Apologising for success

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. Questions are now closed, another round will run in early 2011.

Here’s my question: How does one deal with feeling guilty for doing well financially?

Even in this bad economy, I’m an IT geek in an expanding specialization, and doing quite well. I sometimes find myself apologizing for not being financially distressed. I’ve seen other geek women apologize for the same thing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man apologize (and most of them give me an uncomprehending stare when I mention the issue, because it simply does not make sense to them; or they understand, but can’t imagine why I would feel that way).

I’ve worked very hard; I was vastly underpaid for years (and I’m still underpaid, for that matter, just not as much so). Once my income improved, I mostly kept my frugal lifestyle and saved — a lot. I bought a house, while I’ve had friends almost lose their homes to foreclosure. I was unemployed for six months and, while I was emotionally stressed by being unemployed, I had plenty of cash to tide me through. I got a job and am rebuilding that cash cushion, I have built up my gold backed IRA and I give to charity. I save for retirement. I buy stuff I don’t need. I pay off my credit card every month. I’m almost done with my graduate degree.

It makes no sense for me to feel bad for succeeding at what I’ve worked so hard for. But knowing this doesn’t stop the feeling.


7 thoughts on “Apologising for success

  1. Erika

    It sounds like there are actually two issues here: your feelings, and your problems negotiating the conversational minefield of a bad economy.

    As for your feelings, would it help to frame this as survivor guilt? That’s what it sounds like you’re experiencing. You may feel unworthy to have been the one who survived (the recession). It often comes from a combination of empathy and low self-esteem.

    You deserve your success. Your friends, family, and acquaintances probably do not deserve the financial problems they have suffered. They ended up on the wrong side of life’s random cruelties, while you have been spared. That’s just how it happens sometimes.

    Be quietly proud of your tenacity, your good judgment in landing a job in a growing field, and your financial sensibility. Many people got into trouble because they didn’t spend and save wisely, as you have.

    Regarding conversational etiquette, a big income disparity can make conversation very difficult, even in a good economy. I think it’s polite to demur in conversation, along the lines of “Oh my industry is doing well, but you never know.” Collect phrases like, “I’m glad I bought my house when I did – I’d never be able to afford it now” to use when the topic comes up.

    An apologetic tone, no matter how heartfelt, risks being seen as insincere. You wouldn’t want people to think you’re fishing for compliments or trying to rub their noses in your success!

  2. Kim

    I’ve been there. Still am, somewhat, given the economy. I have several former classmates who are struggling because of the economy, and have a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

    A few recessions ago, my own parents were out of work or underemployed, and really struggling to get by. So I have vivid memories of being on the other side of the coin. That formative experience is one of the big reasons why I care about social justice today, and trying to level the playing field.

    The last few years have been transitional for me as well. Switching over from thinking “I can’t afford that” to *thinking* “I *could* afford that, but I’d rather .” But the thing is, we REALLY do NOT have to say everything we think.

    One of the things I’m learning is that we don’t have to explain everything. “No, thank you,” “Not right now, thank you,” or, if pressed, “I’m sorry, it’s not in my budget” is all we have to say. I’ve had to give myself permission to keep these things private, and you can too.

    The other thing I can say is, HAVE a budget. Or, if you prefer to call it that, have a spending plan.

    But be prepared to rearrange as priorities shift. I recently had to readjust my priorities and shift my savings around to provide for another expense. YOU (possibly with input from your significant other) are in control of your spending.

  3. Andrew

    I think the writer’s attitude makes complete sense. By holding that job, she is preventing someone else from making that money. By buying things, she is preventing other people from using the specific resources used in their manufacture. From this superficial viewpoint, she is hurting others with her success, which seems like a pretty good reason to be guilty. The problem with this attitude is that it assumes that the economy is a ‘zero sum game’: In order for someone to win, someone else has to loose.

    Reality is a bit more complicated than that. The reason the writer has her job is because she creates more value for her employer than she consumes. This value is what keeps her employer solvent. It allows her employer to provide value to their customers and to purchase goods and services of value from other people or companies. Each of those suppliers and customers likely has employees of their own, each of which get some value for their efforts. In this way, the writer’s employment is likely helping to provide something of use to thousands and indirectly helping hundreds of people keep their employment. In the long run, she is literally (re)building the economy and improving the lot of those who are currently unemployed as a result of the recession. That is how markets work*.

    (* At least how markets are supposed to work. There are some oddball exceptions out there and I will admit that the free market isn’t perfect. It’s still darn good most of the time.)

