Bag Lady Syndrome: How To Stop Fearing The Worst

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

One night I lay awake in bed, worried about my flight to see a client the next day. What if I overslept? What if the flight was delayed or canceled? I’d surely lose the client, then lose my business and all my money and end up a bag lady.

I went from fear of missing a flight straight to homeless.

I didn’t miss the flight or lose my home, of course, but the fear of ending up penniless and alone still recurs. I’m not alone here: a 2013 study by Allianz Life Insurance on women, money, and power found that 49 percent of all women feared ending up broke and homeless.

Business-owning women. Single women. Married-to-millionaires women. Low-income women. Fear of running out of money, especially in old age, keeps half of all women up at night.

For my editor, Terri Trespicio, who lives in Manhattan, seeing bag ladies on a daily basis is enough to make it hit home. “You realize you’re only a few paychecks away from potentially being one,” she said.

Film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum recently wrote in the New York Times about how the movie “Blue Jasmine” portrayed this “darkest and clammiest” of women’s fears. In the film, Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett, loses her home and her money when her wealthy husband is convicted of fraud. Her life implodes, and she is left, as Schwarzbaum writes, “a riveting spectacle of disintegration, last seen nattering to herself on a park bench. She’s so bedraggled that the stranger on the bench next to her, smelling crazy in the air, picks up and leaves.”

This is the nightmare made real. “The possibility of falling into bag-ladydom is a terror so deep, so longstanding, so embarrassing to admit yet so matter of fact that we accept it as simply a part of being a woman,” writes Schwarzbaum.

Enough Is Enough

Wait a minute! There are very, very few things we should accept as simply as part of being a woman. Bag ladies aren’t born; they’re made. Businesses do fail, retirement funds do get wiped out, and lives do fall apart.

According to my colleague, Dr. Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., our stress response evolved over thousands of years, starting with being hunters or the hunted; similarly, we are bred with deep-rooted fears – of future threat, of loss of resources, and being left behind.

So what I took away from this is that the fear of turning into a bag lady is rooted in this very fear of future threat and lost resources. It’s as if the bag-lady syndrome is the present day  collective metaphor for losing everything and being left behind. It taps our collective fear that’s hardwired into the evolutionary process. But just because that fear is hardwired doesn’t mean we must or should let that fear run our lives–especially when it’s usually blown out of proportion.

We can teach ourselves resiliency to counterbalance these inherited thinking styles, undoing the anxiety cascade or slide of pessimism that washes over us when our greatest fears take hold. You can, for instance:

  • Take solace in the support of your friends, family and community.
  • Focus on the greater purpose you are contributing to in your life.
  • Believe in your own power to succeed.
  • Examine your thoughts: Any limiting belief that goes unexamined becomes a monster under the bed; shed some light on it, and it’s only yesterday’s workout wear.

Resilience is the key to creating a life that’s safe and productive and less hampered by fear. You cannot predict the misfortune that may hit you. You build your overall resilience when you inquire into your stressful thoughts around failure and destitution.

We have made unprecedented progress, but it will take generations more to correct the systemic flaws of our economy that leave women at a disadvantagein particular. But when you have a strong mind, a rich circle of social connections,  and a hook into a sense or two of purpose, you have a much better chance of staying afloat if the ship sinks.  This is the moral of Jasmine’s story. The loss of her income and home was devastating, yes, but it ruined her because she had nothing else. She is the nightmare of low resilience. You and I don’t have to be.