There’s something I’ve noticed in myself over the years. It’s not a great trait, and it’s one I’ve spent years actively trying to temper.
Poverty creates a lot of mindsets that can be difficult to break, even if you’re able to improve your financial situation, but the one that’s been on my mind lately is something that I call always starving.
This is a mindset that has worked its way into multiple facets of my life, and the reduction at the bottom of the pan once it’s boiled down is this: get it now, or you’ll never get a chance again.
This mindset is based around living with constant scarcity. It might be food or money or any number of other things. Household items. Clothing. Entertainment. It’s something that I’ve faced for many years as I’ve gone through life in the lower rungs of the American class structure. Underlying this mentality is this knowledge that you are walking on a tightrope suspended over a chasm. You can’t see the bottom of the chasm; it’s not like the Grand Canyon where at least you know rust-red dust and rocks and the Colorado River await at the bottom. It’s more like a gaping maw of a bottomless pit. You don’t know how far down it goes. You only know that if you miss a step, you’ll fall. There could be something below it, another tightrope to walk, a rope to try and crawl up, or the slick, unyielding sides of a sheer face you cannot climb.
At its root, this knowledge is simple uncertainty. A lack of security. But it is also that human fear of the unknown.
Christmas was yesterday.
Christmas was always a very difficult time for me as a kid. My grandparents usually made sure I got presents, and I still remember getting baskets that still had tags on them that just said “girl, preteen” or “girl, 10.” I remember coming back to school after break and seeing the new sweaters (always name brand), a bleeping Tamagotchi or a DiscMan or an Adidas coat with the three stripes down the arms I so envied. And I remember knowing that those things wouldn’t ever be coming to me. I know that’s a materialistic view of Christmas, that depiction of things and stuff that doesn’t really mean all that much in the grand chess match of life. But to a kid who is self-aware enough to recognize on a basic level that class exists while remaining unaware of exactly where she really stands in it, those memories feel like foreshadowing. Tiny, symbolic pictures of what I would come to understand as privilege.
Having a Christmas full of gifts, making lists and getting things you want — that is a class privilege.
Outside the holiday season, those things eventually translated into a wider view of what poverty meant. That DiscMan became synonymous with opportunity. The Tamagotchi became juxtaposed with food bank Christmas dinners. Later, the simple and innocent question from a college friend, “Why don’t you just ask your parents for money?” became a dividing line and a moment of cognitive dissonance where I had to sit back and realize that some people could.
Because of a lot of these things, Christmas was never my favorite holiday. It became an annual reminder of my own couldn’t. And also, a time of shame and feeling bad about not being able to buy gifts for friends or family because even the thought of it was like standing on that tightrope and committing that well-known sin of looking down.
The Always-Starving Trifecta
For me, growing up with the constant knowledge of never enough translated into different areas of my life like the spread of a tumor. I’ve thought about it over the years, slowly looking it in the face and getting to know it.
This is the obvious one. This is the rope itself that you walk upon. Money does not buy happiness, but also to an extent it does. People with enough of it (enough meaning to comfortably cover those bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — food, shelter, healthcare, transportation to work, etc. — with something left over, that odd concept of disposable income being something that actually exists) are happier. Less stressed. Also generally healthier. (Money itself isn’t necessarily the omega factor, but the security that allows one to not constantly, consistently, pervasively think, act, and decide based on financial bases could be.)
When you’re poor, life is a series of trade-offs. Do I pay the rent or for new tires for my car? Do I pay my phone bill or the electric bill? Do I buy food or go to the doctor? This bill or that one? This box of cereal or eggs? A full tank of gas or two bags of groceries? Dinner with friends out or that cable I need to charge my phone? Can I afford it? Can I afford it? Can I afford it?
We’re all familiar with the trope of the poor lottery winner who is broke again in two years. But for me, this is a perfect example of starvation mentality, which is, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I don’t get it now, I’ll never be able to get it.
If you have $20, you should go to that movie, because you won’t have $20 to go to a movie later. (Inevitably, that $20 is a lie — when you’re poor, there is no such thing as money for a movie because there’s always something you’ve forgotten, a bill you thought you’d paid and hadn’t, an unexpected expense that will pop up the day after you see The Hobbit.)
If I go to a buffet or a potluck, I eat my entire daily allowance of food in half a plate.
Once, when I moved to Poland the second time, it took three weeks for my school loans to come in. They were supposed to arrive before I left. They then told me it’d be a week. After that they told me another week. They finally showed up a week after that. My first two weeks in Poland, I had to spend the only money in my bank account on somewhere to stay. My parents had just gotten a settlement from an accident in which a van crashed into them at 40 mph, and they were able to help me pay my rent for my new apartment, but I had almost nothing for food. I moved into my sparsely furnished apartment with about 20 złoty (at the time about $6) to my name. I bought a big loaf of Polish rye and a container of yogurt. And I lived on that for almost an entire week.
That was a situation where I knew help was coming, and eventually I’d be just fine, but I remember being…well. Hungry.
