How do I stop tying my self worth to my income?
August 29, 2013 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 31 year old man who lives in NYC. This has been a problem that has plagued me for a very long time, and it's really making my life miserable. Snowflake details inside.

Without getting into too much detail about how my parents raised me, money was always an issue in my household. My parents divorced over it, and ended up litigating over 15 years about alimony and property. My parents never took the time to instill a sense of self worth without tying it to external factors like wealth, the kind of car I drive, or how physically attractive I am. Everything relied on these external factors. Growing up, I would constantly feel as if I needed "things" to be feel good about myself.

Through out my twenties, I went into professions where I felt I could make a decent salary. I ended up going to graduate school partially for having a genuine interest in the program, but knowing I'm also graduating into an in-demand field where I can financially sustain myself.

Ironically enough, to this day I still don't fully sustain myself. I still rely on my parents for cash. And frankly due to my graduate school loans, I don't see myself really "making it" anytime soon.

Fast forward to today. I recently finished graduate school. I have been job hunting for the past few months, and the compensation offered by companies I am interviewing has been under what I originally expected in my field of work. Fine. Those are the breaks.

However, all of this brings about a sense of anguish, like this is some cruel joke. My life doesn't feel at like it's together. A lot of my friends on the other are getting engaged, and appear to make ends meet just fine. I am really trying to not suck myself into a victim complex. I keep plugging away to find a position in a company I will thrive in. With that said, I still have these spells of anger with myself, like I've failed. And deep down, I still feel as if my happiness is tied to a paycheck.

I'm sorry for rambling — I guess I am just looking for some sense of peace with where my life is right now, and I don't know how to find it. Any advice on how to do so?

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Would you feel better if you could support yourself fully, without the benefit of your parents' help? Maybe it would make sense to move somewhere less expensive than NYC, so that you can be independent, and you're not as tied to your parents, financially.
posted by xingcat at 8:56 PM on August 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is there any way you could spend a couple years living in a nice place with a lower cost of living than NYC? There's no place like NYC for making you feel like you're squeezing out every last drop of effort to get ahead, in return for living/working/commuting under absurdly not-worth-it conditions, and all of your money is being sucked away from you just to keep living under these absurdly not-worth-it conditions alone. Maybe therapy would help but I think even for people who don't need therapy, living in NYC makes a lot of people feel like that.
posted by cairdeas at 9:00 PM on August 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

What about getting a financial adviser to help you learn to really live within your means?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:17 PM on August 29, 2013

A lot of my friends on the other are getting engaged, and appear to make ends meet just fine

"Appear" is the key word here; I am sometimes surprised to find out that people that I think have it all together financially actually have a lot of credit card debt or are just more spendthrift than I am even though they don't have more money.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:18 PM on August 29, 2013 [28 favorites]

...or they have wealthier parents helping them out, or a trust fund. Took me ages to understand that's why some folks seem to coast through life while I've sometimes felt like I'm slogging.
posted by zadcat at 9:22 PM on August 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

wealth, the kind of car I drive, or how physically attractive I am

THOSE THINGS ARE MEANINGLESS. All your thinking on this is wrong.

Your life feels lousy to you because those things are important to you, not because you don't have enough of those things.

Some recommended reading: How to be Idle
How to be Free
How to Survive Without a Salary
Simplified, much of (scroll down for 'most popular' and 'best' on the right side)

Thinking as you do will forever cripple you and keep you from living a joyful and truly meaningful life.

I suggest starting your new life doing some volunteer work, and abstaining from as many "brand name" consumer goods as possible as part of a larger overall opt-out-of-bullshit plan, and by working hard at relationships -- by placing a high value on real friendship and intimacy and striving to be the best friend (nephew, neighbour, etc) you can be. I think that once you start throwing yourself deeply into things that do give real substance and value to a human life, you'll start to realise how nutty your parents' thinking was, and be easily able to shed their influence.
posted by kmennie at 9:26 PM on August 29, 2013 [45 favorites]

I keep telling myself that 8% of the mortgages in my state are in default. That means that just under 1 in 10 people aren't even paying their 'rent'. And those are just the people who are three months behind. There are probably far more who are 2 months or 1 month behind or are teetering or are just loaded up with massive debt. And those are the people who are homeowners. Things are probably even worse for renters.

I'm 46 and my wife and I are only just now starting to climb out from under.