  4. Eivind

    I don’t have any advice, for removing the guilt, as such. Indeed I’ve been unable to do so myself.

    But I do think the feeling is useful, that we can learn something from it. Because I do think that people who are doing well, including me, tend to take it for granted, and consider that we’ve somehow earned it. There’s some truth to that, certainly, but a lot of it is simply randomness and/or good luck.

    I’m employed and earning well, not only because I’ve got a good education and a solid work-record, but also because I happened to be born in one of the richest countries on the planet, with an unemployment-rate hovering around 3%. (which people here, believe it or not, consider “high” and a “crisis” – it was 1.6% prior to the meltdown)

    Erikas approach: that I deserve to be doing well, whereas the others don’t deserve to be doing poorly, fails to work for me. Because sure I deserve it, in the abstract sense that -everyone- deserves it. But I don’t deserve it in the sense that I’m doing well primarily because of my own actions. Primarily, I’m doing well because of external factors not of my doing.

    It’s not my doing that there’s hardly unemployment here. Nor that salary-levels are world-leading. Nor that equal-rights are literally top of the line. Nor that selling your house here is a 5 week operation with pretty much guaranteed results. Nor that my liberties are pretty decent whereas several of my friends have to struggle with stupidity such as being unable to BIKE to university on account of that being considered too “provocative.” (okay, so I’ve got friends in Iran)

    I used to take these things for granted, to think that it was perfectly natural that I enjoy them. I don’t, anymore. Instead, I’m aware how priviledged that makes me. Which I think is pretty useful, atleast it makes me a hell of a lot less likely to look down upon those of less luck.

  5. Bruce Byfield

    If you’re feeling guilty, why not make your guilt socially useful? You may not have time to get involved charities or social activism, but you can donate money to help others do something worthwhile..

  6. Meg

    I choose to use my money to support a community of people I care about. When friends struggle, I make sure they’ve got what they need. I think it’s only not-awkward because they did it for me back in the day, picking up meals and not asking about gas money, but it does works for us. My friends’ kids get Waldorf dolls and books I liked when I was young. When they get older, I’ll hopefully have put enough away to make sure they can afford college, regardless of how well their parents do between now and then.

    I also take pride in paying my state taxes. I do them by hand, instead of using tax software, and I think about the roads and schools and fire departments my money was able to buy. It’s not like charity, where I feel weird for buying off my guilt with a faceless non-profit (though I do contribute, mostly to services I used when I was younger), because I benefit from those things too. Whenever I get to drive on freshly-paved roads I think, “my taxes helped do this.”

    The next step was to start buying things for myself. I started off super-small and bought a $10 stuffed animal I thought was cute and cuddly. I moved on to occasionally buying a luxurious coffee drink, once a month or so. I try to buy things I’ll either use up or use, so I don’t later decide I’ve been terribly frivolous and despise myself for spending money. Now I will even go on vacations sometimes, because I do enjoy them enormously. I think, “I bought this with the money I earned by working hard.” Just because someone else deserves to be paid more, or deserves a job they can’t find, doesn’t mean I don’t deserve mine.

    Finally, I try to network in both directions. When we’re hiring, I make sure the word goes out to networks it might not otherwise reach. I encourage the company to bring people with unconventional backgrounds into the interview stage , and I judge people on the basis of their expressed and demonstrated skills, not on their paper qualifications (amazing how incompetent you can be and still get a CS degree). So many candidates get positive reviews, and called “a good social fit” by other managers even though they couldn’t write a line of code on the board.

    I finally started seriously demanding what I was worth when I decided it was a feminist issue. I didn’t feel like I deserved more pay, but if I let my employer act on that belief, if I let them have my labor cheaper than they would have a (straight, white, etc) man’s, the next woman, who maybe did want to buy a house instead of sharing an apartment, or wanted to raise children, or wanted to put money away for a rainy day, would face an employer who thought she should be willing to accept what I was being paid.
    I didn’t think I deserved it, but I knew they did. So now I demand at least prevailing market salaries, plus work-life balance, and stand by it, even if all I do when I get home is play video games. Companies have paid up ever since.

    The intersection of gender, class and everything else is an uncomfortable place to stand. I try to create a miniature version of the world I wished I lived in, but I get frustrated by the attitudes of other people making the same amount of money. I don’t think I’m inherently more valuable than anyone with less money than me, maybe because I used to be one of those people. However, since the alternative is more profit for a faceless corporation, I will take my salary and GO.

Comments are closed.