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The complicated emotions of financial forgiveness


This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

How does it feel to have your student loans forgiven? How does it feel to watch someone else's debt get forgiven?

Financial therapist Rick Kahler discusses the emotions of loan forgiveness for those receiving forgiveness and for those who don't benefit from the policy. From happiness to jealousy to guilt, he covers all possible reactions and what it says about your money beliefs.

Explore Kahler's financial therapy blog.
Lori Walsh:
Some Americans with student loan debt have seen their total debt amount drop, in some cases to zero. And that comes with a variety of emotions: excitement, relief, joy.

But that also causes a variety of emotions in other Americans.

Those who paid off their debt or never took out any in the first place might be feeling jealousy, unfairness, maybe a little bitterness.

So let's talk about where the financial complexities of debt forgiveness overlap with emotional complexities.

Rapid City wealth advisor Rick Kahler is president of the Kahler Financial Group, and he is with me on the phone to talk about what you might feel when someone else gets a financial boost that you didn't.

Rick Kahler, welcome back. Thanks for being here.

Rick Kahler:
Good to be here. Lori, you kind of nailed it. It's pretty complex.

Lori Walsh:
It is, indeed. But we know that you have prepped us to first of all realize how emotional this can be. So before you jump into whether this is good policy or not, let's talk about how it feels, and we are responding emotionally to this in a variety of ways.

Where do you want to begin unpacking the emotions of student loan forgiveness?

Rick Kahler:
Well, there are a number of emotions that can be based on a person's beliefs. Their money scripts, how they view money, their relationship with money. And the first one that comes to mind is happiness for the other people that are getting this. Actually, some joy. Seeing that that's a real positive step for them in eliminating a financial burden, improving their lives, et cetera.

So, sometimes when I think about things like this, I immediately go to the negative. I don't don't know if anybody else does.

But happiness, a person can genuinely feel really happy.

And also they can feel some generosity. And generosity from the point that they really support the policies. Or, gee, I'm glad my tax dollars went for this. While others can feel resentment over it, my tax dollars went for this.

A person could also feel some real empathy for the other person. Empathy in the way that I'm sad that they had to actually go into debt to fund their education. And feeling some compassion for what this must mean to the other person and just recognizing how much relief that it can give them.

And along with that, a person could feel sympathy. That, man, I am sorry that they had to incur the debt in the first place. So those are a number of emotions that might not first come to mind that people can feel over this.

And also, before we get to the difficult emotions, a person could feel just indifference. Not have a strong emotion. Some people listening may be in that category. Like, oh, K, I don't feel happy. I don't feel sad. Nothing just really comes up. And that doesn't mean the person is checked out. That just means it's not triggering anything with them.

Lori Walsh:
So if it does trigger something for you strongly, pay attention to that.

Rick Kahler:
Exactly. And one thing that can come up is a sense of insecurity that, wow, I didn't go to school because I would have had to go into debt. Or, I didn't go to the school I wanted because of that. And then feeling some sadness, questioning the choices that they made, and the circumstances and the outcome. So just a general feeling of insecurity.

And then we can get to the ones that can come to mind at first for some, which is resentment. Feeling anger, feeling this is not fair. I didn't accumulate debt, I worked hard, I worked my way through college or I saved. Or I got scholarships, whatever it is. And these other folks get off, and they can make up a story that they're getting a free pass.

And of course, this would be the person that obviously didn't get any debt reduction on their student loans that might've had some. And jealousy can come in saying, well, look, I'm struggling, and I'm not much more different than they are. They got it because of this and that technicality. So quite an opposite reaction from being happy and joyful.

And then there's the person who could tick the box for all the above.

Lori Walsh:
I want to add one for your consideration, which is guilt. Maybe if your story tells you that it shouldn't have been forgiven, that you were working, you're in the middle of working hard to pay it off.

Rick Kahler:
Oh, that's a thing.

Lori Walsh:
And then all of a sudden it's gone, and you have this story that now something's been taken away from you, which was the opportunity to finally say, "I paid for that education. I wrote my last check. And the debt has been satisfied."

I remember when I paid off my student debt, it was like, your debt has been satisfied. And I was like, oh, I'm going to frame that. I did it. And now if you've forgiven it, maybe somebody feels guilty or a sense that an opportunity to feel that mastery was removed from them.

I don't know. It's worth adding to a long list of possible emotions.

Rick Kahler:
Totally worth adding. You see that with people who often have money. You can see, especially with celebrities, just the sense of guilt that they have money. We're kind of stepping outside of the debt issue, but guilt and money go hand-in-hand. And just also imposter syndrome goes with that too.

But you're exactly right. Just guilt that why me and not them. I don't deserve this. It's the other side of this isn't fair.

Lori Walsh:
Let's pull on the thread of insecurity a little bit. Of that sense that, oh, I made choices. Maybe that choice was that I didn't go to school, or I didn't go to the school where I would've incurred more debt even though I wanted to. Or I worked really hard and I made a lot of sacrifices that I could have been doing other things with that money like investing it for my future, but I was really paying off that debt.

