings options.  She had access to a 401k at her workplace, but didn't particularly understand how it worked. She didn't know how much she was allowed to contribute, or what the recommendation would be for someone in her situation.  She had also heard about IRAs, and wondered whether that was a better option than the 401k.  If she could even get as far as deciding between an IRA or a 401k, she wondered how on earth she would decide which investments to choose? 

Unfortunately, personal finance isn't the sort of thing most of us learned in high school (which is unfortunate).  So, we are forced to contend with it on our own.  Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get this sort of knowledge.  You can start by reading books, magazines, and blogs that contain personal finance content.  You can also take courses. As I said before, this particular person is one of my clients. So, she decided to sign up for my group coaching program in order to educate herself on things she didn't know and address some of her limiting beliefs around money.

Fear of the Future:

We become so terrified of making mistakes that we allow ourselves to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.  It's ironic that personal finance is largely about living beautiful and fulfilling lives right now while setting aside for our future selves, and yet so many people find themselves in a state of panic right now and fear over the future.  That's no way to live.

By Law of Attraction standards, the most important moment we can experience is the one we are in right now.  Nothing else truly exists.  This is not to say that we fail to set money aside in the now, for it is important to remember that every moment we are currently living was once the unknown future.  So, one of the most proactive, inspired actions to take regarding the future is to take pleasure in the process of setting funds aside now.  

It seems that many people get a bit blocked when they try to conceptualize experiencing the joy of saving right now without overly focusing on the future. So, let's look at this another way.  Don't you love planning your vacation?  You look at websites in order to familiarize yourself with your options; you begin to book airline tickets, hotels, and excursions.  You fantasize, seeing yourself in exotic locations having beautiful experiences, and in the process, you feel pure joy.  The moment hasn't come yet and you aren't overly focused on it, but you are also gifting yourself a beautiful experience right now.  You are enjoying a delicious story for which you are the writer, designing your life in your mind.  As you book the airline tickets, hotels, and excursions, you are funding the experience in the now, and joyfully so.  You don't fixate on it; you just do it, and you're excited that you've set yourself up for an adventure-filled experience of your own design.  Clearly, the vacation hasn't come yet.  But you're aware that you'll enjoy the results a lot more if you give it your attention before it occurs.  Planning for our future financial needs and wants can be very similar.  We don't particularly need to obsess over it, but just like planning for a vacation, if we simply determine our projected future need, we can set aside from the abundance we experience right now, and take great pleasure in knowing that we're set to enjoy a comfortable future.

Regret from the Past:

It's entirely too easy to get caught in a loop of "should have."  I should have started investing sooner.  I should have cash-flowed college.  I should have run the other direction instead of filling out that credit card offer.  This negative self-talk lends itself to extremely low-level emotions on the emotional scale and tends to feed into perpetuating a negative money story, reinforcing our limiting beliefs, and creating scarcity mindset, all of which create momentum in the direction of that which we do not want.  Why would we carry that into our present and future?  

I think back to what my grandmother said to me.  You can always choose again.  If you made a choice yesterday that you weren't happy with, try again.  You didn't invest in your 401k last year?  Don't just sit on the sidelines now because you did before!  Choose again.  You racked up some credit card debt last year?  Choose again.  Take that credit card out of your wallet; make the decision to stop carrying it, and start throwing extra money on the balance!

Part of choosing again involves forgiving ourselves.  We must forgive ourselves for that which we did not know, our mistakes, and that which we feared.  Forgive ourselves; love ourselves, and let go.  Sometimes the letting go is the hardest part.  We want to punish our current selves for the sins of our former selves, but you want to know who else is going to suffer?  Our future selves.  Don't all of ourselves deserve better?

As I think back, there are so many choices in my life and with money that I would love to have the opportunity to do again.  Sometimes, in the moment, I thought I was doing the right thing for myself, but later upon self-reflection, I suspect that I didn't.  That's a tough pill to swallow honestly, but allowing current me to beat-up former me won't help.  Perhaps the best answer is to choose to love former me and accept where she was at that time.

...and while I still can't remember whether I chose the watch or the calculator, (although now that I think of it, I think it might have been the calculator) I'll never forget that first experience with the anxiety that can come with decision-making.  I will also never forget what my grandmother taught me about the permanency of those choices:  You only have to choose for now.  You can always choose again later.

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