Tame Your Money Shame

It’s taboo to talk about financial struggles because our emotions about money run so deep—but naming our feelings around money will help us deepen our relationship with it.

Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk
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When it comes to money, shame is present somewhere in us all, whether it’s right at the surface or swept under the rug, prompting big changes or holding us back from even starting our money healing journey.

We all carry it. Women, men, black, brown, white, young, old, short, tall, gay, straight, billionaires and paupers, spreadsheet enthusiasts and number-phobes, self-made entrepreneurs, welfare recipients, and trustfunders. Money shame is an equal opportunity affliction, and it does not discriminate based on who you are, where you’re from, how much money you earn, what percentage you save, whether you pay your taxes on time, or what your credit score is.

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Your money shame might be tied to a specific experience in your life, your upbringing in general, or none of the above. Here are some variants I’ve heard:

“I’m just not good with money. I can’t be trusted with it.”

“I earn plenty, but I still seem to spend too much—how do I have this much debt?”

“I’m too right-brained, creative, and bad at math to be good with money.”

“If I make a lot of money, I’m betraying my working-class roots.”

“I should be further along with my savings/earnings/debt payoff/investment.”

“People who have money are bad.”

“I should have more money by now—the fact that I don’t means something’s wrong with me.”

“I’m too reliant upon my parents/husband/daughter for money. Why can’t I be more financially independent?”

“People like me shouldn’t make money; it’s dirty and unethical.”

“I only deserve money if I work really, really hard for it. Lazy people (like me) don’t deserve money.”

“Wanting more than ‘just enough’ money is selfish.”

Back in my social worker days, one of the heaviest pieces of money shame I carried was the belief that I shouldn’t try (or even want) to earn a comfortable income: That would be too materialistic, shallow, and un-spiritual. Instead, I told myself I should just do good work in the world and be happy with that. Unfortunately, this shameful money belief only fed into another: I was supposed to earn more money and “be a grown-up” about it. Satisfying both of these demands wasn’t just difficult; it was utterly impossible. Indeed, when we look directly at money shame, we can start to recognize all of those sneaky contradictions and impossible double-binds it puts us in.

Emotions that cost you

Suzie was convinced she’d never be able to show her face in public again. The beautiful house she had bought the previous year was falling apart around her. The foundation was cracked, and years of rain damage had begun separating the entire front wall of the house from the rest of the structure. The repairs would cost more than the value of the house itself and were far beyond her means. She had sunk her entire life savings and a generous loan from her mother into the down payment.

As for many people, there was no legal recourse for Suzie; the only option she had was foreclosure and bankruptcy. Crushed and ashamed, she moved into a modest apartment a few blocks away. For the next several years, she couldn’t drive by the house without falling into despair. She cried at work, at home, and in public. She even began avoiding her favorite people and places for fear she’d burst into tears. She berated herself for creating this mess: Obviously, she told herself, it was all her fault, because she was bad with money and didn’t deserve such a nice house.

Some money shame feels acute and all consuming, like Suzie’s. Yet there are also more subtle forms of money shame, and some of us only experience fleeting pangs of it here and there, when a memory surfaces or a late fee arrives, for example. One colleague shared that despite a huge leap in her earnings over the previous few years, she hadn’t saved more than a couple hundred dollars: As soon as money came in, like the tide, it went right back out. When she talked about money with others, considered buying a home, or projected long-term, her jaw tightened, her gut sank, and she wondered when she would ever “grow up” and learn how to save.

If we took all of the various flavors of money shame, put them in a pot, and simmered them down to their essence, it would be something like: Something’s wrong with me. I’m not OK. I’m bad, deficient, not good enough. I’m doing something wrong in this area of life.

While it’s often tempting to stuff down the unpleasant feeling of money shame, it is far more helpful to recognize it when it arises and call it by its name—no matter how huge or small it feels. By noticing, naming, and honoring even this challenging emotion, we crack a doorway into other, gentler, more reassuring states of mind.

