I think paying off my debt might have turned me into a self-help junkie. Bear with me, I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was the catalyst for a huge number of changes in my life, largely because it was a symptom of a much bigger problem. A self-worth problem.
It was so easy to just keep my head down and trudge along in my life when I felt overwhelmed by debt. Releasing myself from that burden highlighted a lot of uncomfortable feelings I had never examined before. I had to learn why I was trying to make myself whole with spending, then evaluate and prioritise what I wanted. All while trying to build my me-shaped life.
Aspire to build something you-shaped, then figure out how to make that a reality.”
I let go of the feeling of missed opportunity I carried with me when I was deep in debt and started to feel I had enormous freedom. My money was now all mine (not in a Gollum “My precious” kind of way), but mine to use in any way I wanted. What kind of life did I want to create with it?
How I Came to Realize I was a Self-Help Junkie
Yesterday I was poking around my local library with my mom when she asked if I’d read anything good lately. Fiction, I asked. No, I only read non-fiction these days. By non-fiction I really meant I only read self-help books (thanks for the reminder every time I open you, Amazon). The last time I even tried to read fiction I got to the end of the book to find out it was a true story… so not fiction.
I don’t think there’s anything outrageously wrong with me – I want to go from good-to-great. Paying off my debt was a huge accomplishment and it made me feel like I could tackle a lot more. In order to pay it off I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and to be honest, I found it a bit addicting. I wanted to keep pushing.
Learning to Be Good Before Being Great
If you knew me three years ago, you would have known an indifferent person with low self-esteem and a high spending habit to try and compensate for the void I felt. When I looked too closely at that hole it started to consume me, so for a long time it was better to ignore it. I tried to fill it with the temporary distraction of spending, but that would never plug it for long. Feeling tenderly around the edges I knew I had to make a change. The alternative was allowing myself to drift in a life my people-pleasing nature lead me to – debt and all.
Feeling despondent, I quit my full time job as a geologist and left for India for two months, by myself. I didn’t have a back-up plan for when I came home, but I felt things would work out. This trip started something in me that I’m still pursuing three years later, a search for myself.
When you’re low on cash, traveling in India is done by train. Lengthy 14-hour overnight trips in triple-stacked bunk beds where you’re praying you won’t have to use the washroom. It affords a lot of time for thinking and reading (non-fiction, of course). A friend had introduced me to the self-help focused Tiny Buddha and I took a copy of their Guide to Loving Yourself with me.
This was the first time I had ever looked at myself – critically, compassionately or otherwise. Before I had viewed myself and my actions as a by-product of my upbringing and experiences. Something not to be changed.
This is bullshit.
Being malleable is part of being human. Your actions and reactions help you understand a lot about what makes you tick. They aren’t just something that happens, they’re a choice. Up to that point I was making the choice to muddle through a life I didn’t want for myself and I was ready to throw in the towel.
Looking the Hurt Head-on
Most people have a lot of normal, some awesome and a little excruciatingly painful in their childhood. On a train in India, I learned to look at the hurt head-on and appreciate how it had contributed (and improved) my current life. Learning compassion for myself changed everything.
I was no longer holding onto resentment for the bad things that had happened that I had no control over, and more importantly I forgave myself for the bad things I’d done, which I had full control over. All the previous resentment had led to low self-worth, and consequently a lot of debt.
Taking it to Great
Now I have far fewer feelings of emptiness, but there are still quite a few things I struggle with. This feeds right into the addicting nature of self-help, because where do you stop? I still find it very difficult to accept the success I have and even receive compliments.
The self-help junkie in me really rises to the challenge.
By reading about self-improvement, I’m making progress, right?
I like to tell myself that’s true, but simply reading is the easy part. Taking action is the real work. For the most part I can only retrospectively identify the actions that have moved me forward. It certainly wasn’t all, or even most of the things I tried.
Leaving a job I hated, moving across the world and away from all things comfortable to pursue a Master’s degree, paying off all my debt. These were huge changes, but the initial action that allowed me to do these things was a snap decision. I mentally committed in an instant and then had to learn how to follow through.
I have to continue to trust myself when the opportunity for massive change comes up. The pursuit from good-to-great is going to be life-long. By feeling like I’m enough and appreciating the positive in my life I hope to keep the self-help junkie at bay, and simply live.