I can’t shake off the feeling of precarity
September 12, 2023 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I grew up in a poor and chaotic household but even as an adult who has managed to escape that environment I can’t stop feeling constantly like the rug will be pulled from under me.

Although I have a good job and I make a decent salary, I never can feel secure. It feels like everything is precarious and can be taken away in a heartbeat. Neither I nor my partner come from families that have or will leave us anything at all (if anything we will likely have to help them out in old age).

I’m frugal, painfully so at times, live well beneath my means and try to be sensible with how I handle and invest money. I have a 401k that I max out, I save monthly and put some small amounts towards investing but the way things are going globally and with COL skyrocketing everywhere it seems so hopeless and pointless sometimes. We still cannot afford to buy a house where we live, and who knows when and if that will ever be feasible for us. For many reasons, we cannot move to a lower COL area right now or in the foreseeable future.

We both really want to have a baby but keep mulling it over because I just cannot stomach the uncertainty of what happens if one (or both of us) lose our jobs.

While I get paid well in my current job, that doesn’t give me relief, it just reminds me that to have any kind of semi comfortable (and by comfortable I mean basically secure middle class, not luxurious ) life I will have to keep making the money I make now, and it already feels like a miracle that someone from my background makes this kind of salary at all. It feels like it would take an even bigger miracle for me to keep making it long term.

I live with this constant background anxiety that I’m living on a “borrowed income bracket” and sooner or later I will have to go back to what I grew up in (struggling working class). Every year things seem to be getting worse and while the tables turned in favor of workers for a bit during COVID, it looks like the pendulum is swinging back now and a new stage of mass layoffs and increased unemployment is on the horizon.

I would really like to hear what helped you deal with it if you experience this, and your strategies for organizing your life so you feel like you have some semblance of control over it.
posted by Riverside to Work & Money (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I come from a similar economic background and I understand this concern viscerally. I can't say it has no grounding in reality. However, at some point, it goes from being a concern or a psychological factor to take account of in decision-making to being anxiety with a capital A. I would say that when you are doing well and planning and saving dutifully but are still afraid to do things that you really want to do because of the potential expense or because the economy in general is looking worse--when you can't believe you'll continue to make a decent income, not because you're in a time-limited position [e.g., junior Biglaw associate] but because of course it's going to go away because the world is threatening--you have reached that point.

In other words, I don't think this can really be addressed "rationally" or through organization, because it's anxiety, which is not a rational phenomenon. You need therapy or meds or both so that this fear doesn't rob you (and your partner) of the family you want and deserve. In the meantime, a break from doomscrolling might be very helpful. If you can't do that, try picking only one or two issues that you're going to worry about, and let the rest go.
posted by praemunire at 6:43 PM on September 12, 2023 [7 favorites]

Similar background, similar trajectory, similar anxiety. And I do take meds for general anxiety, though wouldn't have articulated this particular issue as a specific catalyst for getting them.

Some things that help:
+ savings account that I continue to fill up as much as I can and can review the balance on any time; doing the math that the balance = x months/years of security and literally telling myself that
+ checking my irrational thoughts against my current situation and actively noting that the statistical likelihood of backsliding is quite low
+ setting small realistic goals that help to cement my comfort/fulfillment/stability, working on them, and celebrating achieving them - it helps build confidence to see that you're still moving forward and able to accomplish things
+ i hate saying it, but taking the time pretty regularly to express gratitude and appreciation for my current situation
+ reading stories and posts about the unique behaviors that people who grew up poor tend to carry with them even if their lives have changed significantly, so that i feel less alone about dithering over the bread that costs $3.79 or the bread that costs $4.29 at the grocery store and etc.

I hope you find some relief from how overwhelming this feels. It seems like you deserve a pat on the back and a big hug from yourself that you've made it to this point, and I hope in the not-too-distant future you'll be able to feel good about your progress instead of stressed.
posted by luzdeluna at 7:05 PM on September 12, 2023 [3 favorites]

I've heard it occasionally over the years, but (some say) poverty is a trauma, and it comes as no surprise if there's PTSD type symptoms associated with having experienced it, especially as a child.

