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Scarcity Mindset: Causes and How To Overcome It

Fixating on thinking you never have enough can become harmful

Person sad and overthinking what they don't have while sitting on orange stool.

Is the glass half full or half empty? As the familiar saying teaches us, it’s all about your perspective.

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Having a negative mindset can infect even the best of us. But if you find yourself viewing the cup as half-empty more often than not, you may be experiencing something called a scarcity mindset. This is when you become so preoccupied with what you don’t have that it’s hard to focus on anything else.

Psychologist Lauren Alexander, PhD, explains how this kind of mindset can manifest in your life and how you can work against it.

What is a scarcity mindset?

The term was originally coined to describe a specific type of anxiety and cognitive stress experienced by people whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold. In a 2017 experiment, researchers found that the distress over not having enough money or resources to get by had a negative effect on people’s mental state. But how? Well, ultimately, they suggested that someone’s hyper-fixation or worry over what they lack could lead to poor decision-making and higher stress.

But a scarcity mindset isn’t always about finances. It’s often applied to other parts of life, too. Who hasn’t stayed up all night wondering what could be improved in their life if they had A, B or C? Continuous thinking like this can convince someone that their life is truly empty.

What causes a scarcity mindset?

A scarcity mindset can stem from a lot of things — the root cause could be a life-changing event that makes you focus on what you’ve lost or are missing. This might be losing a job, climbing credit card bills or a divorce. Or maybe some kind of trauma from your past comes back to haunt you and reminds you of a gap you may be feeling in your life.

But what a person is lacking (or believes they’re lacking) can vary depending on their situation, says Dr. Alexander. Here are a few examples of what a scarcity mindset can look like:

  • Weight: If you have to start cutting out certain foods to try to lose weight, you may develop a scarcity mindset and become harmed by it. “You get so overwhelmed, and there’s an emotional overload from not having the things you want,” Dr. Alexander notes. “These feelings end up just defeating you, and you end up engaging in the very behaviors — overeating or making poor food choices — that you were trying to avoid.”
  • Time: Possibly, you’re worried about the loss of time in your day-to-day life. There’s just never time to get the must-dos done, let alone time for things that bring you joy. The years are going by, and you’re not as young as you used to be. Fixating on passing time could lead to a scarcity mindset or even a mid-life crisis.
  • Work: Maybe your debt is escalating or you want to save up for a down payment on a house. Yet, every attempt to get a better-paying job is only met with rejected applications. Or you’ve put in five years at your current company and don’t get the promotion you thought was in your future.
  • Parenthood: The emotions that go hand in hand with family can also be the perfect storm for a scarcity mindset. Maybe you’re currently in the process of trying to have a baby and every pregnancy test comes back negative. Maybe you thought IVF would be your answer, but you’re two rounds in and starting to worry if you’ll ever have a child.

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Being upset about each of these situations is entirely valid, Dr. Alexander points out. And we don’t really know why some people faced with the same set of circumstances develop a scarcity mindset while others don’t. But if the absence of what you want becomes the focus of your thoughts every day, this can start to take over your life.

“You could end up becoming desperate. In some cases, when you become so focused on what you don’t have, you end up making bad decisions as a result,” says Dr. Alexander. “It ends up backfiring.”

How a scarcity mindset affects your mental health

So, you’re focusing on what you don’t have — is that really so bad? To a certain extent, maybe not. In some cases, it could be a source of motivation. But according to Dr. Alexander, this mindset can begin to poison your mental health and well-being over time.

This is because your brain isn’t good at multitasking. If you’re constantly fixating on the things you don’t have, it prevents you from being able to solve problems, hold onto information, control impulses or simply be in the present.

It’s hard to stop focusing on when things don’t work, but hyper-fixating on it could lead to intense overthinking and even a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you become so focused on what you lack and assume things will never change, you’ll never see yourself in a better situation.

“A scarcity mindset does a great job of sucking the joy out of people’s lives,” says Dr. Alexander. “Because everything starts to revolve around this thing that they don’t have.”

It can cause or embolden things like:

Strategies to overcome a scarcity mindset

Of course, it’s easier said than done to snap out of this kind of mindset. While you can’t change your thinking overnight, you can be patient with yourself by taking baby steps toward changing your mindset.

Dr. Alexander explains some ways to start to work your way out of this mindset.

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Adopt an acceptance mindset

The first step is accepting that it’ll be impossible to get rid of these obsessive thoughts overnight — every day, you might get some kind of reminder of what you don’t have or what you want and can’t get — so it’s important to be patient with yourself.

“A lot of times, people come to me with very unrealistic expectations,” notes Dr. Alexander. “The first thing you need to work on is some acceptance. That this is just simply how it is right now.”

When those negative thoughts about what you lack pop up, you may be tempted to tell yourself: I’m not going to think about this. I’ll just ignore these feelings completely.

But Dr. Alexander recommends an acceptance mindset. Tell yourself this instead: I do feel this way and it’s valid. But this doesn’t have to totally preoccupy me.

“You’re going to think about it,” she adds. “If you keep trying to suppress those thoughts, if you keep trying to deny your feelings, they’re just going to keep coming back up.”

Practice gratitude as best you can

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” It’s hard to go through life with blinders on, so it’s important to take notice of the things you do have around you.

“When you’re focused on what you’re missing, it’s easy to stop even paying attention to all the good things that you have going on,” says Dr. Alexander.

Dr. Alexander recommends being intentional with your gratitude — really think about the things that are bringing abundance into your life (remember, abundance is the opposite of scarcity). You can do this by keeping a gratitude journal or simply speaking positive affirmations out loud to yourself or to others around you.

Oh, and speaking of people you surround yourself with…

Surround yourself with supportive, positive people

Sometimes, if you’re around the wrong people, it can bring out the demons running around in your mind. If you find that some of the people closest to you are constantly reminding you of what you don’t have or are lacking, that’s just going to deepen your scarcity mindset.

To break the scarcity mindset habit, maybe this means setting certain boundaries with people in your life or finding new friends that help empower your positive thoughts instead of your negative ones. And if your thoughts are really starting to get to you, it may be good to seek a therapist who can help you understand the root cause of these fixations.

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