Shame can be a powerful force in our lives, whether it’s warranted or not. It can squash our dreams and lead us to defy logic and ignore our own good judgment. As bankruptcy attorneys, we see the power of shame in the lives of people facing excessive consumer debt: When the rubber hits the road, shame can keep us from seeking effective legal relief when we should.
Sometimes our decision making is rooted in internal “should” and “should’ve” dialogues. From interpretations of Old Testament proverbs, beliefs articulated in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and media-borne elements of modern American conservative thinking — and countless other sources — we can consciously or unconsciously accept the idea that financial problems come from doing bad or even being bad. If our debt is largely or entirely the result of something outside of our control, we may still blame and punish ourselves with guilt, or worse.
Ideas that get in the way
These are common bankruptcy objections that shame can lead us to embrace:
1. Bankruptcy is for losers. (Bankruptcy is for quitters.)
This is a very popular rationale for staying stuck in debt. For many people in debt, the stigma of bankruptcy can keep them from getting the help the law provides, which can involve swallowing your pride. (Do yourself a favor and use Google to find a list of the successful people who have filed for bankruptcy.)
2. I can fix this problem myself.
Your financial stress may be the result of an illness, a job loss, a divorce or another life issue beyond your control. If your debt has reached a level that you know you can’t afford to even make payments on — much less ever pay off — you may be in denial about the seriousness of the problem.
3. Bankruptcy will ruin my reputation.
This perspective can also be rooted in shame. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good reputation. But if you’re avoiding the inevitable to keep up appearances, you could be hurting yourself and digging yourself into a deeper financial hole.
4. Bankruptcy will destroy my credit.
See #3: There’s nothing wrong with wanting good credit scores — but what’s the point of getting yourself into more debt to prop up your credit? It is well known that bankruptcy has an adverse short-term impact on your credit; however, over time, a filing may actually improve your credit by getting you out of debt and allowing you to pay all your bills more comfortably.
5. Bankruptcy is unethical or wrong.
We all have a unique sense of ethics and morality. Bankruptcy is legal, by its very nature, under U.S. federal law, but “right” and “wrong” are more complicated, more personal notions. Some people see bankruptcy as a form of cheating or not honoring their obligations. When that view is rooted in unhealthy shame, it may be time to reevaluate and revise it, for your own good.
Get the advice you need
Every situation is different. It’s normal to be afraid of bankruptcy and anxious about your financial struggles. You may or may not need to file bankruptcy to deal with your debt problem. But it will be hard to know for sure unless you talk to a professional.
Many experienced bankruptcy attorneys offer a free, confidential consultation. You have nothing to lose by asking questions and seeking the legal advice you need.