Here's a quick link, and there's a lot more out there, but I'm not sure everybody agrees with this line of thought.
posted by rhizome at 7:29 PM on September 12, 2023 [3 favorites]

You are doing everything right and it's admirable. It sucks that you feel insecure about finances but I also totally get it. How can we not in 2023? I'm sure some people feel OK but I'd say that most people across classes are feeling the stress. Last year I was in your spot in many and this year I'm feeling better; nothing is different other than my attitude. I'm not sure what I did to change it but I definitely tried to focus on the positives and be more comfortable with the uncertainty. I know I have it so much better than many or even most but I will likely never ever feel absolutely "safe" in this way -- even if I were to make a million dollars a year because that is precarious too! I'm offering more solidarity than solutions but you are not alone.

For me, leaning into my frugal side helps: I remind myself I am someone who can turn trash into treasure and that resilience is not something that can ever be taken away from me. Conversely, occasionally treating myself to something special is a happy reminder that my hard-earned money can and is for enjoyment too. What's a luxury that you love or want to try? It could be as expensive as a Michelin-star restaurant that you visit twice a year or as simple as buying the slightly more expensive hand soap you like. Those are two things I do and they remind me of how far I've come; I'm sure you have your own version of this and it may be completely different.

I totally understand the kid situation. First, the idea that one needs to own a house in order to have kids is such complete and utter bullshit. There are many advantages to renting when you have kids, such as being able to move more easily if you don't like where you live or want to change school districts. Likewise, a small apartment is much easier to manage and clean, and it's nice to be together; a big house is a pain to clean and maintain. You can focus on your kid! I saw your history and see that you have had some ups and downs in your relationship; I hope that's feeling stable and happier now. It seems like you are super hard on yourself and I hope you can be as gentle with yourself as you are with others. Kids are super fucking expensive, especially in places like that US that feel almost anti-kid or at least anti-parent. What I would need is a partner with whom I feel we can be a true team: that doesn't mean things are 50/50 and there's always the chance that one -- or both of us -- could die. BUT that's what I need to start feeling better. (Fortunately, there's term life insurance in that case so one thing to help.) If you are doubting having a kid due to relationship instability, I think waiting is smart; if you are doubting it because of money, I say you're doing well and will be able to figure it out. We live in a scary world but two parents committed to loving their child and trying their best is in many ways even more important than a massive financial cushion, nice as that'd be.

Again, I know this isn't really specific advice but I understand! I am hopeful for you just as I'm hopeful for me. It's a scary time to be alive but hopefully you can worry even just a tiny bit less right now. For someone with lots of anxiety -- me too! -- even being 5-10% less freaked out over this stuff can make a huge difference in our life satisfaction. Perhaps just focusing on one or two small things could help shift your mood.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:30 PM on September 12, 2023 [2 favorites]

This is the type of anxiety I’ve had good luck reducing with EMDR and brainspotting therapies. (I’m describing my experience as a client, but I’m also trained in EMDR, which might be worth mentioning as a data point for my ability to speak about this topic or as a data point for my bias in favor of these modalities.) In my experience, I’ve used EMDR and brainspotting on several worries that I could intellectually resolve but never feel calm about in my body. These therapies use bilateral stimulation to cause you to activate your brain differently, so you can explore the anxious thoughts or traumatic memories differently than the loop you usually get stuck in. The effect for me was that I went from a constant baseline fear and visceral reaction to triggers relating to the fear to not thinking about it except when appropriate (e.g., not constantly worried I have some terrible health condition but noticing when I’m having a symptom that’s worth paying attention to) and a physical feeling of calm when I encounter a trigger. I still have emotions about my triggers—sadness that I went through something, or anger about being wronged—but I don’t get physically activated.

Other modalities you might consider are internal family systems (IFS) and exposure therapy. IFS would invite you to explore different parts of yourself that may have different relationships with and assumptions about the issue. Exposure therapy would have you working on encountering your triggers and developing a sense of your actual safety. (I know there are real risks and consequences with financial things. But the real risk of a medical emergency derailing your finances, or the persistent stress of ever increasing housing prices DO NOT need your body’s reaction. The physical anxiety responses are good when you are in literal imminent danger. If there is an actual car speeding toward you, it’s good for you to have a surge of adrenaline powering your automatic dive out of the way before you consciously think about it. If there is a major financial concern, you will be better able to address it if you can think about it without a surge of adrenaline going through you.)
posted by theotherdurassister at 8:21 PM on September 12, 2023 [2 favorites]

Can’t write a lot now but just a few days started an active conversation with my therapist and my spouse about this exact topic. Following because so much written above gives me words for what’s been affecting me and us so much.
posted by matildaben at 10:41 PM on September 12, 2023 [2 favorites]

I grew up with a lot of financial and emotional instability, and it's been an adjustment to being an overall ordinary, stable, suburban housewife.