Appearances can be very deceiving. Also nothing you buy or own will matter to you in the long run. I can't think back to a single purchase where I now say "I sure am glad I bought that status item". I do have fond memories of things I did though.
posted by srboisvert at 9:30 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of this stuff is within your control. You might not have perfect chiseled features, but are you as well-groomed and clean as you are able to be? You might not earn as much money as the next guy, but being self-supporting is a big step towards self-worth.
Comparing yourself to anyone else is a recipe for misery--telling yourself that everyone else is miserable or in debt or secretly broke is not the path to feeling better about yourself.
Taking control of the things you can is a big step towards respecting yourself. You might have only one pair of shoes, but they are shined/clean and you stand tall in them.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:35 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have an SO who can be expressive about valuing all your inner qualities? It seems that such a relationship would help undo some of that damage you sustained growing up. I think it's great that you are very self-aware about this situation, and you just need to find ways to have the right kind of people around you to support more positive ways of evaluating what's really important in life and what brings true happiness. There are lots of stories about how people who win the lottery just get short-lived boost in happiness. That should convince you that there are a lot more important things than money. Another thing that should convince you is that if you spend time in a poor immigrant community, you will often find some of the happiest people because they are enjoying each other, their holiday parties, their music, etc. - whereas if you go to the Hamptons or Beverly Hills you likely will find many people actually look less happy than that. Just today I was talking to my father's long-retired friend and he was telling me about the joy he experiences running into people who he used to tutor when they were at-risk high school students and now have careers and families - they come up to him on the street and give him hugs and he says their appreciation of the help he provided is the best feeling in the world. Much more "rewarding" than the ten thousand dollars per month he gets renting out his beach house to vacationers in the summer.
posted by Dansaman at 10:33 PM on August 29, 2013

A lot of my friends on the other are getting engaged, and appear to make ends meet just fine.

It's interesting that you mention "getting engaged" as part of having your shit together financially. It's not, really, and I hate the idea that having a big, often parentally funded wedding is part of Being a Grown Up.

Ironically enough, to this day I still don't fully sustain myself. I still rely on my parents for cash.

If you're unemployed and your parents can help you, that's great. That's awesome. Don't feel guilty. If you're working and you need your parents to float you more cash because you're trying to keep up with the Joneses, then you need to stop doing that.

And here's another good exercise for low-self-esteemers: Would you judge someone else as harshly as your judging yourself? I sure hope not.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:13 PM on August 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Volunteer. No really. It will make you feel better about yourself, it will make you respect people who are financially struggling and it will put you in touch with people who could care less about money.
posted by bananafish at 11:38 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Accept help when you need it. Be gracious and generous when you can. Don't compare yourself to others. Whilst it is noble to think you have to go it alone so as to not be a burden on anyone, it is rarely actually ever completely possible. No man is an island and all that.
posted by heyjude at 11:40 PM on August 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Save some money, every week. Even if it's just the spare change you have in your pocket. People who have savings have plans and have dreams and are going places.

And try this as a thought exercise: If you came home tomorrow and found that burglars had stolen everything on your house, what things would you be most upset about? Because likely as not those are the things that speak to who you are - the things that you value most about where your life is now. You mght be surprised how few things would make the list.
posted by girlgenius at 11:42 PM on August 29, 2013

Speaking as a former isolator, you got to take it easy on yourself. Slow down and smell the roses. I know how intuitive it is to focus on one's problems, but too much focus on bad things can have a huge negative impact on your life and lead to paralysis. Find some simple, happy things to focus on - hobbies or activities that are healthy and give you pleasure and satisfaction. Something esteemable. Esteemable acts create self-esteem. Maybe something that doesn't pay out dividends to just yourself, like a meaningful charity. It doesn't have to be a "stereotypical" form of charity, either. Usually, if you look for it, you'll find a way to help staring you right in the face. Take some time at the end of the day and write down all the good things that worked out that day. Keep doing this every day. If you live in the United States, you have it way better than a ton of other people in this world. If you have your health, you have it way better than a ton of sick and disabled people in this country.

Life is not just about accumulating a number of zeros in your bank account, acquiring a particular status over others in life, and finally one day, dying.

At your age, and I know this isn't always easy, it's time to start carving out beliefs and ideas and habits that fundamentally work for you, your upbringing be damned. Playing the victim and believe life is a cruel joke is really dangerous. These thoughts take you out of the game. It's so important to stay in the game, to participate, I cannot tell you. In my experience, it's the most important thing. Everyone experiences ups and downs, a wise person knows this. The key is to not extrapolate from your current feelings the idea that participating in life is meaningless and you are doomed. Because then you retract from the stream of life, and manifest the very destiny you so desperately want to avoid, and this is stupid.

