“There aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.”
“I just don’t have what it takes to be successful.”
“If only I had more time/energy/money, I would finally be happy.”
We all have thoughts like these from time to time. But if you’re constantly focused on your unfulfilled wants and needs at the expense of recognizing what you do have, you might be trapped in a scarcity mindset: the belief that you don’t have enough of what you need—such as time, money, or intelligence—and you never will.
This mindset once gave our ancestors the competitive drive to survive when resources were scarce. However, in today’s world, it’s become outdated—and it keeps us stuck in the status quo rather than working toward professional and personal goals. Research by Eldar Shafir, Ph.D., a professor at Princeton University and co-author of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, shows that having a scarcity mindset causes tunnel vision. This singular focus on what’s lacking keeps us stuck by draining our energy and mental bandwidth.
However, when we can bump our attention from what we lack to what we can create, improve, and achieve, we can shift from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance—and unlock new opportunities as a result. These scarcity trap escape tactics will help you do just that:
1. Scarcity Trap: Social Comparison
We want what we don’t have…and we especially want what others have. It’s human nature: According to evolutionary psychologists, we are wired to constantly compare ourselves to others. These comparisons can trigger feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and even hostility in response to others’ success. As a result, you miss the unique contributions, attributes, skills, and perspective that only you have to offer.
Escape Tactic: Watch and learn.
It may seem counterintuitive, but research suggests that when we reframe envy as inspiration, it can actually motivate us to make positive changes.
“Model your approaches around those who have already succeeded, and you’ll learn how you can too,” says Wilding. Find someone who is doing what you want to do—whatever that may be—and watch how they do it. Better yet, go straight to the source and ask them what they did to achieve the success you’re striving for. What’s worked for them? What hasn’t? What can you apply to your own life?
“This will help you get outside yourself,” Wilding says. “Instead of being stuck in your own little bubble, you can see that there are other possibilities.”
2. Scarcity Trap: Unrealistic Expectations
Tension between what is and what we believe should be can make us feel like we’re constantly coming up short, which keeps us stuck in a scarcity mindset. Your “should” beliefs—referred to as Icebergs Beliefs in meQuilibrium—exist for a reason: They’ve helped you shape your concept of how the world works and how you should behave in it. However, at the core of Iceberg Beliefs are black-and-white standards that, in our often-gray world, are nearly impossible to live up to.
Escape Tactic: Do a realistic reset.
You can navigate around your Iceberg Beliefs by doing a realistic reset on your standards. Rigid expectations set you up to fail, whereas flexible standards keep you focused on progress over perfection. Here are a few examples:
Iceberg: “Everything I do should be perfect.”
Realistic Reset: “All I can do is my best—and that’s more than enough.”
Iceberg: “If I can’t do it myself, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
Realistic Reset: “I deserve support. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
3. Scarcity Trap: The Wanting Mind
Happiness is often defined in terms of getting more of what we want. But this force, known as the Wanting Mind, has diminishing returns: The more we get, the more we want. Brent Kessel, host of the meQuilibrium Financial Wellbeing track and author of the popular book It’s Not About the Money, explains that “the great mistake we make is that we attribute our temporary feeling of happiness to the object itself…the reality is that the absence of wanting is what gives you pleasure.”
Escape tactic: Retrain your brain.
“If you want your experience of progress, fulfillment, resilience, and peace of mind to grow—put your attention on those moments where that’s already happening, no matter how small,” says Kessel. “It could be one percent of your life that those good things are happening in, but you put your attention there and it’ll become two percent, and then it’ll become three percent, and then it’ll become ten percent.”
To put this into practice, make a daily list of three things you’re thankful for to refocus on what you have, instead of what you lack. This simple gratitude exercise trains your brain to look towards the positive, which boosts your mood, your self-esteem, and your resilience.
“It’s one of the fundamental laws of human psychology: Whatever you put your attention on grows,” Kessel adds. “It’s like sunlight to a plant.”
Polly Campbell is Portland-based author and speaker specializing in psychology, resilience, and wellness topics. She is the author of three books: How to Live an Awesome Life: How to Live Well. Do Good. Be Happy; Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People; and How to Reach Enlightenment. Tweet her @PLCampbell.