As a kid, we had food most of the time. There was a period in junior high where we ate this runny cabbage soup with tiny bits of tomato and potato and ground meat that reminded me of something the Bucket family would eat in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — for weeks. We ate it every day. I was never full, not really. My stomach would slosh with broth for an hour or so, and then I’d be hungry again.
Sometimes I crave cabbage soup.
Later, at university when my freshman year meal plan included two meals at the cafeteria per day (which was essentially an all you can eat buffet), I gained my freshman 25. I wasn’t used to the ready availability of food.
It might sound strange to think of food as trendy, like Calvin Klein jeans or an Abercrombie and Fitch sweater. But for me growing up, what other people ate was something I noticed. I developed an odd fascination with Lunchables and Capri Suns and Pop Tarts, because that was what the middle class students I went to school with got to eat. When I got to university and had pizza, burgers, and all sorts of foods I’d seldom eaten as a kid were suddenly available, I went to town.
It’s something I still catch myself doing. If there’s something I can’t usually afford presented as an option, I’ll eat as much of it as I can. Free food in general and I feel like I have to eat as much as I can because it won’t be there later. This has caused weight issues with me, as well as a less-than-healthy attitude about food. Food became a symbol of class.
I seldom spend money. Mostly because I don’t have it. I go literal years between trips to the dentist and new pairs of shoes. This month because of the help I received, I bought new towels and new sheets for my bed, as well as suitable clothes for an office job, including two pairs of shoes at Kohls for $20 a piece.
And I felt guilt.
Monday night in my hangout with Kristin and Brian and Drew, I told them how one of my GISHWHES teammate’s sent her husband and aunt to the store for chili meat…and they came back with chopped filet mignon. I hadn’t figured out anything to make for my solo Christmas dinner, and I mused aloud that maybe I’d buy a filet and cook it at home. Immediately when the words came out of my mouth, I bit them back and felt the cloudy wave of humiliation. I recoiled on myself and said, “No, no, I’m not going to do that. I can’t do that.” I felt such intense shame for even suggesting that I get a filet mignon at the store for Christmas dinner knowing that it would be paid for by someone who had helped me that I almost cried.
I decided instead to buy pot roast and some lamb I found on sale for $4.99 a pound because I could make a roast and then onion soup with the former and a slow cooked curry with the other — for the sole reason that I could make those two meals last me for the five days I would be home.
Not only does the starvation mentality wear the guilt of buying or spending money on anything that doesn’t have an immediate, accountable need (food, bills, car), but for spending money even on things you do need. I hadn’t bought new towels in five years. The sheets on my bed had holes in them and were from before my wedding. The only new shoes I’d bought in recent memory besides non-slips for my former restaurant job were a pair of sneakers I’d put on a credit card, and a pair of heels on sale at Ross. I felt guilty for buying a pair of loafers and ankle boots for my new office job.
I, along with many other people I know who have experienced this starvation mentality, feel shame for spending money on anything. Anything. For much of this year I’ve felt guilty for buying food and lived for months on ramen and coffee. A purchase of raspberries this month felt like a trip to Disney World.
Starvation mentality is an insidious mindset to be in. It is a fear-based way of going through the world, wondering if you can afford basic necessities and if you deserve any creature comforts those in the classes above you are able to enjoy without thinking. Essentially, starvation mentality is an infusion of guilt for being poor. For wanting security. For grasping at the chance to feel for one moment that you are okay.
It can be really difficult to bypass the residual influences of poverty, especially when it’s something that still affects you. When I think about an income that would allow me to do everything I want to do, it’s not six figures per annum. Taking home net pay of even $35K a year would be luxurious for me, a level where price tags didn’t inspire fear. It’s different for everyone, especially if you have kids or certain bills beyond rent, food, gas, insurance. But more than wondering what it would take to not have that constant fear is trying to tackle that fear every time it rears its head. Self talk that cools you down, says you don’t need to feel shame for buying fresh fruit sometimes or that it’s okay to have a nice meal now and then or that comfortable shoes are permissible. Self talk that says relax, you don’t need to eat everything just because it’s here — it’ll exist later too.
Breaking that habit of shame, fear, and desperation is a big step into taking ownership and agency in where you stand. Recognizing the things you have control over — and the things you don’t. Knowing you’re not unworthy of comfort and security, even if you don’t have it. Accepting help when it’s offered, and asking for it when it’s needed.
I don’t have a good answer or solution for this yet. I had a visceral reaction to my own thought of buying piece of filet mignon at Giant and cooking it at home for my Christmas dinner spent alone. I feel guilty for buying work shoes, a jacket, sheets, and towels. I sometimes binge eat because it’s there, and I can’t shake that little voice that says it won’t be there tomorrow.
The best I can say is that I’m trying to move beyond this — just as we all try to move beyond the negative things that have formed us.
Have you experienced the starvation mentality? How has it manifested for you, and how do you personally confront it?
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