The great toilet paper, flour, and yeast shortage of 2020! What a moment of panic and fear. Many of us had never experienced a “lockdown” before COVID-19. What did a lockdown even mean? Can I go to the grocery store? Am I allowed to walk my dog? How do I even stock up on food and essentials?
My husband and I, fearing the pending lockdown in February, 2020, started our research. We stocked up on canned goods, frozen vegetables, nuts and dried fruits, dog and cat food. And, of course, toilet paper.
What we didn’t plan for was the need to engage in non-essential activities to keep up active during a lockdown. I didn’t think that I would take an immense interest in baking bread and finally making a sourdough starter. I also didn’t think the rest of the country would pick the exact same activities as I had.
In April, when flour and yeast were nowhere to be found, the panic hit me. Suddenly, there was nothing I needed more in this world than flour and yeast. And it was nowhere to be found.
Neither was toilet paper.
I don’t blame anyone for contributing to the shortage. When we are lacking, or when we perceive lack, we become fearful. We make fear-based decisions that ultimately don’t support us, or the larger community. The lack then becomes cyclical: I think I only need one shipment of toilet paper, ensuring everyone gets toilet paper. But then I see toilet paper is out of stock, so I buy it in bulk wherever I can find it, taking away from others who need it, thereby continuing the cycle of fear-based decisions and scarcity.
Why do we start to make fear-based decisions? We make fear-based decisions because we believe we are lacking. Scarcity is the focus on what you believe you lack. Abundance, however, is the focus on what we already have. An abundance mindset allows us move out of fear-based decision making and into long-term, sustainable, decision making.
Simply put, do you feel that you are lacking? Or do you feel that you are plenty?
What is scarcity?
Scarcity doesn’t just refer to physical things we may not have. Scarcity, as a mindset, can also refer to our beliefs about our money, time, relationships, health, intelligence, and experience. A scarcity mindset essentially makes us hyper aware of all of our unfulfilled wants and needs. Research has shown this to be true: when put in an fMRI machine, people with a scarcity mindset exhibited decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area known for its role in goal-directed choice
My Experience with Scarcity
I knew I always wanted to start a private practice as a psychotherapist. My biggest mental stumbling block was signing a lease for an office. It felt like the biggest risk I would take. I developed a belief that once I signed that office lease, I would never be able to make enough financially to cover the rent, thereby putting me in deep debt, out of which I could never climb (reality check: my first office only rented for $225 a month).
I found the courage to sign the lease. At lease signing, I did not have any clients. And, of course I wouldn’t have – I was just starting out! Yet with every passing minute that the phone didn’t ring, the belief that I would never have enough clients to pay my office rent only grew.
Naturally, the phone did ring. But the scarcity mindset remained strong. I began taking clients at incredibly low rates, rates as low as my hourly babysitting fee when I was 16-years-old. My thought was, “an hour making any money is better than making no money at all.”
The result: burnout, exhaustion, and stress. I felt my boundaries being stretched to a point that I wondered about closing my office doors for good.
A scarcity mindset forces us to believe that we will never be enough, have enough. Scarcity makes us believe that our resources are finite, when in fact, they are infinite. Love, gratitude, joy, empathy, support, are infinite. Clients are infinite! The phone will always ring with more work – sometimes we simply have lulls.
In these lulls, our resources do feel finite. And maybe in the moment, there is some truth to that. But an abundance mindset allows us to shift our thinking that the potential of something is infinite. Thus, shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset is a matter of reframing our thoughts.
When we believe in a finite world, a zero-sum game world, we make decisions that might help us in the short term, but in the long term only negatively intensify our situation. A zero-sum game framework breeds competition. If you have what I want, then there’s less for me. And, we are taught this repeatedly. If there is one promotion at your job, either you or someone else is going to get it. And if someone else gets it, then that’s less for me. The focus then becomes on getting this one thing.
Why do we do this? According to Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard, and Edlar Shafir, a psychology professor at Princeton, when we want something immensely, we obsess over it. It’s all we think about. We get in a hole so deep that we lose sight of the long-term goals. And then we just dig ourselves deeper.
And the deeper we dig, the more permanent our situation feels. I will never get that job promotion, I will never get the pay raise, I will never be a thriving private practice owner. This, in turn, produces immense feelings of shame. According to Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher extraordinaire, shame is the fear of disconnection. Once we feel shame, we believe we will never be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough.
So, Now What?
One of my favorite questions that arises in the therapy room is when people gain all of this incredible insight, and then ask, “great, this is really helpful! So, now what?” Now that we have this information, what do we do with it?
There are three helpful approaches that target our scarcity mindset, and help us move to a mindset of abundance.
The first in a mindfulness-based approach. Mindfulness is the act of being present, paying attention. It is being aware of what is happening right this moment.
If a scarcity mindset leads us to believe that all situations are permanent, then mindfulness can help us shift our framework to understand that nothing is permanent. All of our emotions, thoughts, and experiences are fleeting. All experiences, wanted and unwanted, will subside. And, all experiences, wanted and unwanted, will return.
The second approach is a Cognitive Behavior Therapy approach. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) posits that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected. Thus, if I behave in a certain way, I will have a thought about it, which will then impact my mood. If we are able to change the way we think about our experiences, our moods will change. CBT is essentially helping us understand how we experience our experiences. Our thoughts about what we have been through determines how we feel.
One CBT tool we can practice for this is cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is the practice of taking our thoughts and rewriting them to provide a more grounded experience.
For example, if my thought is, “I have to take this job offer/romantic relationship/college acceptance now, even though it’s not what I want, because I won’t get another chance,” then a reframe of that thought could be, “You will never know less tomorrow than what you know today.” This helps us start to shift to an abundance mindset. With an abundance mindset, we see life as dynamic and full of unending opportunities. We recognize the mobility and fluidity of life.
The third approach is employing techniques used in positive psychology. Positive psychology is defined as the psychological study of what makes life worth living. Examples of positive psychology practices include self-compassion, practicing gratitude, and building resilience. Kristin Neff, a researcher in self-compassion, has found that practicing self-compassion increases compassion for others, as well as life satisfaction, along with decreasing depression, anxiety, and stress. And, according to research, practicing gratitude, especially if it is directed towards another person, will elevate our reported levels of happiness for an entire month.
The Abundance Mindset Shift
This shift to an abundance mindset can greatly improve our wellbeing. This shift allows us to focus on all we have, rather than all we are lacking. This shift is a practice, meaning, like anything else, it takes time. If we practice it consistently, we will begin to see the shift from scarcity to abundance occur.
 A scarcity mindset alters neural processing underlying consumer decision making, Inge Huijsmans, Ili Ma, Leticia Micheli, Claudia Civai, Mirre Stallen, Alan G Sanfey, PNAS June 11, 2019, 116(24): 11699-11704.
 Seligman, M.E.P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Freepress: New York.
Link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1439190763/braipick-20