The Rewards of Emotional Debt
A s my birthday month, April is when I feel the most energized and contemplative about how to effectively use the upcoming months. This year, I spent a lot of April thinking about the emotional debt I have accumulated and how to attract more of the energy that will enable me to achieve my goals. I’ve spent my entire life running away from debt and most of my adulthood avoiding being a burden on others. But emotional debt is fundamentally different from financial debt, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we should all be taking on more of it as it enriches us when acquired with purposeful intent.
Defining Emotional DebtI have noted before that there is no such thing as good debt and stand by this maxim. I blame our consumption-focused culture for the idiotic fact that when we congratulate people on receiving the keys to their home, we’re actually congratulating them on taking out the biggest loan of their lives. When you think about it rationally, the bank (or your mortgage processor) actually owns your home until you’ve paid off your mortgage, so really congratulations are technically in order for cobbling together a 20%-40% down payment and taking out a loan for the remaining 60%-80% of your home’s value. Contrastingly, no one is congratulated for hitting major net worth milestones like $250K, $500K, $750K, etc. even though that is greater in value compared to 20% of a starter million-dollar property in a city like NYC.
R ant aside, emotional debt isn’t what you owe someone so much as a mental ledger of how often you’ve received assistance from others and how often you pay it forward by helping others in need. Given my background, I vowed from high school on to never be in debt to anyone because I believed that this was the safest path to staying out of trouble. Not only did this mean never taking loans, but it also meant not asking for help unless I really needed something.
A fter I became self-sufficient with my first full-time job, avoiding emotional debt meant outsourcing many tasks that I could have once asked friends for help with: assistance with moving between apartments, returning a library book if pressed for time and up against a deadline, borrowing technical equipment for a one-time trip, etc. I took and still take immense pride in being able to do or procure everything by myself, but the stress I self impose to be superwoman when someone would be willing to help is really not worth it. I also fantasize about potentially having more friends in my apartment building if I were willing to get to know neighbors and create opportunities to frequently interact.
The Problem with Emotional DebtT he problem with emotional debt is that you limit the number of interactions you have with those you love or preclude interactions with those who could end up being good friends to you. My focus on self-sufficiency and avoiding having to “repay” favors is understandable in a calculated sense but also short-sighted. While I’m not advocating being a mooch, I’m also saying that it’s OK to ask someone to do something for you and to trust that they are adult enough to turn you down if they can’t or don’t want to. If they agree to help you out, your job is to be grateful, make note that you need to pay the favor forward either in kind or with the intent to spread karma elsewhere, and move on with what you needed to actually get done.
T he trick with emotional debt is not to carry around guilt for years. There may be times when you are absolutely not in a position to pay someone’s kindness forward and this period of time could span even a decade or more if you’re just starting out. This is a reality that you must acknowledge and honor with two goals: 1) to always make the most of opportunities you have because of the good faith someone has put in you, and 2) to repay generosity either in kind or through other means when you are on surer footing.
I look back now and am struck by how crazy it was for me to think that I could make everything whole when I had been given so much assistance in such a short period to bridge a hard time. I was a student making less than minimum wage at times and sending a part of it back home while trying to stay afloat in DC – there was no way I could keep up with the emotional debt I was wracking up. But now that I’ve escaped the fiscal abyss, I’ve been giving back by donating money, offering my services to others, and being the best version of me I can be.
An Outpouring of GratitudeM y family fell on hard times at the start of my junior year in high school. While multiple villages in so many cities have played a critical role in ensuring that I got to where I am today, it is the friends from high school who I don’t interact with much due to geography and time that I think about most often and interact with the least.
T o my SMHS friends, this is for you. Please know that even if we’ve lost touch, I think about what you or your family did for me, and it made all the difference in stiffening my resolve to address life’s curveballs head on. I was not able to pay you back for the goodwill and generosity you showed me, but I pay your investment forward by helping others and restoring karmic balance.