Money shame is an equal opportunity affliction, and it does not discriminate based on who you are.

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Name it to tame it

I’ve asked thousands of people: “Were you given a financial education, on an emotional, practical, or spiritual level?” The answer: “Nope.”

Most of us were simply not taught about money: how to manage it, how to talk about it, and least of all how to navigate our feelings about it. In an ideal world, we would learn money skills and tools for understanding it and practices for relating to it and how to talk about it, all in incremental, age-appropriate ways, from grade school on up.

In the absence of this much-needed education, we project like crazy onto money: We conflate it with our identity, our sense of worth, our definitions of success and maturity, beliefs inherited from our community, lineage, culture, spiritual aspirations, and on and on.

Given that most of us simply were not taught how to make sense of money in any conscious way, is it any wonder, then, that we flounder and fall in this money territory?

As shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown explains, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” We’ve already seen these three ingredients in action: Most of us keep our money shame to ourselves, never or rarely speak it aloud, and berate ourselves for even having it. Yet simply naming and speaking money shame aloud is an important step in healing it. As Brown says, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.”

Shaming ourselves is an old, unconscious pattern. Telling ourselves, again and again, that we are not doing it right, that we’re not good enough, or that we’re unforgivable is self-directed violence. It’s unhelpful and flat-out inaccurate.

The path out of money shame is not getting smarter or working harder or restricting your spending more harshly. The path out of money shame is finally putting down that lash, releasing those unrealistic standards, and cultivating every last drop of forgiveness, self-love, and compassion you can muster.

Shame thrives in the dark, silent lands of taboo, so bringing the light of consciousness and courageous truth-telling can dissolve even the deepest, oldest shards of money shame. There is such healing in speaking the truth about money.

Shaking the money stories

In Barbara’s earliest money memory, she was three years old, perched atop a miniature step stool, brushing her teeth before bed. Suddenly, a question popped into her mind, and she turned to her mother to ask, “Mama, how much allowance do you get?” Her mother remained silent but gave Barbara a withering stare. In that moment, Barbara got the message and made the decision: One does not talk about money. Years later, as she navigated extremely difficult financial circumstances, she kept silent about them. Even in her sessions with a therapist, where she could talk openly about everything else, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about money. This early memory, then, set Barbara on a path of neglecting money for many years—and ultimately paying a steep price for it.

These earliest money memories are much like the first seeds planted in your money “garden,” eventually growing into the central, imposing fixtures of our financial lives. They are the focal points, the towering oaks, around which whole ecosystems grow, even though we often remain unaware of their existence.

As pivotal as your initial money memories can be, there’s much, much more to your relationship with money. Whether or not you could afford college, for example, and if you did go, whether or not you had to work when you were there, may be a big part of your story. You may have relied on a partner for part of your twenties, lost your financial footing due to a layoff, or received a big inheritance. You may have been financially self-reliant from the age of 16, or your money relationship may always have been intertwined with your family. Perhaps you turned your financial relationship around dramatically when you started your own business—or maybe you took a risk in the stock market and lost your life savings.

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Most of us were simply not taught about money: how to manage it, how to talk about it, and least of all how to navigate our feelings about it.

This panoramic view of your past and present relationship with money is your money story. It’s the entirety of your relationship with money, from the tiny details to the major events. It’s as unique as your fingerprint and includes the whole shebang: the historical facts of your financial life; inherited patterns from your family of origin, lineage, and culture; how you take on or rebel against them and integrate your own beliefs and behaviors around money; and all the sensations and emotions that get stirred up in this terrain.

When I introduce people to the concept of a money story, I tell them to start by looking at their current relationship to money—then go back to the past. First, center yourself with a Body Check-In (see page 48). Then, look at your current relationship to money: how you feel about earning, spending, saving, and so on. Once you feel current and aware, you can begin the next phase of the journey, into the past. You can gently explore memories and lovingly turn over rocks. Clear the cobwebs and shine lights. Perhaps you can push even further into the past, examining what messages you’ve received about money from your religion, ancestral lineage, or culture.

