I didn’t realize the deeper meaning of being a first-generation college student until very recently. For a long time, it just seemed like a vague badge of pride. Yes, those students may need extra help with figuring out the finances because their parents hadn’t done that before. I didn’t really understand the fact that sometimes finishing a degree requires a complete change of belief system.

I started to put things together after my husband cleaned out the fridge one day, a shocking development. He said he was inspired to do so by a Business Insider article, of all things. He sent me the article with the headline: “Decluttering my home of 17 years showed me my ‘poverty mentality’ has been doing me more harm than good.”

He explained his realization that his inherited beliefs about scarcity from his childhood in Idaho affect every other part of his life: hesitation about decluttering the house is just one of them. No, I am not Marie Kondo, but it does feel nice to take a load of stuff to the thrift store. I do not want to be surrounded by piles of things, and this has caused relationship tension in the past.

In scarcity mindset, keeping that horrific floral sofa is necessary because it was free. You keep things because you don’t know if you will be able to afford something better later on. You hold on to everything, and upgrading is just a waste of money. This mindset happens a lot in kids who were raised below the poverty line or in kids raised with parents in generational poverty. But it seems to happen in places of plenty as well.

In Utah and what I have seen of Idaho, there is a permeating scarcity mindset. Yes, this is a desert. Most plants and trees would not grow naturally in this place without human intervention. Scarcity surely defined the lives of the Mormon pioneers and several generations after them.

This sense of scarcity is still very noticeable in modern Utah: I see a great interest in food preservation and lots of overstuffed food cellars. Nonperishables, canned food, dusty mason jars and Jell-O. Lots of storage units, and lots of borderline hoarding in houses and on front porches. I see neighborhood garages filled to bursting with what appears to be useless junk.

IKEA in Draper stays busy, but Swedish minimalism is not a popular décor style here. My husband used to work in the accounting department of a storage unit chain. “The business model just does not work in Sweden,” he said. “They don’t hold on to so much crap there.”

It seems the people here hold onto everything, just in case.

I think about scarcity as I drive past those giant grain silos next to the freeway. When I see minerals from the hard water beginning to calcify on my drinking glass, I see Utah’s advice: accumulate, harden and do not let go. Nothing flows easily out of this place – things and people get pulled into the gravity of Utah and never leave.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my scarcity mindset manifested differently: not in hoarding tendencies but definitely in the sense that “this is as good as it gets.” I took what was given to me and didn’t look further. I look back on choices large and small from the past and think about wearing clothes that I didn’t like, clinging to people who were not good to me, keeping a job I hated for way too long.

I was handed a narrative that being poor is just who I was, an unchangeable identity. I was taught that nobody has a job that they like to do, they take what they can get.

The world is a tragic place and we are here to suffer, even according to religious interpretations given to me: We could do things to improve our lives and the world, we could work on fighting climate change and improving society, but Jesus is coming back any minute, so there is really no point. Our “tragic wretchedness” is part of the Divine Plan.

A desert landscape reflects the scarcity mindset.
A desert landscape reflects the scarcity mindset. Photo credit: unsplash

I was so entrenched in belief systems that were not my own, even after distancing out of the “tragic victim” brand of religion, I could not really begin to change until I left my hometown and was forced to spend a lot of time alone, exploring who I was.

This, to me, is the heart of the struggle of a first-generation college student, or anyone who tries to break out of childhood poverty into a middle-class life: there are beliefs and patterns that have been structured for generations that reinforce a mindset of anti-success, fear and scarcity.

There are probably pieces of this that are specific to certain family lines, such as a belief that jobs are suffering, that having student debt is unmanageable, or that there is simply no value in being educated. There is probably a common acceptance of poverty as identity, or that rich people are bad people, or that seeking success is selfish.

It hangs on to each new generation as ancestral karma and baggage, dusty mason jars with rotting contents that just need to be thrown out.

Eventually, I learned to approach life with a critical filter. Everything in my environment had to pass an examination of how it benefitted my life, whether it was good for me, whether I really liked it, whether it was worth my time. This extended from my belongings to my thoughts.

No longer would I have an automatic acceptance of whatever came along. Everything would have to have a direct contribution to my well-being and progress in life, or I would have to let it go. I had to examine what I was clinging to and what needed to be upgraded.

Some old friends didn’t make the cut. Lots of habits and patterns didn’t make the cut. With all of these things, I had to believe that I did not need to hold on and that I deserved better. I also had to believe that I could finish my degree and be successful someday in spite of what other people in my life believed about college.

I know from experience that our automatic thoughts caused by deep belief systems affect every part of our lives. People say “your thoughts create your reality,” but I have only recently fully appreciated this. The law of attraction isn’t just magical thinking; it is happening every moment, caused by a pattern of thoughts and actions, those secondary effects of an underlying belief system.

In order to succeed in your goals, you have to first believe that success is possible and that you deserve it, without guilt or apology. You have to spend time alone, away from distractions, constant mental input and screen time and decide if the life you are living is aligned to your beliefs or other people’s. You have to believe in future abundance rather than eternal scarcity.

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