Shame Isn’t a Strategy: Rewire Your Mindset About Debt

Debt doesn’t define you. Take the time to forgive yourself.  When your internal dialogue starts speaking to you negatively, try and interrupt it with a more positive message.
man with sky in background

Years ago, after hiding for too long from trauma, I visited my first counselor.

At our first appointment, I sat on her sofa with my arms crossed maintaining a terrible attitude.

While I knew I needed to be there, I firmly believed that counseling, for the most part, was hocus pocus – very unlikely to help me.

Let’s just say, on my first visit; I was less than open-minded.

Very soon after sitting down that day, the counselor asked me the following: “Kelley, describe to me what happens to you when you’re happy.  How do you carry yourself?  If you were walking down the street, what would you look like?”

She had to coax me a bit, mainly because I didn’t get the point of why she wanted to know this in the first place.

“I guess I would probably be smiling,” I said hesitantly.

“And”… she asked.  “would your shoulders be pulled back or hunched?”

“Pulled back,” I replied.

“And, your head.  Would it be held high?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

Ultimately, I described that when happy, I walked with my shoulders pulled back, my head held high, was probably smiling, and met the eyes of those who walked past me.

Still, though, her overall point was evading me.

Next, she asked me to describe what happened to me when I was afraid or uncomfortable.  What did it feel like and how would it look?

Since it’s truly opposite to happiness on the feeling spectrum, my behavior, was opposite too.

My shoulders would be drawn in.  I’d have a solemn look on my face.  My pace would be slow, and my eyes would be reluctant to meet those who passed me.

She dug deeper asking me to uncover the first physiological feeling within me that signaled I was afraid or uncomfortable.

It took some thought on my part and coaching from her, but I told her, my stomach was the first place that signaled me – always.  Then, she asked me to think of this physiological sensation and to describe it’s size and shape.  Between us, we uncovered that when I was afraid or uncomfortable, there was a hot grapefruit in the pit of my stomach.

As we wrapped up our first session, the counselor suggested I set my phone with three daily reminders to check into my body – morning, afternoon, and evening.  I was supposed to, when reminded, take conscious note of what I was feeling.

I left many meetings with the counselor convinced it was a waste of time, doing nothing to improve me or my circumstances.

It took a long while before I understood the significance of our meetings together and how they impacted my life forever.

I began to see that before learning about feelings – negative feelings in particular – I would identify what I was feeling and then likely judge that feeling.

With much practice, I finally understood that working with my feelings should include two steps.

Step One was to pause and identify what I was feeling – with no judgment.

Step Two was to act.

Before meeting the counselor, I was often stuck on step one.  I would judge my feelings as if they were right or wrong, wallow, or just stuff them down – perhaps aware of their effort to alert me, but unwilling to take bold action to shift my circumstance or mindset.

Now, when faced with negative emotions, my hot grapefruit fires, acting as a gong-like-alert mechanism, shouting at me,

“Hey, Kelley!  Something crappy is happening.  You need to do something about this NOW.”

Now, I understand that feelings aren’t right or wrong – they just are.  My feelings are my truth – unique to me.  They act as a guidance system, and, so long as I pay attention to them, I’ll always be able to identify what’s going on (emotionally) for me, pausing to relish in something good, or when faced with more negative feelings I work to change either my circumstance or my mindset.

You might wonder how the identification and acknowledgment of feelings relate to the shame associated with debt?

It’s relevant because our feelings guide our actions, attitudes, intentions and most importantly, our energy.

When looking back on my financial crisis where I amassed $77,000 in consumer debt, I stayed stuck on step one for way too long.

I felt deep shame.  And feeling this shame, without taking action, was keeping me stuck.

Shame, while important to identify and acknowledge isn’t a good strategy for climbing your way out.  Taking action to rewire your mindset will change how you’re feeling while ultimately improving your energy and including your ability to cope with your circumstances.

You might believe that until your debt is gone, you can’t change how you feel about it.

I’ll challenge you on that.

I believe there are things you can do to change your perspective on where you’re at, and slowly turn shame into optimism, confidence, and ultimately happiness.

Below is a three-step strategy for rewiring your mindset about debt.

1 – Be vulnerable

I recall feeling the weight of my debt-secret lift from my shoulders when I finally divulged to a friend the details of my debt and how I was feeling about it.

It’s important to tell someone you trust, not just that you have debt, but most importantly, how you’re feeling about it.  Feel embarrassed?  Say so.  Feel like a failure, tell them.

While the person you share with may not be able to relate to the stress of debt, every person can relate to shame.

Being authentic and honest with someone your trust is the fastest way to build intimacy while shifting your energy into something more positive.  You’ll quickly recognize that you’re not alone.

2 – Forgive yourself

That voice in your head – is it telling you negative things about yourself all day long?  Telling you, you’re an idiot for getting yourself to this place?  Would you accept that kind of treatment from your best friend?  Likely, not.

You need to cut yourself some slack and forgive yourself.  Perhaps you weren’t offered financial skills in your household or through education.  Perhaps you made some poor choices.

3- Know that you’re not alone

Many people have debt, have had debt, or will have debt.

Debt doesn’t define you.

Take the time to forgive yourself.  When your internal dialogue starts speaking to you negatively, try and interrupt it with a more positive message.

Develop a Debt Strategy

Feeling terrible about your debt alone isn’t the strategy that will get you out of debt.

Develop a debt repayment plan. Consider writing out how you plan to repay your debt.  Do you need to cut expenses?  If so, how will you cut expenses?  Do you need to earn more money?  If so, how will you earn more money? Do you need to do a bit of both?  Or, do you need some financial skills to get started in the first place?  If so, find the resources that can provide the information you’ll need.

Set a target for how much your plan to pay each month, paycheck, etc.  Set a target for when you plan to be debt free.

To be accountable to your strategy, it can be beneficial to find an accountability partner to keep you on track.  Find a friend who is has a personal goal too.  Consider checking in weekly, monthly, etc. to update each other on progress.

It’s certainly normal to feel shame about the existence of debt, but rather than staying stuck in shame, acknowledge it, and act quickly to rewire your mindset.

To combat shame, be vulnerable, forgive yourself, and develop a debt strategy.


Kelley Olinger is a freelance writer, blogger, and Realtor. 

Having paid off $77,000 of debt in one year and ten months, Kelley is passionate about helping others craft prosperous lives while mastering their finances. 

She writes about personal finance and real estate on her blog, Reconcile Your Wallet.

Sign Up for the Tiller Money Memo

A weekly email with useful ideas about personal finance, investing and managing money, along with tips for using Tiller to optimize your finances.

You May Also Like