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  • Writer's picturedocschleg

2 Families

Here are two scenarios. In the first, a family decides to cut back on expenses because their finances change. Maybe it is the case that they go from two incomes to one, or they have a number of unexpected bills that come due, or they can anticipate some large, unavoidable expenses on the horizon. We have all been there, and most of us know the stress of "cutting back". Consequently, I get this same sort of panicky feeling when I realize I must lose some weight if I want to avoid buying a whole new wardrobe.

In the second scenario a family decides to reallocate a lot of their finances in order to achieve a financial goal. There is no significant outside change imposed on their finances, they are simply choosing to cut back in some areas of spending in order to spend more in other areas. Families often do this to reduce debt loads, save for larger purchases, or even to give needed financial gifts to others. Consequently, many such decisions have the result of increasing the family's overall resources in the end, further reducing the possibility of the financial crisis mentioned in the first scenario.

In both scenarios the behavior is largely the same: families are reducing spending on one thing in order to spend it on another thing they feel is more important. In my experience, though, the second family seems to experience the event of shifting priorities as a lot less stressful than the first. In fact, Family #2 is much more likely to find the daily shifting of resources as pleasurable or satisfying. How can the same activity lead to such different feelings or experiences, even when the outcome (financial solvency) is largely the same?

The answer, I suspect, is the cost of not following through on one's decision. If Family #2 fails to follow through on their goal, what they are missing out on is the possibility of a better (more subjectively desirable) life. If Family #1 does not follow through, the cost is possible financial devastation. The choice of cutting back has already been made, and continues to be made for Family #1, while Family #2 gets to continue to choose daily (or not choose) to cut back.

Consequently, these types of polarized decisions can play out daily in mundane experiences. They are represented in the difference in how you feel when there is heavy traffic and you are late to work versus when there is heavy traffic and you are not late to work. The traffic is a constant, but how you feel about it changes dramatically based on how it affects your life.

This is the argument I feel I am sometimes making to people in therapy. Most people come to therapy when there is a crisis. They find themselves in a position where if they do not change, their lives will be worse off. Making this same decision to make changes in your life when there is no crisis is actually quite challenging. People are presented with an opportunity to modify their lives in the way of their choosing, to whatever end they desire, go about it in essentially the same way as if they were in crisis, but with much less stress, angst, and pressure. In fact, the process of change, for them, will be potentially joyful and satisfying, and not just an edge-of-the-seat relief when they do not come to ruin.

Almost nobody chooses to work in therapy when there is no crisis, or major loss associated with not changing. I would argue, however, that this is the difference between feeling like you are just waiting for the next crisis and feeling like you are looking for the next opportunity. It is also the type of behavior that lets people move beyond the feeling of desperately meeting their own needs and being able to foucs on the needs of others.

To be clear, I do not think this is a problem of people in therapy. This is a human problem. It is why it takes the threat of shopping for new clothes to get me to look at what I eat.

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