I know society looks like a competition but there are a lot of us out there looking to help each other. And having a job is not all about making money and paying off loans. It can be about helping people. And it is in giving that you shall receive. Find new people to give to and they will give back. It's not as crazy as it sounds. We all learn how to be more human by going through tough times.
posted by phaedon at 12:44 AM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

1) Stop telling yourself the story about your parents, their relationship, and material things. The more you tell yourself that story, the more this becomes "the way I am" rather than "the decisions I make". If you tell that story often enough, your present life becomes the effect of that earlier time. That can be very disempowering, for it reinforces what you say later – basically, that you are incapable of disconnecting happiness from money.

You are very capable of disconnecting happiness from money. You can do it in an instant, just make the decision to be happy regardless of how much money you have. If you say, "I can't do that!", then why not? If the reason goes back to your parents and their treatment of you, the divorce, and all the of that OMG, you need to realise YOU ARE MAKING THE DECISION TO HOLD ONTO THAT AND LET IT DEFINE YOU. So stop making that decision.

How?, you might ask. Stop thinking about it. Whenever that little thought wiggles its way into your consciousness – that they set you off down this course – squash that thought. It's not real. It's a thought. Stop feeding it. Stop thinking back to that time. Stop thinking about what could have been different.

2) Move on. Chances are if your taking money from your parents, there are strings – either real or imagined. Nobody says you have to take that money. You are choosing to take that money. You could just as easily not take. And that is at the crux of what I hear from you. This all feels like something that happened to you, rather than choices you are making, which is why you attach yourself to income as identity. Because that is what you learned.

Your life will be more comfortable if you can accept your parents money and see it as a choice. For that gives you the best of both worlds – support and individuality. If you cannot do that, perhaps stop taking the money for a bit. OMG you say, I can't do that. Lots of people live without any assistance from anyone. It's called making it work. You can make it work, if you really have to.

3) But you don't have to. You have options. Rather than looking at them as some dark part of the universe that is sitting on your soul making you sad, be grateful that you have access to resources, and make the choice to accept them. As mentioned, this is all about how you are framing it.

Present: Your parents didn't teach you correctly about money. You see money and happiness inextricably linked. You are a 31 year old man who cannot support himself. You have a bad relationship with money and happiness, and it all started way back when...

Evolved: You make your own choices, and your parents are there to help you. They did they best they could as you grew up. You had the same life as everyone else, some things were great, some things sucked. They are now helping you on your road. You could refuse their help, but by taking it, you have more options for your future. You recognise that accepting their help is a choice that you make.

Welcome to prison of the past. Population: 1. Let yourself out of prison man. The key is in your hand. ;)
posted by nickrussell at 12:45 AM on August 30, 2013 [21 favorites]

"... I'm sorry for rambling — I guess I am just looking for some sense of peace with where my life is right now, and I don't know how to find it. Any advice on how to do so? ..."

Here is some concrete advice, of a small but eminently practical nature, which I learned from my younger son, when he was about 15: the first real independence many people feel is simply feeding themselves. If you've always paid for food, or had it furnished to you by or through the agency of others, the prospect of catching, hunting, producing, scavenging or finding food, especially in urban areas, can seem pretty daunting. But learning how to feed yourself well, by skill, cunning, and effort is pretty great for building self-esteem, as well as your bank balance, and in almost any area of the United States (excepting places like deserts, salt flats, and glaciers), almost anyone can began doing it, successfully, without extensive training, right away. And if you do read a few books, or meet people who successfully feed themselves that are willing to teach you techniques, your effectiveness in doing this grows exponentially.

In my case, this involves regular fishing trips, and occasional fall hunting trips for birds and feral pigs. When I can, I trade excess fish or game meat for produce with some neighbors, and grow a few things myself in patio containers, like tomatoes. potatoes and zucchini. I probably directly generate between 1/5 and 1/4 of the calories that I and my dog eat in an average year, from what most people would think of as recreational activities. Add to that processed food I get for free by moderate use of coupons, produce "deals" I get by visiting local farmers markets after the morning rush and just asking, etc., and that total probably goes up to more like 1/3 of my annual food, for probably 10 to 15 hours a month of total effort and the cost of some gasoline to go get it, and haul it home. And I'm not particularly aggressive, or industrious in this pursuit.

