When it’s time to look at your finances, do you feel filled with ease, calm, and a sense of mastery? Or, like many of us, would you rather swim through shark-infested waters than face the numbers—and the shame, distress, anxiety, and avoidance that arise when it’s time to deal with your money?
Hi! I’m Liz. I’m a psychologist, and a professor of Community Mental Health. I spend my days thinking and writing about people and their thoughts and feelings and behaviors (basically, LIFE). I went to school for approximately a bajillion years to try to understand human beings, studying biology and cognition, relationships and sexuality, families, and sociocultural phenomena.
Do you know how many times we talked about money? Like, people’s relationships with money, spending, saving, and the drama and suffering that ensue? Zip. Zero.
To be clear, we studied the human experience from almost every possible lens, including looking closely at power, privilege, class, and all the ways that money (at macro levels) impacts our lives. But we NEVER really spoke about the inner workings of people and families with their own personal finances.
And then I met Adam. Adam spends his days talking to people about some of the most intimate details of their lives: their money. Or rather, their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and secrets about money. To be clear, he’s not a financial advisor, or an investment guru (in fact, he’s not all that interested in wealth). He’s interested in people, and has found that for many of us, we suffer over our relationships with money.
So, why are so many of us so utterly tortured and miserable about money? Here’s what conversations with Adam have helped me see:
1. We get no education about it. Aside from perhaps an economics class in high school (does anybody remember anything from that?), and whatever we absorbed by osmosis growing up in our families (parents fighting about money? an ominous hush when the topic of money comes up?), most of us got more education about sex than we did about money. And that’s a pretty low bar.
2. We don’t talk about it. Usually not even with the people closest to us. We might say something like “Money’s tight right now,” but when was the last time you told someone in any detail what’s really going on? When have you invited a friend to sit down with your accounts or your spreadsheet or your budget and help you make choices? Yeah—me neither.
3. We expect ourselves to be good at it. In our (often dysfunctional) culture, money is a VERY BIG DEAL, with both actual physical survival and perceived psychological survival (Am I OK? Do I belong? Am I safe? Will I be excluded? Can I live the way my friends live?) on the line. A big part of “adulting” involves handling money, and after the age of 25 or so, we are expected (and expect ourselves) to be calm, cool, collected, and on-track for a happy financial future.
4. When we think we should be good at things and we aren’t, we feel shame. Dismay. Anxiety. Essentially—pain.
5. When we feel pain, we avoid the source of that pain. Like any good organism that survived evolution to arrive at NOW, we move away from pain and toward relief. Just as an amoeba will wriggle away from toxins and towards tasty food sources, when humans encounter something that hurts, we do whatever it takes to get away. We distract ourselves, seek temporary fixes, do almost anything to avoid the pain.
6. Unfortunately, avoidance leads to further lack of education or mastery, which leads to further shame, and deepens the whole cycle. After years of this, that innocent avoidance can snowball into a world of pain, shame, and feeling profoundly out of control. For some, this looks like mountains of debt, behaviors we don’t fully understand (and certainly aren’t proud of), and a sense of overwhelm and hopelessness.
(And the really dark thing? Most of us being miserable and inept around money may actually work for some interests. The financial, advertising, and marketing industries thrive on people being disconnected from financial reality and their values. We’re much more likely to spend beyond our means if we don’t know what our means actually are, and are caught up in a washing machine of guilt, shame, regret, and rebellion!)
Recognizing Your Money Patterns
And though we might want to avoid money indefinitely, living in modern society requires that we engage with it, at least intermittently. So, for many of us, navigating all of our internal avoidance and our external need to “adult,” our relationships with money develop a schism embedded within them, wherein different (internal) parts of us have very different feelings and approaches to money. For example, one part of us might be strict, parental, scolding, ostensibly committed to saving (“Retirement! Austerity measures!”) while another part desperately wants to feel free, cared-for, powerful, and not dominated by rules (“I want what I want when I want it, and you can’t stop me!”).
Sometimes, this shows up as a spending-regret cycle: We feel bad about our money. We feel shame and regret and commit to saving. Then our inner rebel says we deserve to feel good and to have nice things. We go get them. Then the scolding part tells us how stupid we are, telling us we are spending way too much money, repeat ad nauseum.
Or maybe we save assiduously, never overspending. We deprive ourselves of things that we love and that would bring us joy, because of an internal injunction against spending money “frivolously.” While more socially acceptable, this pattern results in us wondering at the end of our life what the heck we were saving for, and why we didn’t truly LIVE more.
So, What Now?!
Are we doomed to live financially inept and shame-riddled lives? Given everything described above, all of this misery is so very understandable, and the suffering is real. AND, dare I say, optional?
Here’s the good news: Shame dies on contact. Avoidance stops when pain stops. Given an ounce of light—of contact with another human being, the experience of being not alone, of being accepted, empathized-with, and appreciated—we find agency, build competence, reverse avoidance, and get traction and alignment. Whatever patterns you might find you have with money, it is possible to develop a healthy approach to money, one filled with ease, clarity, and support for the kind of life you truly want to live.
If you’re reading this with a sinking feeling of recognition (that’s me!) or a glimmer of hope (something else is possible!), here are some next steps:
4 Ways to Start Healing Your Relationship to Money
1. Make a date with your money. Bring coffee, chocolate, a glass of wine, your stuffed animal—whatever it takes to make it feel like an occasion. Look at all the various pieces of your financial world—your accounts, credit cards, debt, assets, savings, retirement, all of it. For this “first date,” don’t try to change, fix, or accomplish anything. Just NOTICE what happens inside you (Emotions? Thoughts? Desperate fantasy of running for the hills?) as you do this. This may be harder than it seems. See if you can be radically compassionate with yourself for whatever you discover in this process, and whatever you find yourself doing. Your pain comes from somewhere, and it’s not your fault.
2. Remember, reflect, and write (or talk) about your early associations with money. How did your family relate to money? Did your parents or caregivers talk about money, yell about money, cry about money, pretend it didn’t exist? What messages, explicit or implicit, did you receive about money? Your relationship to money didn’t emerge in a vacuum. See if there are patterns or beliefs which might have outgrown their usefulness.
3. Tell one other human being the whole truth about your whole money situation. A friend, a therapist, a hotline volunteer, anyone. Notice what arises in you as you share. Is there shame? Fear? Relief?
4. Get support. If, in attempting to level with your finances, you find yourself getting utterly overwhelmed, too distressed, or you notice that your desire to avoid is overpowering your desire to reckon and heal, I strongly encourage you to find a coach and get some support. Just like you’d get help from a doctor if your physical body hurt, or a therapist if your heart hurt—there’s help to be had around financial well-being, and there are people who can hold your hand (metaphorically) while you do hard things.
In closing, I honor whatever it has taken for you to get where you are with your finances, and whatever it is taking (and will take) for you to confront the emotions that emerge as you grapple with it.
Why does learning about money, healing around money, and forming a sane relationship to money have to be such a solitary journey, anyway? What if it were normal to talk about the details of our money situations with your friends, just as you do with anything else that’s challenging or interesting in your life? What if, as a society, we provided education, and the sharing, conversation, exposure, information that lead to informed, resourced, good decisions? Just like we discuss nutrition, physical health, exercise, meditation,what if we spoke with our friends and our communities about money?
What if, like sherpas guiding each other up a mountain trail, we had compassionate, capable, and fierce friends and allies along the path, helping to carry baggage and showing the way? What if we could be this for each other?
Money can be a big source of stress, but it can also be a tool for deepening self-awareness. Spencer Sherman explains how the money triggers or stressors in our lives can lead to greater freedom and less reactivity.