And now you're feeling insecure about your choices and your place.

So once you identify that that's the emotion, what's the next step?

Rick Kahler:
It's really identifying it and feeling it are two different things.

Lori Walsh:
This is my least favorite part, listener. My least favorite part is the part where you have to actually feel it. I don't mind identifying it. I don't mind naming it. That feels good. And then you have to feel it.

Rick Kahler:
I might've talked about this before when I discovered that talking about feelings isn't feeling them. I can talk about them very easily. And I said, "I wish somebody had told me that 25 years ago." And I was cleaning out a bookshelf and I grabbed this book, which may have been by Melody Beattie, and I had highlighted a bunch of stuff. And the page fell open to a highlighted sentence that said, "Talking about feelings is not the same as feeling them."

It took me 25 years for that to sink in. So yes, to feel that, and it might be helpful to write, what are the money scripts that are around that feeling of insecurity? That I made a wrong choice, or what's under that? I'm going to guess with the insecurity, there could come some guilt. And guilty as in I did something wrong.

Well, sometimes there's no way to fix that. Or to undo time. It's just the process, the grief. Also with that insecurity comes grief for a decision that wasn't made, perhaps. And with the grief is the sadness. Maybe there's some anger. Maybe there's some fear, some regret.

So that's part of what feeling insecurity is. Really getting to those underlying emotions that are there. And the other one that there could be, a feeling and tied into that would be shame. And shame is systemic.

Shame is not guilt. Guilt is, yes, I did something wrong. But the shame goes beyond that to almost say, I am wrong. See, this is more evidence that I'm a failure and that I always make bad financial decisions. And so that goes much deeper to get at. And sometimes it can be more shame that I made that decision.

Well, if you unpack why, it may have been the absolute best decision to have made. Given all the circumstances that a person had going on in their life. So really acknowledging and feeling those feelings. And a person might need some help in unpacking that, too.

But I think you can go a long way just doing the money scripts, seeing what the money scripts are, and really unpacking all the complexity of feelings that goes with that.

Lori Walsh:
What does it mean to feel sad for other people? Like when we talked about, you might feel empathy and you might just feel sad for the people who were carrying this amount of debt, even if you didn't have it.

I'm trying to think of what kind of money scripts we tell ourselves, or what kind of thoughts we're having, that we shouldn't care about those people.

Then all of a sudden you're like, oh, I feel really bad that that's what people felt that they had to do. Well then, what do you do with that emotion?

Rick Kahler:
Yeah, that's important to unpack. Is this about me, or is this about them?

Because sometimes our feeling sad for someone can really be more of a reflection of us feeling sad for ourselves. Or again, kind of touching on the insecurity, sad that we didn't make that, or clinging onto some sadness within us that's unfinished business. Sadness that we haven't felt. And sometimes we can tap into that when we see the trials or tribulations of another person. Because the fact that we may feel sadness for a lost opportunity or something like that doesn't mean that other person does either. They may feel totally different.

Lori Walsh:
I talked to somebody who had had a substantial amount of money forgiven, and I asked them how it made them feel. And they said grateful and inspired to help other people.

And I thought that was a really interesting emotional response. To say, not only did they just feel this huge weight lifted off of them, but then they felt an immediate responsibility to say, well, what can we do for others that could be positive?

And it could also be like that guilt is sneaking in. Do you feel a responsibility to do something beyond this? If you've received some kind of loan forgiveness and you feel grateful and you feel relief, what's next for you?

Rick Kahler:
Wonderful distinction between wanting to do something for others and am I feeling that out of generosity or am I feeling that out of guilt? Do you have a therapy degree of any type?

Lori Walsh:
No, no. I just interviewed Rick Kahler periodically for several years.

Rick Kahler:
And if that generosity is heartfelt, it's kind of like doing something, giving to another person.

Do I feel like I'm giving out of obligation or out of heart? When it's out of obligation that's something we need to take a look at.

So, what can I do? Or can I influence policy? Or can I pay it forward with somebody else? However that would manifest for that person.

But if it's feeling that I need to give back out of guilt, well that can get to the money script of I don't deserve money. And I don't deserve it. I'm happy I got this, but, man, I feel so guilty because of it.

Therefore, I need to pay back this debt of guilt to someone. Not out of generosity, I'm giving out of guilt. And quite frankly, going back to those that have money and what we talked about, a lot of giving is out of guilt and not generosity. So there's a whole bunch of money scripts there to unpack.

Lori Walsh:
I love it when we think that we're just talking about policy, and it turns out we're talking about humanity. And we don't do a lot of jubilee anymore in our society like they did in biblical times.

Rick Kahler:
We sure don't.

Lori Walsh:
But then there are those stories that maybe we also brought from our childhood, too.

Well, Rick Kahler, you've given us a lot to think about as always. And we'll put some links up on our website to Rick's website and to many of his financial therapy books. The most recent one is called Coupleship.

And Rick, thanks so much for being here.

Rick Kahler:
OK, thank you very much, Lori. Take care.

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Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.