How Will You Know if You’re Going Emotionally Bankrupt? And What Can You Do About It?

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If your mental well-being is a finite resource, like money, then what can good money management teach us about how to keep our balance when life threatens to disturb our peace?

Managing Your Mental Health Like You Manage Your Money

When you’re financially broke, there are well-known signs and symptoms. Creditors start calling. Your credit card stops working. Your phone, electricity or gas gets shut off. Not everyone gets the message at this point, but the message is clear: something needs to change in order for ends to meet. Maybe it’s more income or maybe it’s fewer expenses, but something has to give.

Psychological bankruptcy is a concept that might seem less familiar, but I’d wager the phenomenon is at least as common as financial insolvency. Just like “real” bankruptcy, mental bankruptcy has definite signs. If you’re not sleeping well, or your eating habits have degenerated and your weight is moving in a direction you didn’t intend and don’t like, you could be approaching emotional bankruptcy. If you’re snippy and quick to anger when you didn’t use to be, it’s a sign that your mental bank account is approaching zero. If you feel “burned out” or like life has no meaning or purpose, there’s a good chance you’re over your mental spending limit.

Sadly, while financial distress is accepted as a driver for change, most of the symptoms I’ve described above are far more likely to be dismissed as “no big deal,” a moral failing, or something to be “pushed through”. Unfortunately, trying to overcome psychological overwhelm by dismissing it is spectacularly unsuccessful and only leads to more and worse symptoms. One of the greatest weaknesses of the medical model for mental health is that it assumes that people are either mentally health or mentally ill.

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Please hear me clearly: mental bankruptcy does not require mental illness! A diagnosable mental illness may be a very late indicator of a life out of balance.

The Road to Ruin

Very few people go broke overnight, and not that many people drop from full mental health and well-being to emotional bankruptcy due to a single trauma. Just as many ignored their finances to focus on the acquisition of houses and other enjoyments during the mid 2000s, a person who thinks too much of “getting things done” and not enough of taking time out and taking care of oneself is similarly blind to the deficit that will lead to total depletion of their internal reserves if something doesn’t change.

A lot of people made financial decisions based on some very rosy assumptions. Many believed their inflated home values would continue to inflate forever, or that they’d get a promotion and be able to meet expenses that way. Unfortunately, housing devaluation and waves of layoffs undercut these beliefs and threw millions into foreclosure. I wonder how many people are making similarly unrealistic assumptions about their emotional health. How many, when faced with a romantic partner’s bad behavior choose to believe that he or she will shape up when they get married or when the baby arrives? How many hang on to a corrosive job believing against all evidence that things will be better when they get a promotion or their nemesis moves on? A sure road to suffering is making plans on what you hope will happen rather than what’s actually going on.

Slash Your Mental Expenses

If you haven’t been paying much attention to your budget, you may be able to find line items in your credit card or bank statements that serve little or no purpose. It might be a membership to a website or health club you never use. Perhaps you own a boat or ATV that’s brings you no enjoyment but a lot of expense. The list is endless, but it’s very hard to balance a budget until these “leaks” are found and plugged.

Our lives are also full of activities that might have once been pleasurable, nourishing and refreshing but now are stale or even destructive. Has that occasional glass of wine at dinner become four or five every night? Have your friends turned from trusted allies to actual liabilities? It’s time to find out what’s costing you peace of mind and get it out of your life. Making these cuts may not be comfortable, but remember to consider the long-term upside of unhooking from these anchors around your neck.

Put Your Brain on a Budget

It would be great if you could cut all the fat out of your finances one time and be done with it. The trouble is that the beliefs and behaviors that got you into trouble in the first place are likely to remain. It’s not uncommon for a whole new crop of expenses to pop up just when you think you have everything under control. You can resist the financial impulses with a firm budget, where you decide to spend only so much on each sort of expense and no more. You can budget your mental reserves in a similar fashion, except that you usually measure these resources in hours and not currency. How many hours at work are too many? How many visits from a troublesome in-law can you afford to endure? Just as with a financial budget, you tend to make better decisions if you make them long before you take out your wallet or make commitments to others.

Boost Your Emotional Income

Every budget has two parts: income and spending. So far I’ve just talked about spending, but the good news is that just as you can increase your earning power, you can boost your levels of mental health with good self-care.

I’ll never understand why we admire people who strive to earn more money and praise those who go to the gym to improve their physical health, but we shyly look away when we admit that we took a “mental health day” from work. The truth is that our ability to work and function is dependent on our mental well-being. Just as there is an industry dedicated to helping people find the right career, it makes sense to find out what activities are most refreshing. Some people need peace and quiet, others require activity and excitement. For some, solitude is a necessity, while others need to be the center of attention. There is no right answer that works for everyone, and finding your ideal self-care regimen is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. But if you make the investment in learning what you need to stay mentally healthy, you’ll be not only happier, but also more effective in almost everything you do.

Your Turn

Here I’d like to offer a concrete exercise to put the ideas above into play in your own life.

  1. Take a moment to see if you have any of the signs of impending mental bankruptcy. Are you already in over your head?
  2. Whether you are or not, start working on your “mental cash flow statement,” a list of the activities that drain you (liabilities) and those that recharge you (assets). See if you can reach an intuitive feel for whether you’re running a deficit.
  3. Next, look for something in your life, that if you stopped doing it, would immediately improve your quality of life. Either commit to cutting it out right now, or explore what’s holding you back.
  4. Finally, what could you add to your life that would improve your mental well-being? Or how can you change something you already enjoy to make it an even bigger positive influence in your life?

Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Gordon Shippey on .

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