Would you say you feel helpless when it comes to your finances? Rewinding ten or twenty years, would you have felt the same?

Setting the stage

When I look at my 2 year old nephew, I’m always amused. He is forever in high spirits, bubbling with life, never afraid to try anything new. Be it jumping off the sofa, or biting into a chilli, he has tried it all. And if he fails, he doesn’t give up. He sees other people doing all these things, and believes that he can too. I am sure that we all share similar stories from our childhood.

How then did we reach this stage where we start believing that we can’t do certain things?

As we grow up, we experience a phenomenon called Learned Helplessness. Helplessness is any condition where a desired change or escape is impossible. 

This usually happens when we repeatedly face failure in an uncontrolled environment. Later, when control is possible, we still feel helpless. 

One can see this phenomenon taking place with elephants in a circus. It’s a cruel sight, but baby elephants are often restrained in a small area, with their legs tied to a chain. Soon the elephant learns that escape is impossible. However, as the elephant grows, he outgrows this condition. His legs are no longer tied, yet he doesn’t escape. That’s because he has learned that escape is impossible. 

This image is dispiriting. If you think about it, we have accepted helplessness in many aspects of our lives as well. Have you ever caught yourself saying things like, “Oh, I’m just not a morning person”, or “I can’t cook even if my life depended on it”, or “I don’t think I could ever learn how to swim”. After a few failures, we often tend to give up trying, even when our circumstances might have changed for the better.

Managing our finances is a classic example of this phenomenon in action.

If you were bad at mathematics, and failed multiple times in school, you would eventually start avoiding having anything to do with it. Or maybe, as a young girl growing up, it was always your father or brother who made financial decisions for you; so today, as a woman, you might feel that finance just isn’t an aspect of life that you can handle on your own. It could also be that when we’ve tried to learn, everything about finance seemed too complex to grasp, so we just stopped trying.

As time passes, and our life experiences expand our horizons, our fear of failure might still remain. Sooner or later, a financially debilitating event might occur that will leave you floundering. It is usually in such situations that we wake up and realize that only we can help ourselves.

Why must we wait for something like this to happen though? Why not pre-empt it?

How do we break the pattern of helplessness?

Learned helplessness is something that we can confront head on. Following a few simple exercises will help you break the pattern.

  • Adopt the mantra, “If they can do it, I can do it.”

    Leave the jargon aside and focus on the thought behind every concept. Managing our own finances is easier than it seems. And the first step is to view it with openness. If I can do it, so can you.

  • Set SMART goals

    As Lao Tzu’s famous saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Start by setting yourself specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goals. For instance, one of your first goals could be to read one article from the world of finance everyday, or every week, like you do with our newsletter. 🙂 Your next few goals could be to have discussions about money with family and friends. Then, depending on where you stand with your finances, your next few goals can be chalked out.

  • Take action

Knowledge is power, but knowledge without action is useless. Consider this step an extension of goal-setting. Executing the goals you set will give you the confidence you need to keep the momentum going. Don’t try doing too many things at once. Ease yourself into the financial world, and you’ll soon find how rewarding managing your own money can be.

  • Reward yourself for the small accomplishments

Speaking of rewards, give yourself a pat on the back every time you cross a milestone in your financial journey. Talk to your near and dear ones about your progress. Write to us and tell us how it’s going, we’re always eager to hear from you.

Like with my 2-year old nephew, we can all overcome learned helplessness, no matter what our age is. And the feeling that follows is priceless. Be sure to share this feeling with those around you, and help them start their own financial journeys too. 🙂

PS: If you’re an adventure-seeker like us, you’re sure to like Tommy Caldwell’s The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk and Going Beyond Limits. Tommy is definitely somebody who throws helplessness out the window. You could also watch the Netflix documentary, The Dawn Wall, about this star rock climber’s journey.

Rushina Thacker

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