It’s one of the longest and most important relationships you’ll have in your life — and one where your love and devotion is guaranteed to go unrequited.
But forget about breaking up, because even if you don’t care too much for money, we’re talking about a till-death-do-you-part union. So if you and your bank account aren’t getting along, maybe it’s time for some financial psychotherapy.
You’re obviously the one with all the baggage. But Dr. Moira Somers can help you unpack it and sort through the emotional, motivational and interpersonal reasons you treat money the way you do.
“I help people make friends with their financial lives,” says Somers, a Winnipeg-based psychologist, life coach and “financial recovery expert.”
Financial psychology, like neuroeconomics and behavioural finance, is an emerging field that explores how people make decisions around money. As with food, our relationship with cold, hard cash is complicated and can bring out strong emotions and irrational behaviour. Money is at the core of most of our fears and anxieties. And it can destroy our relationships, our self-esteem and our health.
People repeatedly identify it as the biggest source of stress in their lives, says Somers.
Painful stress around money, she says, tends to show up in a lot of disordered behaviour, such as chronic debt, overspending, under-earning and using money as a means, unconsciously and inadvertently, to exercise power and control.
“It’s a complex topic,” Somers says. “Money is this vital life resource, which is good at doing what it was meant to — provide for our physical comfort and safety — but we embed it with power and emotional security, or we imbue it with evil and sin.
“And we ask money all the time to do things it was never intended to do.”
Things such as affirm our self-worth, comfort us (retail therapy, anyone?), distract us from nagging insecurities or fill an inner void.
In her new book, Geneen Roth, the author of the New York Times bestseller Women, Food and God who lost her life savings in the Bernie Madoff scam, offers insight into how unconscious relationships with money are akin to those with food.
In Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money, Roth, a self-proclaimed shirker of fiscal responsibility, draws comparisons between what made her a compulsive eater and what put her in a “financial haze.”
“We are one integrated system and we express the things we believe through the various actions we take — like shopping, spending and eating,” the author said in recent interview with Time.com. “If someone feels a lack of self-worth, this will manifest in many different areas of his or her life.”
While there’s no shortage of good financial or dieting advice, Roth said, it’s hard to follow it until you become aware that you’re using money (or food) for emotional reasons.
“When linear objective advice meets emotional needs,” she told Time.com, “the latter always wins.”
We all have a money story that began in childhood, when we developed a belief system around money, Somers says. “Depending on the many scripts that are embedded in childhood experience, or embedded by our culture, we end up making decisions based on those beliefs.”
Under-earners, for example, are self-saboteurs who don’t live up to their earning potential because they may have a hard time asking for what they’re worth, Somers says. They may earn $10 an hour or pull in six figures a year, but they tend to live paycheque to paycheque, are often in debt, and have “a high tolerance for low pay.”
People who believe money is scarce may cling to it and become rigid and unyielding in that part of their life. Somers says she has worked with families of “tremendous wealth” who have this script operating to some extent.
People in helping professions are often conflicted about money, she says, because the desire to help and the need to make a living can feel at odds with each other. To compensate, they’ll sometimes take on too many clients or overload their schedules with pro bono work.
Children who witness their parents fight about money may grow up to be adults who view it as inherently problematic and who make a decision, conscious or otherwise, to kind of tune out financially, Somers says.
Money scripts are often born out of emotional pain, she says, and a desire to protect the self from further pain. Which is why so many people just kind of go unconscious with respect to their finances.
Somers helps people wake up to their financial reality in several ways. In addition to one-on-one or couples psychotherapy, she also offers money coaching — where your psyche and your financial records get probed and you end up with a financial plan to follow — a tele-seminar series on women and money, and workshops on couples and cash and raising financially savvy kids.
Money, she says, is a vital life resource, “but it’s also a bounded resource, like time and energy. It really helps to get conscious about how you want to direct and spend it.”