Signs You’re Stuck in a Scarcity Mindset—And, How to Break Free

Signs You’re Stuck in a Scarcity Mindset—And, How to Break Free

DO YOU FEEL like there’s never enough time, money, opportunities, or fill in the blank? Are you always scrambling to wrap up your to-do list or struggling to make decisions? Do you rarely say “no” when someone asks you to do something?

Therapists actually have a term for this kind of thinking: scarcity mindset.

“The scarcity mindset doesn’t allow much grace for oneself,” says Jordan Bierbrauer, LCSW, a therapist with Thriveworks who specializes in anxiety, stress, and conflict. “Someone with a scarcity mindset may be thinking that everything that is needed for a bright and secure future is becoming scarce.”

Why some people develop a scarcity mindset and others who face identical circumstances, don’t is unclear, says Katarena Arger, LMFT, clinical director at Alter Health Group.

“At some point, many of us have ruminated about what could be improved in our life if we had A, B, or C,” Arger says. “However, if the absence of what you have or want becomes the focus of your thoughts every day, this can start to take over your life.”

A scarcity mindset riles up lots of emotions: guilt, anger, envy, annoyance, and even hopelessness. Those feelings can bleed into your relationships and take a general toll on your mental health, says Bierbrauer. There’s also a whole self-fulfilling prophecy to it all: You’re so fixated on feeling like you don’t have enough of what you need that you can’t move forward in life.

You might also end up being pessimistic, impatient, intensely competitive, and controlling, Arger says. You may always feel like you’re behind or over-schedule yourself.

All that said, there’s help: “Learning to manage it can help you live better and have better relationships, more motivation, and more self-worth,” Bierbrauer says.

What Is a Scarcity Mindset?

In his book Scarcity Brain, Michael Easter writes that the reaction to scarcity isn’t new, but “an ancient behavior system that evolved naturally in the human mind to help our ancestors survive.” Scientists noted scarcity mindset and the reaction to scarcity cues as far back as 1795.

what is scarcity mindset


But, a scarcity brain doesn’t make sense in the “modern world of abundance,” Easter writes. It can actually work against you.

There’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself, or taking on new projects, or never finishing to-do lists. Scarcity mindset isn’t ambition (that’s healthy!). It’s when you start to obsess over a lack of something—time, money, ability—to the extent that it begins to negatively affect your life or the lives of others.

People often experience scarcity if they grew up in or currently live under below-poverty levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But you don’t have to experience poverty to suffer because a scarcity mindset isn’t always about money. It could be triggered by events like losing your job, trying to lose weight, ending a relationship, or even reliving trauma from the past.

Signs of Scarcity Mindset

If you think you might be living with a scarcity mindset, consider this checklist of signs:

  • Thinking you always lose and others always win
  • Viewing others as competitors
  • Being overly controlling
  • Being pessimistic
  • Feeling like you’re always behind
  • Being impatient
  • Over-scheduling yourself
  • Feeling depressed or paralyzed
  • Saying yes to opportunities that aren’t right for you because you fear you won’t receive other opportunities
  • Struggling with concentration
  • Feeling dissatisfied
  • Experiencing low self-esteem
  • Believing you’re not enough
  • Comparing yourself to others

If you find yourself checking many of these boxes, you may, in fact, have a scarcity mindset. While it may be taking a toll on your mental health, it is possible to break out of it.

How a Scarcity Mindset Affects Mental Health

Scarcity “consumes cognitive resources,” like memory, attention, and behavior control, research shows. A scarcity mindset also hinders someone’s ability to empathize with others and may “influence social emotions and behaviors,” a 2023 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggests.

what is scarcity mindset


It creates a “difficult-to-achieve mindset,” which could lead to depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and regret, Bierbrauer says. “It could also cause emotional dysregulation in an individual, as feeling incapable of completing tasks could leave someone questioning their own emotional experiences.”

A scarcity mindset may exacerbate feelings of depression, cause low self-esteem, strain relationships, and promote risky behaviors, Arger says. “A scarcity mindset can prevent successful problem-solving, learning and assimilating new information, impulse control, and being fully present in one’s life.”

Hyper-fixating or worrying about what you lack may lead to poor decision-making and high stress, she adds.

In relationships, you might feel like there’s not enough love or attention or stay in constant fear that the relationship will end, Arger says. You also could end up staying in an unhealthy relationship.

How to Get out of Scarcity Mindset

Abundance is the opposite of scarcity. The first step toward abundance is to accept your scarcity mindset, Bierbrauer says.

Allow yourself to feel stressed and overwhelmed—and don’t criticize yourself for feeling that way. But, tell yourself that those feelings don’t have to preoccupy your thoughts, he says.

Then, fight through that stress by shifting your focus to the present. Commit to a daily basic mindfulness practice, says Bierbrauer. Take time to observe your surroundings and ground yourself in the moment—that is, listen to your five senses to become aware of what you’re experiencing at that moment.

“Writing a gratitude list, saying positive affirmations, and seeking out people who are supportive and encouraging rather than negative can go a long way,” Arger says.

After you make this a habit, start to gradually adjust your thinking: “recognizing the possibilities, not the limits, focusing on learning, having a collectivistic mindset, and focusing on creating something new,” Bierbrauer says.

Finally, focus on what’s positive in your life—your family, your job, or your talents. And, think about the joy and fulfillment these bring to your life.

If you try all this and scarcity is still scaring you—or even if you feel like it’s too much to do on your own—seek out care from a mental health professional. And you should especially do this when your scarcity mindset is causing daily stress, interfering with your relationships, or triggering thoughts of depression, hopelessness, or self-harm, Bierbrauer says.

“It is important to give yourself grace and be patient, as it is unrealistic these obsessive thoughts will go away overnight,” Arger says.

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Erica Sweeney

Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.

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