From the February 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Winter of Our Discontent?

It's called "the dead of winter," but February cou

Could anything worsen the gloom of depressed portfolios and depleted revenues amid a world beset by random violence, terrorism, and war?

Well, it could be February.

Amid the darkness and chill of this wintry month, it's easy to begin doubting yourself and your life choices. You might feel a little shrinkage in your self-esteem, or maybe your self-confidence has worn thin. Possibly you're running a low-grade fever of self-reproach. In the bleakest of cases, self-doubt may extend to every aspect of your life.

If you've entered a blue period like this, consider the situations below for ideas to help brighten your outlook.

Since 9/11, the stresses of living in Washington, D.C., have been getting to me. Helping clients make money seems more and more trivial and meaningless. I can't decide whether to sign up for the Peace Corps or cash in my portfolio and escape to a remote corner of the world. This may sound goofy, but I'm serious. What should I do? First, know that you are not alone in feeling rocked to your core. Since September 11, the threat of terrorist attacks, the sniper killings, and war tensions have combined to ratchet up the stress levels in D.C. (where I live, too) perhaps more than anywhere else in the U.S. This tension makes it difficult to connect with normally pleasurable parts of life that always seemed meaningful before.

On the positive side, your crisis of self-doubt offers a chance to take stock of your values and choices, and to set new directions. Just be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Important decisions should be based on a full, rational assessment of their effect on your life, not grounded in panic or despair.

So before deciding that your work is meaningless, slow down and reconnect with your own sources of healing and hope. Are you taking care of yourself emotionally and physically? Are there more proactive things you need to be doing, here and now, to make a difference in the world?

If you feel your personal life is in balance, take a look at your worklife. Do you need to be more involved with helping your clients live out their values and ideals? Do you find your colleagues and your work environment congenial and supportive? Finally, could you really live a more balanced life and do your work more rewardingly if you moved somewhere else?

Take time to reflect on these questions with as much patience as you can muster. If you still feel that only a radical lifestyle change will restore juice and meaning to your life, I wish you good luck.

One of the partners in my practice is driving me crazy. At a time when I'm losing sleep worrying about my clients' portfolios, this colleague is so full of himself and his brilliant achievements that he's almost unbearable. I know part of the problem is inside my head, but what can I do about it--and about him? Your colleague may well feel so insecure that he needs to puff himself up and put others down in order to assuage his sense of inadequacy. If so, I wouldn't put too much faith in his claims of triumphing while all around him are in the throes of portfolio meltdown.

If you're close to him, you could tell him how his bragging is making you feel. Just be sure your relationship is warm enough to handle this kind of vulnerability. Otherwise it might backfire, making him feel more superior and you feel worse.

A better bet may be to spend a little time reminding yourself of your own strengths. Start a daily journal in which you write down your successes, no matter how small they may seem at the time. For example, an entry might be: "Met with Mrs. S today and reviewed progress toward goals. She came in feeling awful, and left feeling calmer and much more positive."

Also, try to stay out of your boastful partner's orbit as much as possible. Make time to engage in favorite activities that lighten your spirit, and focus on working with colleagues who nurture your self-confidence.

If you cultivate the right climate around you, and remind yourself daily of your strengths (as well as things you're grateful for), this annoying colleague's boasts will lose their sting.

I always wanted to be a financial planner. But now, within a year of graduating from college, I'm beginning to doubt whether I can handle being responsible for people losing money and being forced to give up their dreams. Should I take my qualms seriously, or does everyone feel this way? I don't know about "everyone," but it's certainly worthwhile talking to some people who are already in the field to see how they feel about client setbacks. In particular, you might interview planners who focus on helping clients live out their deeply felt personal values. This could help you reconnect with the qualities of the profession that originally appealed to you.

In fact, I would try to identify exactly what these appeals are. List them in writing, and then jot down your doubts and fears. Share both of these lists with three or four seasoned advisors, and see how this impacts your decision about becoming a planner.

I've heard that the Chinese character for crisis combines "danger" and "opportunity." In volatile economic times, there's a greater need for holistically oriented financial advisors who can help clients move toward emotional sustenance and self-respect as well as financial security. In other words, financial planning is more than money--and you may well become a wiser advisor for recognizing it at this early stage.

For several months now, I've only felt safe when I'm alone. I don't feel comfortable with my family and friends, and I dread being with co-workers because they always seem to be judging me. Reading newspapers or watching headline TV makes me feel like running away and hiding. What's happening to me, and what should I do about it? Like many others these days, you may be suffering from depression or a form of stress disorder in which you keep reliving past traumas and injuring yourself anew with each re-experience.

To restore balance, I would begin by focusing on activities that nurture your spirit when you are by yourself. Whatever makes you feel better, do more of it. At the same time, I think you should consider consulting a therapist or pastoral counselor. By talking about your thoughts and feelings, you may blow some fresh air into the closed system of memories or negative self-talk that hold you captive inside your own head.

If these avenues of hope and healing don't seem to make a difference, you may need to ask your M.D. for medication. A combination of counseling and antidepressants has helped many people find their way back to a happier and more connected life.

After months of seeing me drag myself home, tired and discouraged, my wife has begun encouraging me to leave the planning profession. Her uncle has offered me a position as CFO of the family business. I doubt that this would be a good move for me, but I am getting tired of working with disappointed clients every day. Any ideas? I think you would be wise to review your dreams, goals, and skills with a career counselor before deciding whether or not to make such a major change.

As you may know, family businesses are notorious for complicated interpersonal dynamics based on old grudges, slights, and favors that date back years and years. So if you're inclined to join the firm, first be sure your fresh thinking will be welcome.

While you're sorting out your options, take time to savor the connections to family, friends, and community that help you feel nourished and supported. Talk to trusted colleagues about your dilemma. And reassure your wife that even if you decide not to accept her uncle's offer, you will take steps to improve your life.

It's getting harder and harder for me to stay positive these days. My income is way down, and my clients are calling all the time to talk endlessly about their problems. Meanwhile, my son didn't get accepted at a college and is playing games with me about his so-called job and his life. Also, the days are so short that I feel I'm living in the dark most of the time. Is there anything I can do about all this? Let's tackle the easiest part first. There's a good chance you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which afflicts many Northerners in the winter. If so, ask your alternative medicine practitioner or healthy foods store about lighting that mimics sunshine. Sufferers say it can magically transform their lives in a relatively short time.

In terms of your worklife, I'd recommend brainstorming with one or more of your colleagues about ways to generate more revenue. In fact, you might consider weekly meetings to tackle this challenge and assess your progress.

As for your home situation, have you talked to parents in similar situations to see if they can offer any guidance? You may also want to consult a family therapist. If your son is still living with you, you need to decide how you can best help him get launched into an independent life. For useful suggestions, I recommend any of Ron Taffel's books about adolescents.

While you're wrestling with these challenges, be sure to take time for yourself. Remember, it will be hard (if not impossible) to give your best to those around you if you have nothing left to give.

With February doldrums intensifying the stress of business losses, political and personal fears, and recent traumas, it's crucial for advisors and clients to find time to recharge themselves. No matter how you choose to reconnect to sources of light in the midst of the dark, do whatever will help give you more emotional and spiritual "money in the bank."

From this more centered place, you can contemplate the balance between your worklife and your personal life, and plan how to make changes that strengthen you. By helping your clients restore their own equilibrium, you will provide a resource that they will appreciate way beyond the advent of spring.

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