Most people work hard, especially Americans. Maybe too hard. On average, Americans only take 12 working days off per year, a figure much lower than in other comparably developed nations. Also, Americans work more hours per week than those in other comparably developed nations. I get that we’re an over-worked, over-stressed, over-scheduled bunch, and I feel that this scenario is not only contributing to poor overall health, but also to financial over-indulgence. The “I deserve it [because I work too hard, am too stressed, etc.]” mentality drives many people into debt. Including me.
I got into consumer debt when I was in graduate school. And, you guessed it, I was over-worked, over-stressed and over-wrought. I was working 12-15 hour days and coping with a difficult breakup. Teaching full time and taking classes full time would have been plenty without the emotional drain of a broken heart, which was almost impossible to get over because Mr. Heartbreaker was in my graduate program. That’s a story for another day, but the point is that I was juggling a lot. I was also the youngest person in my grad program (21), so I didn’t have the wisdom that comes with age to help me juggle well. This is when the phrase “I deserve it” began to creep into my vocabulary.
To my (immature, naive, and gullible) mind, I “deserved” expensive meals out, a redecorated bedroom, and an endless supply of new shoes and clothes because I was working hard and coping with seeing Mr. Heartbreaker every day. I “deserved” to pick up high-end groceries, cigarettes, and bar tabs whenever I wanted because those things would keep me moving from day to day without totally breaking down and giving up. I “deserved” to take trips, get my nails done, and go to the movies because I was a smart, attractive, educated, single woman, dammit. I really bought into my own twisted logic, and a minor detail like, say, not actually having the money to buy all these things was not going to turn my behavior around.
“I deserve it” is an utterly perfect justification because it’s a meaningless statement. And meaningless statements are very flexible, meaning that they can be applied to anyone, in any situation. If someone had asked me what I had really done to “deserve” all the stuff I was charging, I would have been totally stumped. I am now, because I realize that life kicking you in the ass a little bit doesn’t mean that anyone “deserves” anything extra. It just means that you have to adjust and work through your circumstances. “I deserve it” is a more pleasant way of saying “I’m entitled to it.”
It’s not as if I think that people don’t “deserve” anything. I think, for example, that everyone deserves to feel safe in their surroundings. I think that everyone deserves to have food, clothing, and a shelter of their own. I think that everyone deserves a high-quality education and access to high-quality healthcare. But no one “deserves” a $40 bottle of wine or a gym membership. We want those things, which is perfectly fine, but “want” and “deserve” are different. “I want it” doesn’t justify as well as “I deserve it” so “I deserve it” becomes the phrase we default to when we’re discussing our purchases with our families, our friends, and ourselves.
Once I took “I deserve it” out of my vocabulary I began to look at my purchases in a totally different way. Now, I use “want” and “need,” but never “deserve.” Needs are to be bought now, and wants can wait. Period. Not only has taking “deserve” out of my speech repertoire helped me avoid unnecessary spending – and thus, avoid further consumer debt – it has also taken a great deal of power away from things. Now, I feel like the list of things I need to be happy is much smaller, and my life feels much less complicated, much richer, and much less cluttered.
So if you’re struggling to change a behavior, consider changing the way you talk about it to yourself and others. Challenge yourself to banish certain words or phrases from your internal monologue and replace them with others in your external dialogue. You might amaze yourself.
Which words do you avoid? And what do you think about the word “deserve”?