This is a guest article by The Weakonomist, an anonymous blogger responsible for everything at Weakonomics.com. As a banking insider he’s witnessed the economic implosion from inside the bubble. You can usually find him at the corner of Wall Street and Main Street throwing rocks at traffic.
My retirement accounts have dropped as hard as any index, I’ve watched friends and loved ones lose jobs (and fear for my own), you can’t go through 30 minutes of news without a sad story about someone losing their home. You can’t trust your government, you can’t trust Wall Street, some can’t even trust their own families with money anymore. We have no money, no way to make more money, and no end in sight to this vicious cycle. All of this is a result of the worst recession since the Great Depression, but none of the above is the worst thing we’ve lost.
As much as I pretend to be an amateur economist, I’m just as much an amateur psychologist. I’m a student of behavioral economics. And our economy has taken its worst blow in the form of self-esteem. More powerful than the loss of trillions in wealth and more devastating than losing your home is the long term effect these events have on your state of mind. It’s important not to get caught in this trap as it can hinder you from getting back on your feet. Let’s look at three examples of how you might get damaged:
The Terrified – Knowing the rules for retirement saving, our friend here diligently saved 15% of his income for retirement. After 10 years of saving he is basically no better off than before because the markets are so down. Distraught, he loses faith in the market’s ability to fund his retirement. He won’t put any more money into stocks and mutual funds because he’s afraid of losing it.
The Failure – This guy has worked hard his entire life. He never made a ton of money but was able to finally buy a house in 2004. He lost his job and then lost his house. Saddled with the guilt of letting his entire family down, he has lost the will to pursue the American Dream.
The Worthless – School never came easy to this guy, but he worked hard and got all the way through college. Having been told all his life that a college degree will help in his career, he graduated only to find there are no jobs to be had. He feels there is something wrong with him. Despite his desire to contribute positively to society, he instead sees a world that doesn’t want him.
These three guys have the same thing in common, they followed the rules, they played the game, and they lost. Due to factors they couldn’t control their self-esteem and faith in the system is tarnished. If you’ve seen the effects of depression first-hand you know exactly how bad this can be.
But all hope is not lost for these folks. They need to get back on their feet and find ways to get over this slump. It will do no good for them to try and convince themselves it’s not their fault and they couldn’t have stopped it, the human mind is too stubborn to accept that. Instead they must trick their own consciousness into feeling good again.
Our Terrified friend must forget about the past. Rule number one of the investment rules he learned was that past performance is no indicator of the future. That goes for the good years and the bad years. Don’t pull out of the market, because if the month of March has taught us anything it’s that the best returns come right after the worst ones.
The Failure has forgotten what the American Dream is all about. Half of the dream of success is failure. You can’t completely win at something until you’ve lost. It’s true some people hit a stroke of luck and it makes it look easier, but if you give up on a dream because of a setback then you aren’t working hard enough for it. The only way not to feel like a failure after a loss is to turn that loss into a lesson and then create success.
Finally, Worthless can look into new methods of adding value to this world. If you’re out of work or hate your job, volunteer. Making your resources available to a cause without an expectation of being compensated is perhaps the greatest value offered to the world. It fills whitespace on a resume, makes you a few friends, and most importantly makes you feel needed.
Just as a recession can be a vicious cycle of layoffs, deflation, and negative market returns, your mental health in this environment can be a downward spiral of pessimism, depression, and fear. However identifying these feelings is the first step towards recovery, just like an economist identifies the weakest points in the world of commerce. Be proactive; help yourself and help others stem these emotions and we’ll all work faster towards recovery.
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published April 16, 2009.