- Sam K., Tim TL, Mariko Y., Lauren Y., and all the AP Science geniuses who ever faxed (!!!) problem sets to me: Thank you for getting me through my achilles heel subject. For a self-pronounced science dunce who lived in mortal fear of Ms. Chubbuck, you were the reason I made it out. Mariko, I still carry around the notes you drew up in your inimitable handwriting. I value this act of kindness because I couldn’t have gotten into college without being well-rounded and you helped me muddle through my most difficult subject.
- Karen C., Susie S., Stephanie C., Linda L., Jenny C., Theresa H.: Thank you for housing me in college during winter and summer breaks when I was back in California. Especially after we lost our home, I had nowhere to go when the dorms were closed and jobs had ended. Being able to stay with you meant security and the chance to see my family. There are no words to describe how grateful I am for the gift of time at home that you gave me.
- Omar L., Joe F., Evelyn Y., Regina Y., Justine C., Raymond H., Austin S., Lee Michael D., Randy C., and so many others: All of you have at some time driven me back to Los Robles Avenue or given me a ride to SMHS. You are my unsung heroes. California is no place to be car-less. You made it possible for me to graduate and remain high-performing as my world collapsed on me.
- Charlton K. and Anne H.: Thanks to your moms for making sure I could still participate in musical extracurriculars and for being generous with your cars. Charlton, I am indebted to you for rides to PYMO and your mom’s food on Tuesday nights before practice. Sometimes that was the only real meal of the day for me. Anne, I’m grateful to your mom for covering the marching band dues that I couldn’t afford. My memories of competitions and Subway sandwiches are some of my fondest.
- Karen C.: Your mom gave me $500 before I left for Germany. That money ensured that I was able to get winter boots, a jacket, and a fleece sweater ahead of the first real winter I had ever experienced. I am also indebted to you for taking me on your East Coast college tour, housing me during breaks, and the rides. While I was able to share my professor’s apartment with you during our DC summer, know that I never felt it was enough and I think a lot about how much our friendship shaped my development trajectory.
- Greg H., Jenny C., and Noah K.: Thank you for always making time for me when I’m (infrequently) back in town. You’re the last few direct links I have to SM (compared to those who live in CA but outside the SM area), and it is a joy to visit. Without your presence, the troubles I face in spending time in the SM area would not be worth it.
- Theresa H.: Thank you for taking a day off of work and driving me to my Mom’s last physical address, the hospice where she died, and the hospital where her records were. Being able to wrap up the loose ends of her life and retain what little was left of her personal belongings meant the world to me. I could not have said goodbye without your help.
W hile we may have grown apart or lost touch, and are separated by the realistically divisive barriers of geography and time, I hope that each of you know I would love to reconnect or maintain ties, even if it just means a one-time response to my annual year-end notes with a thoughtful update of your own. I have put to rest the guilt that I’ve carried over all these years regarding my inability to pay you back for how you have helped me during my most vulnerable years. I promise to continue paying your generosity forward and finding my place in this world, and I’m ready to spend time with you if you come through NYC.
Embracing Emotional DebtT he hardest part about taking on emotional debt is making peace with the task of asking others for help without fearing their judgment or immediately moving to compensate the act. In this upcoming birthday year, I am going to work harder on finding ways to meaningfully connect with existing friends, help others more often in a manner that respects my limits and benefits them, and let go of the fear of not being able to compensate someone. Life is not a zero sum game, and with any luck, our lives will be long enough for us to become entwined in a mutually beneficial dance.
T his personal constellation of guardians and caretakers is a touching tribute to the power of kindness that any of us can bestow on others. Even if just a one-time act or something not directly carried out by you, all of us are capable of helping someone in need, and it doesn’t require money or a burdensome time commitment. The point is to be open to giving and to leveraging what is already in your power to influence.
T here are others of course to whom I owe a great deal of emotional debt: my Congress-Bundestag peers (Jin L., Alisa L., Andy S.) and my German loved ones, Pratik D. and so many of the Panzerwiese crew without whom I would never have grown to love Munich, and my Georgetown professors and friends. On shitty days when petty work dramas suck up my mental bandwidth, I remember these generous acts which have enabled me to move away from life-and-death thinking to a situation where I have the luxury of strategically responding. Faced with such practicality, it is fitting to recall Elizabeth Gilbert’s wise counsel:
“Maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. Maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely.”