This article was originally published on August 16, 2017, and updated on March 20, 2020
What is the most challenging piece around creating a heart-based small business, being a woman entrepreneur in the mindfulness industry, creating new content daily to offer folks, and maintaining my bank account without a 9-5 job and regular income? I bet there are a bunch of things you’d imagine are the most challenging, but you might be surprised to hear which one I struggle with most. It’s feeling a crushing sense of scarcity of audience, opportunities and traffic.
How do I know that this is the most challenging piece? Because it’s the one I understand least and the one that paralyzes me still, even when a bunch of the other pieces are manageable and I have skills to deal with them. I’ve explored my fear of authority figures and worked out this is why I’m better off working for myself; I’ve gotten perspective on the lack of fit between me and externally-imposed structures and schedules, leading me to work my own schedule mostly from home; and I know now that when I don’t take the risks involved in working on my own dreams, someone else will pay me to work on theirs which in the long run neglects my soul’s creativity. I can talk about these aspects of my career and vocation in a resolved way, however my experience of scarcity is like a dark alley in my being I rarely venture into alone.
So, time to unpack all of this. My journey begins.
What is a sense of scarcity?
I start with a definition. In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown talks about scarcity as being the opposite of having enough. It’s not the opposite of abundance as we might think; it’s about not having your basic human needs met. There are universal needs any human being has, including financial security, acceptance, physical health, community, and love. Brené tells us that scarcity says things like, “I am never good enough; perfect enough; thin enough; powerful enough; successful enough; smart enough; certain enough; safe enough; extraordinary enough.” You get the gist. The varieties of scarcity I work with in my vocation are about not being good enough, motivated enough, polite enough, real enough, special enough, educated enough, restrained enough, conforming enough, self-regulated enough, or fixed enough. Phew! Exhausted? I am.
What creates a sense of scarcity?
Sense of scarcity comes from actually not having enough at some point in our life. I know a very wealthy woman who feels that she’s “won” when she collects extra soap and shampoo bottles from hotel rooms to use at home. Her sense of not having enough stems from a childhood lived in poverty where she truly did not have enough. Even though her present circumstances belie this understanding about herself, her survival instincts are strong and she is still collecting resources and exploiting opportunities.
Another woman I know eats as much free food as possible at social gatherings, collecting as much as she can to take home with her when she has the opportunity. She has money to buy plenty of food, but she often went hungry for love and attention when she was a child and when “food = love” (truly, as a child we needed to get the adults around us to love us so that they’d feed us) she knows she can help herself survive by collecting extra.
A sense of scarcity is our system creating novel ways to avoid re-experiencing pain from our past and our instincts bringing those survival tactics in to our experience today to ensure we make it through this day, week, month, year, lifetime.
How does a sense of scarcity affect our brain?
In their book, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines our Lives, Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan explore how people’s minds are affected by the sense of scarcity. Their research focussed mostly on people who navigate scarcity of resources to maintain life – simple financial scarcity. But their findings are as relevant to the feelings of scarcity any of us can feel including the scarcity of time and love. What stands out to me from their research is that we make poorer decisions when we feel a sense of scarcity. Our measurable IQ actually drops when we feel the pressure of scarcity. When we feel we don’t have enough time, money or love, our brain doesn’t work so well because we are kicking into survival mode and we need to use our precious cognitive resources to keep us alive.
This would explain why my feelings of scarcity are tricky ones to get a handle on. My brain isn’t in its happy place – my “tend and befriend” chemicals aren’t cascading through my being in an abundant source of warm fuzzies. What’s actually happening is that I’ve gone more into prioritizing “staying alive” and my creativity is turned off as I tend to the apparent threat in front of me – the threat of social, psychological and emotional death. The feeling is that I don’t have enough love, that I won’t be seen as being special enough, and that I will be kicked out of the community. Scarcity leads to fear which leads to a feeling antithetical to self-compassion – competing for “love” from external sources – as a way to avoid the shame of not being worthy.
And I know that I am not alone. Many of us feel a sense of scarcity and shame.
The survival response to scarcity and shame
So there are a number of things our frightened brain might motivate us to do when gripped by a sense of scarcity, but strategies borne from fear tend to be doomed. These strategies fit with Brené Brown’s list of things we do to try to manage shame:
- Moving toward the object of our shame and sense of scarcity by doing things like checking social media or our emails to see how popular we are, hoping that we’ll find validation. Seeing as we are not in control of content, this strategy can backfire when we get that inevitable troll (fortunately not too common in the mindfulness industry) or complaint email.
- Pushing against the object of our sense of scarcity by getting angry and telling members of our community that they’re not doing the right thing by us; they’re not validating us enough. Anger can be a powerful indicator of boundaries, so it’s valuable to explore it, but we also need to get real about what a community or individuals in our community can do for us. Seeking a sense of worthiness externally is doomed because we’re relying on highly subjective accounts from flawed human beings who can never know us as well as we can know ourselves.
- Running away from the object of our sense of scarcity through any of our favorite resistance strategies – food, fiction, re-runs of our favorite reality TV show, alcohol, sleep, or just good old mental avoidance. Running away can be a neat way to take care of ourselves in the short term for specific stresses in our lives, but it’s not a good long-term strategy.
The emotional resiliency response (aka The Holy Grail) to scarcity
So what do we do to address scarcity? How do we tend to that part of us who feels that we are not enough, that we do not have enough, that we cannot offer enough? Here are some possible strategies that have worked for me:
- Hang with your soul peeps, the folks in your community who know and love you for who you are. These are members in your community to whom you don’t need to ask, “Am I good enough?” You just know. Seek these folks out and have a coffee or a chin wag over the phone.
- Hire a mentor or coach, attend training, and read books to help you with anything that will fill gaps in your expertise so that you can feel more confident and realistic about what you know and what you can offer. Sure, this can be a trap when you feel you can’t stop gaining credentials to try to feel good about yourself (e.g. the PhD that didn’t actually suddenly cure your sense of scarcity overnight), but when you gather a support community to help you build up your knowledge and experience base, you can get a better sense of yourself as having the expertise you need to offer your work to the world. You don’t need to ask, “Am I enough?” so much because professional peeps will be telling you that you are enough and they’ll be supporting you to move your enoughness out into the world for good.
- If there truly is a mismatch between your personal mission and the mission of a community you’re in and you’re constantly feeling angry over not having your needs met, maybe you need to take a good hard look at the situation and make an informed decision to stay and change your approach or to leave and seek another place to have your needs met. I never said this was an easy journey – being authentic involves some loss and grief, sweethearts.
- Touch in with that younger part of yourself who desperately wants to find validation, and bring in your fierce compassion to fend off the suggested actions of the “manager” part that wants to do something to avoid feeling bad like robotically checking emails or social media. Call on your wise inner council to remind you that the content of social media and emails are utterly uncontrollable and that checking those to help comfort your inner child are akin to sending her around to your neighbors to poll them to see if they like her. Your should never do that to her, and you can make a self-compassionate choice to love her as she is rather than to push her out into the street hoping for validation.
- Learn about the psychology behind things like shame, scarcity, need for belonging, courage, authenticity, and self-reliance. Brené Brown offers a neat package of this material in her many books if you need a teacher to help you with this.
- Learn about and practice self-compassion.
Mostly, we can remind ourselves that we are not alone. The shame we might feel around a sense of scarcity can lead us to delegating those emotions to the basement of our psyche, where they can’t get the support and love they need. Knowing that we are all just trying to be happy and that we all just want to find a home can help us to connect with our common humanity – the fact that we belong to this group of human beings. There is nothing wrong with us.
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