If my husband is at all vague or about finances I go into a tailspin. I doomsday prep in case food prices spiral. I stash extra medicines in case we lose our insurance.

But weirdly it's not my day to day.

I've learned not to doom scroll. I read the news, then I log off and read a book.

I play budget games against myself (like keeping a grocery run under $100) but I don't lose my mind if I lose the game and spend a little more.

I'm also assertive in my marriage if I feel like my husband is being a penny pincher instead of simply frugal.

I think what's helped the most is learning to see my youth as a blip, not my destiny.
posted by champers at 3:35 AM on September 13, 2023 [2 favorites]

For me this is definitely a trauma thing, and it makes total sense that you can't rationalise it away. I've been doing Internal Family Systems and one thing I've learned from that is that traumatic memories are held as feelings in your body when they can't be processed, usually attached to a "part" of us - e.g. a sad child part that had to learn not to ask for sweets because it triggered parent into being angry about being poor.

Those memories then "come up" when something similar happens (e.g. telling yourself that you can't afford a thing...particularly such an emotive thing as a baby, wow), but because you've not processed those body-feelings you feel like it's happening RIGHT NOW. So you react accordingly.

So yeah - therapy would be my recommendation. But you could also try telling your story in a new way. I've been reframing this. I also have a good job, but almost expect to go back to being in poverty. I realised I tell myself I can't have x or can't afford y, I'm too poor, there's no money until the end of the month. They might all be true - but to tell it in a new way soothes the anxiety-matching nature of it.

So I say wow I'm so rich now I'm choosing between these two breads - not just picking the cheapest thing up. I say I'm saving up for a nice thing which is why I'm not having a takeaway. Life is about the stories we tell ourselves, so try telling yours a new way.

But nothing rational will process those old feelings.

(Plus, none of this is helped by the economy being actually quite precarious right now).
posted by london explorer girl at 7:59 AM on September 13, 2023 [2 favorites]

I've heard it occasionally over the years, but (some say) poverty is a trauma, and it comes as no surprise if there's PTSD type symptoms associated with having experienced it, especially as a child.

Oh it’s real and I have the therapy receipts to prove it.

I remember our family going bankrupt, borrowing money from family, being late on rent. I watched the stress in my household that culminated in my parents’ divorce. I remember having multiple jobs at 13 just to have cheap but new sneakers for school. I remember the shame for being clearly not rich enough to be part of the cool kids or to get a date to my grade 8 dance with who I wanted.

Fast forward to my 30s and I was hyper sensitive that I had to be progressing in my career and making more even if I was comfortable. I was hyper focused on carrying all of the load for everyone around me because otherwise - I was worried the stress would lead them to stop loving me the way it did my parents to each other. Paradoxically, instead of saving more to be safe, I felt the need to spend more to make sure I wasn’t left out of things for money anymore. The only thing that saved me was making more and more and eventually, therapy to unwind some of the reasons why.

Poverty is a very real threat to your life and your happiness. If you have ever gone through it you know the weight, the chaos, the shame and the worry. And you know how easy you can find yourself in a hole that is so damn difficult to get back out of.

And so it makes total sense, OP, that money triggers you. You know the risks. I feel you on the “imposter syndrome” you feel in your income bracket too - I now have a credit card I can use to skip the line sometimes and it…feels so damn weird to use it and that someone will say “you don’t deserve that.”

What worked for me was therapy - specifically CBT and DBT that helped me identify what my triggers are, what the thought patterns are that underly the responses, and how to recognize them early and combat them. It’s not easy and it’s not perfect but I feel a lot more in control of the role that money plays in my life and a lot less worried about how and when it’s going to end.
posted by openhearted at 4:12 PM on September 13, 2023 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I went to therapy for related feelings (my situation isn't the same as yours, but "feeling of precarity" describes the mental state I was in to a tee). It helped. My therapist didn't use one specific modality, but a combination.
posted by capricorn at 4:30 PM on September 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

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