Once you’ve assessed your current relationship with money and your past history with it, you can make the crucial leap of connecting the dots between the two, noticing if you’re echoing spending patterns your mother taught you or rebelling against your grandparents’ strict beliefs about savings by splurging any chance you get.

When we can clearly see the past and its influence on our present relationship with money, a whole new world of choice opens up for us. Perhaps you realize that the inheritance you received from your grandfather was created in ways you consider unethical—knowing this, you can choose how to be a conscious steward of that wealth. Maybe your parents lost all of their money in a stock market crash, which instilled a deep distrust in you from an early age. Becoming aware of this inherited belief and understanding where it comes from and how it affects you sets the stage for liberated transformation: You can choose a new path for yourself and your future. Perhaps your immigrant parents each worked three jobs, teaching you that your worth equals how hard you work; becoming aware of this belief may free you to enjoy a deeper sense of your own value, just for being who you are, even if you only work one job and never miss your annual vacation.

If I have learned anything in my years as a financial therapist, it’s that we have the power to rewrite our money stories. We can sift through our histories and distinguish the facts from our subjective experience, interpretation, and the meaning we’ve made of them. Through awareness, understanding, and un-shaming, we can heal our money stories, reframe old beliefs, shift patterns, and create utterly new, delightfully meaningful beliefs and practices around money.

We can’t expect to exterminate our reactions or emotions around money. But we can tone down the emotions and soften the triggers. We can catch our reactions, honor them, work with them, be loving and gentle with them, learn from them, and be more fully present. In this way, your relationship with money will deepen and evolve.

All the ways we feel money shame 

How money shame shows up in our bodies and our minds:

  • Utter hopelessness that you’ll ever figure it all out
  • Pangs of guilt when you decide how much to charge for your new product or service
  • Procrastination, “freezing,” or denial around paying your taxes, setting up an estate, or some other money-related item on your To Do list
  • A leaden cloak of grief that’s always with you
  • Longing for someone to swoop in and save you from your money struggles or issues
  • Rage toward the world, your family, your boss, etc., that you even have to deal with this part of life
  • That queasy pit in your stomach as you approach the check-out line, wondering if your card will be declined (or if you’re simply buying more than you “should”)
  • Guilt, frustration, and disempowerment in your personal and business life
  • Feeling sleepy, bored, “checked-out,” or out of your body a little when you pay bills
  • Fear or guilt that you don’t have way more saved for your future
  • Anxiety around talking about money

Let’s check in

My absolute favorite tool for conscious money work is getting in touch with the body. It helps us remain present, empowered, and conscious when things get tough (or when things are so fabulous, you can’t believe it). It supports us along steep learning curves and through deep, inner exploration, two things money work demands of us frequently, and often simultaneously.

When confronted with an overdue tax bill, even the most mindful among us tend to get scattered, overwhelmed, or numb. That’s why one of the first things we become aware of when we start practicing the body check-in is just how unaware we typically are. This is one reason the “just do it” approaches to money management often fail: How can you possibly stick to a budget or limit your credit card spending when you “check out” at the checkout counter?

Awareness comes first, then understanding, and finally, transformation.

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Practice: The Body Check-in

It all starts with a pause. Stop whatever you’re doing. Take a moment for yourself. Gather up all of your attention and turn your gaze within yourself.

Move at your own pace, as slowly and gently as you like. Give yourself permission to dip your toes into a feeling, see how you respond, and then wade in deeper only if it feels right.

A word of caution: If you encounter some particularly overwhelming emotions, old wounds, or trauma, please do not deny yourself the support you need and deserve.

Take a few deep, slow breaths. Close your eyes, if this feels good and helpful to you.

Adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity. Without judgment or any attempt to change anything, simply notice. Start with your physical sensations: Become aware of how your body feels on your chair or how your feet rest on the earth. Notice sensations of movement and stillness: the breeze, the quiet stability of your pelvis. Notice how your breath feels, moving in and out: Is it deep, shallow, cool, tight?

