Cinderella never really fit in. She got her prince, but he liked her best when she was either singing or silent. She didn’t catch all the references and cultural allusions at state dinners. Graceful as she was, she never really nailed the protocol. Sometimes, when they were alone, she’d get moody and start reminiscing about her past, and though he tried to be sympathetic at first, it started to wear on him. It seemed that no matter what he said, no matter how many dazzling gowns and jewels he bought her, no matter how many servants she had to wait on her hand and foot, he could never really dispel her melancholy. He caught her chatting with a scullery maid one afternoon. She didn’t really have any friends in the palace. Cinderella, lovely, lonely, and bored.
Crossing socioeconomic boundaries, in either direction, is an under-explored emotional challenge. Oh, sure, there are always plenty of stories about people who formerly had money or nice homes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them after a financial setback. What we’re missing are the stories of those of us who have risen past our original level. Nobody tells us that it can be confusing or that we may have negative feelings about it.
Survivor guilt is a real thing. It holds us back. We feel guilty if we are more financially successful than our parents, if we go farther in school, if we wind up living in a nicer home. This can come from external sources as well, if siblings or extended family start calling and dropping by with their hands outstretched.
For the record, my brothers are both extremely hardworking, and neither of them has asked for a nickel since maybe the age of eight. Our parents did a stellar job of raising frugal, industrious kids. One of my main drivers toward success is the desire to compete with my brothers, who have in fact mocked me and laughed until they fell over sideways when I was underemployed and struggling. “Do you want a ride in the WAAAAAmbulance? How about a whaaaaburger and French cries?” Everyone should be so lucky.
Seriously, familial attitudes about money go bone deep. Most of us probably aren’t even aware of the messages we carry around about how money works, how the economy supposedly works, and what exactly constitutes a work ethic. The same is true about what marriage means, how to raise kids, how to eat, how to clean house, what are acceptable house rules for Monopoly, whether a gentleman may wear a short-sleeved button-down shirt to a wedding, and a million other things.
Scarcity mindset clamps on like the claws of a crab dragging another crab back into the crab pot. Have you seen this? A dog will help another dog get through a hole in the fence, but crabs will unite to drag a brave escapee back into the bucket. If you know what I mean by this, then you know what I mean.
It’s hard to go back to the old neighborhood. Everything looks so small and shabby. Then it gets into you. It gets in like an evil fog, that feeling of how things used to be, and then you have to go home and look at your new life with old eyes, the perspective of everyone else in your old stomping grounds.
I was at the DMV one day, coincidentally the same one where I got my first provisional driver’s permit (first of three). For some reason, someone in line said something positive about Californians, and the guy behind me in line said, “Yeah, but they’re arrogant though.” This was a mind-bending moment for me. I felt recognition and total sympathy with what the guy was saying, while also instantly judging his clothes, his personal hygiene, and his teeth. Arrogance is what happens when your car runs reliably, you can afford to go to the dentist, and none of your clothes or shoes have holes in them. I mean, yes, there is arrogance in that, and even as I say it, I feel the heartlessness of it. Having everything in your life work correctly without constant obstacles could be the baseline for everyone in the world, but instead, it’s pretty much upper-middle-class. (Middle class is the same thing, only with debt and no retirement savings).
I remember. Every appliance and piece of plumbing has a chip or a dent or a malfunction, or all three. Nothing matches. Everything is broken down. If it isn’t melted, scratched, or crooked, it’s held together with duct tape or JB Weld. You just keep your head down and make do the best you can. Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Being the crab who crawls out of the crab pot isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. (See what I did there). You feel bad for the other crabs. You’re also outside of the crab pot, alone, with no crab friends to drag you down all the time.
The thing is, whatever compassion and guilt we may feel for anyone who gets left behind, sabotaging our own success won’t help them. Succeeding is what helps them. First off, we stop being the one who needs to be bailed out all the time. It’s worth doing anything that means you aren’t someone else’s problem. We set an example. We develop connections that we can exploit for the benefit of anyone we can help, which middle-class people do as easily as breathing. They call it “networking.” We take point, going ahead down the trail and figuring out how things work in this alien land called Notbrokeistan.
Class means two things: how much money we have, and what values we carry. It’s started changing recently, but most Americans will describe themselves as middle class, whether they earn $20,000 a year or $200,000. I believe this means that most of us mean “I value having a family and a house and a Puritan work ethic.” It’s funny that as I’ve risen up the ladder, I’ve started to see home ownership as a liability and credit as a useful tool, both attitudes that completely mystify almost everyone I know. I never saw myself as middle class when I was poor, so it wasn’t all that difficult to shake off what I always saw as a distinct package of ideas. I see upper-middle-class and upper-class ideas about money as other distinct packages, and poverty ideas, too. They come in sets.
Do you know what’s true about poor people? Poor-poor and homeless-poor? They’re much friendlier than everyone else. They know each other and they stop to say hello. Homeless people keep track of each other and look out for one another. This is part of what makes it difficult to climb out of the crab pot. You “think you’re too good for us” all of a sudden while also never quite figuring out the shibboleths and unwritten rules of the next level.
It’s your duty to rise as high as you can go, and do you know why? Because otherwise you’re taking someone else’s spot. The spot you are in right now IS the highest spot that someone else can reach, at least for now. The minute you jump for the next highest branch, they put out a Help Wanted sign and your successor reaches a hand up. The minute you give notice to your landlord that you’re moving out, they put out a Vacancy sign and the next tenant puts on their happy playlist and starts packing, ready to leave their old place, for which someone else is also waiting. So get out of the way already.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.