May 18, 2015
If the total number of hours I’ve spent ruminating on the “why’s?” behind my student loan experience were added up, I’m certain they’d total more than 6 months of my life. Since I’m so intimately familiar with the experience of being beyond stressed out about “how?” I’m going to repay my student loans, I can freely admit to you that I’ve lost many hours of (beautiful, precious) sleep (and joy) doing mental gymnastics, willing the magic answer appear that turns the key in the lock, shutting student loan debt out of my life forever. And ever.
In the same vein, the number of times I’ve felt, “if only” is too great to number accurately. If only I’d known what the realities of the student loan repayment process were like, I wouldn’t have borrowed so much. If only I’d understood that interest is a real thing, not a hypothetical future possibility, I wouldn’t have treated in-school deferment like it was a protective shield, sheltering me until I was prepared to confront repayment. If only I knew when I enrolled in law school and grad school that the economy was going to have a major, prolonged, coughing fit resulting in a much more constricted job market when I graduated in 2010/2011 in comparison to when I enrolled in 2006/2007. If only I’d understood that listing hard-earned letters behind my name did not mean I would be able to find the high-paying job I envisioned when I wanted it to appear. If only I’d known that networking and building human connections was extremely important (if not more important) to my professional outlook during grad/law school just like working hard on my coursework was. If only I’d comprehended that graduation was only the beginning, not the end. Graduation marks the beginning of a new, more challenging uphill professional climb; it’s not the doorway onto a smooth, level, paved, professional path. If only I’d understood that I’d be tackling student loan repayment at the same time that I was dealing with being young and married, having children, moving around the country, while building my professional portfolio. If only, if only, if only... (Trust me, there’s more.)
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with asking ourselves “What would I have done differently if I’d known ____ about student loan debt?” (Insert: how quickly interest can compound, that it might take time for your loan servicer to actually enroll you in that repayment plan that could make life simpler for you, that you didn’t have to take out the amount of student loan debt you were eligible for, that borrowing student loans could affect your ability to purchase a car or home down the line etc.). I think that self-destructive issues arise when our reflecting on the past grows into a creeping obsession – and before we know it “if only” transforms itself into “because I didn’t know I can’t.” Here’s what I mean.
For awhile there (many months if not years), I was so focused on what I didn’t know when I borrowed student loans that my “if only” thinking began clouding my view of just about everything else in my life. In part (and in brief), here’s what happened.
As I encountered the challenges that are part and parcel of the stages of life I’m in (millennial, married etc.), I started to feel as if I was special. Not special in the sense that each human brings something unique and individual to the table. Special in the sense that I was being punished for what I didn’t know when I borrowed student loans. So, when I didn’t get a job I really wanted, instead of experiencing the typical regret that accompanies a lost opportunity, I dove headfirst into “all is lost, my future is flushed down the toilet” which inevitably led to “I will never, ever, whever (is that a word?) be able to repay my student loans.”
You can see how this method of thinking would predispose one to frustration, sadness, and general disappointment with life. What I’m saying is that I turned (what can be) useful reflection on how I could have made different choices “if only” I’d understood certain details about student loans into a negative amplifier multiplying the impact of every challenging life event while minimizing the beauty in everything.
Can you relate to this? If so, like me, you may have also noticed that excessive focusing on “if only” can lead down a rather dark and depressing path. Why? Because even as we make progress, one small step at a time, it can feel as if that progress is never enough because the only thing that will “make it all better” is having a Back to the Future moment, where we go back and fix the problem and nix student loans out of our lives for good.
Now, unless you have a skill that I don’t know about (and have never witnessed in real life), time traveling into the past to make different borrowing choices that will change your present student loan experience just isn’t an option. Which brings us to the crux of the problem we’re talking about.
Too much focus on what we would have done differently “if only” can lead us down a Catch 22 path. We can’t go back and fix it, and we feel we can’t do enough to fix the student loan repayment problems we’re experiencing now, which leaves us, basically, trapped in a reality we hate, waiting until the day we pay off our student loan debt so we can hit the restart button. Personally, I have found this approach extremely frustrating. It literally sucked the energy out of my mind, body, and soul.
Is there an alternative?
Let’s not pretend that dealing with student loan debt is easy.
Here’s the thing. I’m not going to pretend for one second that dealing with the stresses of student loan repayment is a walk in the park on a clear summer day. It’s not. It has been, and I suspect will remain, one of the greatest challenges I’ve dealt with in my life. One thing that I’ve learnt that has helped me in regard to “if only” thinking, is that I’ve got to put a limit on it. Let’s say I’m reading The New York Times, or watching a documentary on CNN about student loans. More likely than not I’ll get angry, feel frustrated, have a “I told you!!” moment, and shake my head while sighing deeply at some (likely many) points throughout. It’s fine to talk about the content with others. However, when I sit and think about my student loan experience, to the best of my ability, I no longer allow myself to pick up a “you should have known” metaphorical stick and knock myself in the head with it over and over again until I just can’t take anymore. This is markedly different from my previous approach where I’d stay stuck in frustration, waiting for something to change in my life circumstances so that I could feel better about my student loan repayment prospects.
Another thing that’s helped is recognizing that student loan repayment is a process. There are times in that process where unemployment deferment will be the best way to go. At another point in that process, pay as you earn or income based repayment might be the options that are the best fit for where I’m at in life. I’m not going to put my personal or professional aspirations on hold while I repay my student loans either. Why? Because if I tell myself, “I’ll do that after I repay my student loan debt” I could very easily be nearing retirement age before I begin doing the small things that will help make my dreams a reality.
Anyway. So this feels like a much more transparent post than I usually write, but I hope that it’s been helpful to you. Especially if you feel like the “if only’s” have been sitting on your back, weighing you down.
Are there any strategies you’ve used to help yourself snap out of an “if only” rut? If so, share them with us in the comments below!