Next, gently observe the emotions moving through you. Do you feel angry, anxious, annoyed, or awestruck? How do these feelings feel in your body? Is your jaw set in hot determination, or do you feel a flutter of excitement in your belly? Allow yourself to simply be aware of these emotions and how they feel in your body.

Also notice any thoughts, images, memories, or self-talk. Like clouds floating through the sky of your mind, simply notice them. No need to cling to them or push them away—simply acknowledge them. Are self-criticism, judgment, or other challenging sensations arising? Notice. Are elation, excitement, or other expansive sensations arising? Notice these, too.

As you scan your body, emotions, and mind, you may like to ask yourself if there’s anything you’d like to remove from or add to your situation. If you notice your jaw is tight, perhaps you’d like to wag it loose. If you notice your breath is shallow and quick, you might gently lengthen and deepen it.

Come home to your body, here. Follow your breath. This isn’t about perfecting or even changing anything—it is simply about being aware.

I recommend doing this before, during, and after every money decision or any of the money interactions you face throughout your day, from teensy to monumental: in the checkout line; before you go online to look at your balances and pay bills; after a stressful conversation with your credit card company; during a money conversation with your sweetheart or your business partner. Use it especially in tough times, when you’re feeling triggered, stressed, or simply “off.”

Visualize your money story

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Create a safe, sacred space for this exploration. You may want to light a candle or pour yourself a cup of tea. Take your time. Move gently. Do a body check-in before, during, and after. If you find yourself rushing, slow down. You may want to answer all of these questions at once, or you might insert a few moments or even days between each section. Explore with compassion and curiosity. Let this be an act of mindfulness and self-love.

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1. Describe your current relationship with money

It’s always best to begin in the present moment. Spend a few moments thinking or writing about your current relationship with money. How do you feel about earning, spending, saving, giving, borrowing, loaning, and receiving money? What feelings or memories do these activities stir within you? Slow down. Do you notice any beliefs, patterns, or conditions attached to these areas?

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2. Visualize your money past

Get centered in your body and take a few deep breaths. From this grounded, mature place, let your mind travel back into your childhood memories. Look around, see your home and its surroundings. What did you learn about money, here? What beliefs did you receive? What decisions did you make? Do you recall others who had more or less money than you? What did you feel about that?

Now, think about your family. What was your mother’s role, in terms of family finances? What messages did she give you about money, verbally and through her unspoken behavior and emotions? In what ways have you echoed her role or rebelled against it? Ask these same questions about your father, your grandparents, your siblings, and anyone else significant to you in your childhood.

Did you receive messages about money from your religion, culture, or lineage? What were they?

Trace the ups and downs of your life in relation to money. Did you experience any big financial successes or hardships? How have they affected you, your life, and how you relate to money?

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3. Connect the dots between past and present

How are you keeping the past alive in your relationship with money? Considering everything you were taught (and not taught) about money, how are you living out old or inherited beliefs, patterns, and stories? Have you repeated the past, rebelled against it, or struck out on your own?

How is your past Money Story affecting your relationships with your parents, siblings, friends, boss, clients, or larger community? How does it show up in your self-talk, in your behaviors, and in your thoughts about the future?

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4. Give yourself a hug

Congratulations! Even if you answered just a few of these questions, you deserve a huge pat on the back. However you might be feeling at this point—energized, angry, grieving, or overwhelmed—please know this: You are brave, you are awesome, and you are making great progress in your Money Initiation.

Please take time for self-care and integration after this significant exploration. Dance, draw, paint, sleep, hike, play with the dog—do whatever you love to do, to honor your courage and let these insights seep in.

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Stay tuned! Bari Tessler will be back with more money tips and insights in our December 2018 issue.

From The Art of Money by Bari Tessler © 2018. Excerpted with permission of Parallax Press.

GROW YOUR MEDITATION PRACTICE


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About the author

Bari Tessler

Bari Tessler is a financial therapist, author, and creator of the online Art of Money program at baritessler.com.

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