America is a hard country to starve in, if you're able bodied and can look around, and think about feeding yourself. And once you do, you can immediately feel productive, because you are filling your own belly, and you'll be "worth," in currency, an additional amount directly proportional to whatever you're not spending in money to keep your belly from growling.
posted by paulsc at 2:04 AM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I like the Mr Money Moustache's blog. He concentrates mainly on the lifestyle and cultural issues which form a frame within which we spend our money. Sorting things out and setting them right is going to be a lengthy, and tough journey. The key is knowing which direction to head in and coming to appreciate the scenery.
posted by rongorongo at 2:54 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Move the fuck out of NYC. I say this as a fellow New Yorker who has traveled to other areas. The cost of living is higher here and status is more often tied to wealth and location than anywhere else I can think of.

posted by corb at 3:40 AM on August 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

You don't need people to tell you your values are wrong--that money and status-seeking are superficial. You already know this. The problem is, you don't feel this.

My parents never took the time to instill a sense of self worth without tying it to external factors

It sounds like they did the opposite--probably because they also lacked such a sense. Luckily, you are failing at it. I say "luckily" because otherwise you might have gotten caught up in the competition and the display and never noticed the emptiness of the endeavor. People in this subculture are attracted to others who feel the same way because that's the kind of world that makes sense to them, and on some level, it's what makes sense to you.

You could "GET OUT NOW" as corb suggests, or volunteer as bananafish suggests to get outside this subculture. You could "Stop telling yourself the story" as nickrussell suggests, but all these are about what you'd be getting away from. You need something to move towards.

What that would be is relationships in which people value each other for who they are, not their externals. (Therapy should, in theory, be that, but the economics of it often make it difficult to sustain.) You need friends outside of the acquisitive/economic success mindset. You need to get close to people who aren't part of the system. I can't tell you where to find such people, but Metafilter meetups might be a good way to begin.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on August 30, 2013

boy, I feel you. two things helped me (although I'm still a ball of anxiety from time to time), and here I'm nthing, but I moved outta NY and I do volunteer. the former helps with the problem at hand, the latter provides some perspective.
posted by jpe at 5:17 AM on August 30, 2013

I'd turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Today, I don't give a shit about what anyone thinks about my financial decisions. I used to drive a Mercedes. Now I drive a Civic. I am MUCH happier.

We sold our house, a lovely place in a lovely neighborhood, because it was becoming a money pit. We are back in an apartment. A lot of people are asking, "So are you buying a new house?" Nope. Because renting is the right decision for us.

At your age it's hard not to use money and the cool stuff you can buy with it as a yardstick for your success. But you really have to fight the urge.

Be happy about that Metrocard! Revel in your rent-share in a dodgy part of Brooklyn, because that's what you can afford. Enjoy buying stuff on sale at Macy's and be sure to use the coupons from the newspaper.

Your new measure of success is that you can cover all of your bills, and still have a little to save.

In a couple of years, some of those folks who appear to have it together, may come apart because of money problems. Or they may be doing just fine, living within their means.

Start telling yourself, "I'm awesome even if all I have are the clothes on my back."

You seem mired in the idea that you have to live with the same ideas you were brought up with. You don't. Start not giving a shit. If your parents say anything just tell them, "This is what I can afford." Make no excuses or apologies, because none are necessary.

I used to be very materialistic and status conscious. One question I used to have to ask myself when faced with the urge to spend too much on something was, "Am I buying this because it gives me pleasure and utility, or am I buying it to impress someone else?" If I was honest, I usually put it back.

A boxing manager once said to his boxer, when the kid was out buying all kinds of bullshit, "Rolex or Timex, it's still the same time." I say that to myself ALL the time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:44 AM on August 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

The cost of living is higher here and status is more often tied to wealth and location than anywhere else I can think of.

I think it's easy enough to ignore the status/money thing in NYC if you want to - there's enough people here that you could easily fall in with a group that doesn't pay it much heed. However, the cost of living is such that you often end up feeling lots of pressure to make more money even if you're not particularly status-conscious, because everything is so damn expensive.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:28 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, my point was - moving could help you.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:34 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

you used the phrase "appear to make ends meet just fine." keyword is "appear." how do you know their situations? you can be in debt, accept cash from family or friends, or be bankrupt/in a credit repair program and still get engaged to someone or present the appearance of being financially together to the outside world. i know some people like this. they seem like they are financially ok but then when you get to know them you realize the opposite. vice versa is also true sometimes. don't compare yourself to others, especially on such a personal and variable thing as financial health.

if you are spending time with people who judge you on your possessions or income, go spend time with someone else who doesn't care and basically just wants to see you happy. if someone tries to criticise you about your $ choices you can always say, "i see that's your opinion, on the other hand living here/driving this car/working at this place/wearing these shoes/using this bank/whatever is working out for me. why should i fix it? it's not broken."

