Just as alcoholism entered the cultural consciousness in the ’70s, codependence in the ’80s, and love addiction in the ’90s, compulsive under-earning is coming out of the closet now—not coincidentally, during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
In Los Angeles, where, love it or hate it, so many self-help movements have started, recovery from under-earning is increasingly becoming a groundswell, with its own 12-step meetings and other programs.
For those eye-rolling readers ready to dismiss compulsive under-earning as yet another wannabe addiction, listen up: compulsive under-earning is a disease with specific characteristics and a specific solution. It’s a way of using money (or lack, or fear of money) like a drug—a subconscious strategy for keeping yourself at zero, thereby avoiding taking full responsibility for yourself and for not facing life on life’s terms. “While the most visible consequence [of under-earning] is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, under-earning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies,” the Under-earners Anonymous (UA) website reads. “It is about underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.”
Like all addictions, under-earning is cunning, baffling, powerful. And like all addictions, it’s toward death: a true pathology, based on shame and fear, that leads if nothing else to spiritual death, and in many cases—as with, for instance, people who are unable to bring themselves to see a doctor—actual death. Here’s under-earning at its starkest: I once heard a guy describe his job of 30 years—rodent exterminator. He said, “I’m maxed out on my credit cards, I’m in terrible financial insecurity, and I just don’t understand why my business keeps going down. I have the most reasonable prices in the market. I try to be kind to my clients, often spending a few extra hours talking to an old lady or a guy in a wheelchair."
This disease manifests as blindness to the fact that the sufferer is standing in his or her own way. There won’t be enough money if you refuse to earn enough money.
Working for free under the guise of humanitarianism is one classic sign of the problem. There's no shame in rodent extermination. But to undercharge and overserve at the expense of providing for your own basic necessities isn’t magnanimity; it’s using money—hoarding money, refusing to earn money, vagueness around money, thinking you’re “above” or “below” money—as an anesthesia.
Compulsive under-earning is often hard to spot in yourself (many people just now getting hip have decades of recovery in other areas), disguising itself under other names like “the spiritual life.” Unlike many under-earners, for example, I had actually gotten it together years ago to quit the B job (lawyering) and follow my dream to the A job (creative writing). For almost 20 years I had muscled my way through as a writer: publishing three books, enjoying a gig on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and creating a successful blog. I had also deprived myself at every turn, guarded my “nest egg” like a hawk and become a workaholic, panicky at the thought of deviating from my “schedule” of working many hours a week but never earning enough money.
In other words, I had made one huge leap, and yet I brought my hoarding/poverty mentality with me. I’d perfected the small life but not the whole of life. I took trips and stayed at the houses of wealthy friends. I was rich in music and (library) books. I always had a beautiful apartment—in the ghetto. But more than that, I had a secret strategy for life of which I was entirely unaware.
“I don’t work for The Man,” I told myself. “I’ve never sold out.” But instead I’d sold out to my shadow side—and to the former financially insecure generations that I’d absorbed with my mother’s milk.
I worked more while earning less—another classic sign. The fear that there would not be enough money came to permeate every aspect of my life.
Here are some signs specific to my own compulsion: Feeling an inordinate thrill at wrapping up a free cookie or piece of candy and secreting it away in my purse “for later.” Walking three miles to save 29 cents. Equating getting a bargain with earning. Doing things and going places simply because they’re free. “Shaving off” money and time, such as “making up” for a parking ticket by deciding to live on crackers and cheese for two weeks. Not factoring in time to eat, pee or rest during my day. A bizarre fear of being underqualified for jobs for which I’m in fact insanely overqualified. “I could always get a job at the 7-Eleven…no, I probably couldn’t figure out the cash register,” I’d think, law degree, three books and all.
It can be heartbreaking to recognize that the “convictions” that have formed the core of your identity are really the essence of your disease: I don’t pay for parking! I don’t buy retail! I’m willing to live close to the bone to do what I love! It’s also heartbreaking, at least for me, to recognize that I’ve been psychically blueprinted for this thing since childhood. One fourth-step workbook I peeked at posed as its first (and for many of us painful) question: What was the financial situation of your family when you were born?
More than any other addiction, perhaps, this problem manifests as blindness to the fact that the sufferer is standing in his or her own way. There won’t be enough money if on some basic level you refuse to earn enough money.
If the solution were simply a class in financial planning, I’d be there, just as if the solution to alcoholism were a public health class, I would have been there 25 years ago, too. But under-earning is no respecter of intelligence, or willingness to work, or even dazzling talent. It’s an emotional or spiritual sickness whereby the under-earner decides that self-deprivation is the solution to the human condition, that making do with less is the only way we’re “allowed” to function in the world.
But the universe is funny: it’s impervious to being tricked. If we deprive ourselves, the universe deprives us even more.