LEARN TO BE HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU HAVE. but also do this by figuring out what you really want! to be independent of parents? to pay off debt? to own a home? live near work and commute painlessly? to increase cash flow by looking for a certain kind of job? remember, for many of us job satisfaction is more important than banking like mad every month. for some, the goal is freedom from debt or another concrete goal like owning a home or putting money into a retirement account, etc. once you figure out what YOU really want - basically how does
"paycheck --> HAPPINESS" in your life, given your interests and preferences - then do seek out the advice of financial advisor or other expert and make a plan that can help you work toward your goal. maybe you'll feel better when you have an active and quantifiable plan and are working toward a goal.

personally, i don't have a problem with accepting help from family because i know that if tables were turned and my mom needed my help, and i could afford to help her, i would be ready and willing to do the same for her.

i also think the suggestions above about considering leaving the nyc area are worth thinking about.
posted by zdravo at 10:55 AM on August 30, 2013

If you've a roof over your head, food in your belly, a shirt on your back and people in your life, most other expenditures aren't worth the time you have to sell to afford them. Your parents were misguided; choose to be different than them.
posted by ead at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2013

I think most people feel much better when they can support themselves. You may need to "downgrade" your lifestyle and/or move somewhere that's not so appearance focused. But if I were you, and I kept on accepting money from my parents, I would also feel obligated to live up to their standards, whether sane or not.

To borrow a cliche, life is not about the destination (or maybe not JUST about the destination), but also about the journey and the lessons your learned along the way. I don't know what lessons you learned: Maybe that your parents' values don't work for you. Or pursuing money doesn't actually make you happy. But I'd take some time and think about what would ACTUALLY make you happy, because I have a feeling that even if you had been successful, you wouldn't have been happy.

I come from a family where I was encouraged to pursue a career with high income. By most standards, I have actually succeeded in that, but my parents are actually not satisfied. Because I succeeded, they felt that the original bar was set too low, and I should be making 10x more money (and be better educated). I basically cut ties with them for several years. I spend time again with them now, but if they bring bullshit like that up again, I usually just walk away.

My solution to this is to actually downsize my life. I traded down from a 3 bedroom to a 2 bedroom. I traded down from a fancy new Prius to a '98 Accord. I now live and spend time with people who are in worse financial shape than me, and that helps me not feel obligated to spend myself into debt. I also don't have to worry about maintenance (on the car, or my appearances). And yes, I've found myself to be a happier person.
posted by ethidda at 12:39 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to find a new source of happiness and self worth.

That's why people are telling you to volunteer, but that doesn't have to be it. Volunteering works for a lot of people, but not everyone. You could find delight in creating art, playing music, hiking in nature, any number of things.

Note: getting engaged is not going to be one of those things. Don't try to get engaged to fix this, it might be a quick fix but in the long run it will lead to neither a higher sense of happiness or a higher income.

Just look until you find something.
posted by yohko at 2:56 PM on August 30, 2013

I'm kind of amazed nobody here has suggested therapy yet.

: "I guess I am just looking for some sense of peace with where my life is right now, and I don't know how to find it."

This is explicitly the purpose of therapy. Well, one of them.

(A more traditional alternative is religion, but that tends to be somewhat disruptive because most religions have something to say about the rest of your life as well, which may or may not be desirable in your case. A notable exception is Zen meditation, which despite being a form of Buddhism can be practiced in a way that really doesn't invoke any deities.)
posted by d. z. wang at 3:10 PM on August 30, 2013

Instead of asking what you want to do/be/how much you want to make...

...start asking, what experiences do I want my life to contain/how do I want my daily hours to be filled/what is meaningful to me/who do I know that brings me joy and wisdom/what has happened when I sit in satisfaction and feel fulfilled and real/what is difficult for me but in a good way/what makes me feel safe and cozy/what do I need to enter the world and feel in command of myself/what am I capable of creating?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:26 PM on September 2, 2013

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