Freudian Quips

Bringing things to a head

Money Issues? They're "All in Your Head"

Feelings and beliefs about money can sabotage knowledge and good intentions.

“We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.”  —James Baldwin.

Every dieter can rattle off extensive knowledge of calories, carbohydrates, fats, and protein, as well as how many minutes of walking, running, leaping, jumping, skiing, swimming, rowing and zumba-ing are required to burn off a candy bar or an apple. Yet, as a nation, we’re more obese than ever, despite an unprecedented knowledge of food, nutrition, and exercise. Why? Because it’s never, ever, ever been “just about the food!”

Likewise with money. 

Karen, a successful, single, professional woman, has every budget app ever written but can’t control her impulse to spend. What emerged after our work together was that she’d buy luxury sheets and towels she didn’t need, imagining for a brief moment how much she and her new paramour would enjoy them . . . someday. Her fantasy of finding the romantic relationship she so desperately wanted relieved her feelings of loneliness and anxiety at the moment of purchase, but offered only a short-lived escape. Karen’s not alone in spending “unconsciously” as a way of feeling whole, feeling loved, having the life she imagines she’d so enjoy. She’s not alone in using things to fill the emotional void, spending money in a misguided attempt to fix feelings, rather than addressing the real causes of feeling bad and deprived in her actual life. Not to mention that, when the bill comes, she must face another very real impediment (i.e., credit card debt) to her happiness, long after the thrill of imagining a lover’s tryst has faded. There is meaning to what people like Karen overspend on, and until the meaning and feelings are addressed, the problem remains.

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Tom and Lisa, a married couple, hired professionals to devise an estate plan years ago but never put any of it into action. Their initial anxiety mounts but they feel powerless to address it, because the root causes (dread of facing the tough custody decisions, or worries about retirement, or even their own mortality) remain out of their awareness. 

Vivian is so paralyzed by her fears of being 90 years old and having to live on cat food that she’s unable to bring her intelligence and problem-solving abilities to bear on securing her financial future today. Instead she feels increasingly helpless and hopeless, and frustrated with herself. 

Several couples I've met know all too well the destructive use of money as the expression of power or anger in their relationships. Without addressing these feelings, they continue to act them out in destructive, self-sabotaging ways that undermine them.

It’s because money issues reside mostly in the part of the brain that controls emotion. And they can’t be cured by budget apps, or by the study of investments. A lot of very important things get expressed through money, and the related hang-ups can cause anything from minor glitches to major dysfunction, even disaster. 

Sound familiar? If your feelings about money are screaming out for help, they may be drowning out your ability to even hear financial information objectively, and that may set you on a collision course for the future. Rather than allowing the train wreck to happen, think about your earliest memories of money, how it was handled in your family of origin, what it “means” to you at present, how it manifests in feelings about your life goals and yourself. Common issues include seeing money as your report card, a hard and fast measure of your self worth as a person; or using money to get back at a spouse; or letting issues (e.g., guilt, fear) your parents passed on about money manifest as money problems for you in the present. Some people feel judged, believing that their respectability hinges on how much they have, whether it’s earned or inherited, etc.. Their competitiveness around money may be sabotaging their marriages or friendships in ways that are unnecessary and destructive. 

In the case of inheritance, issues as to whose money it is, whether it’s “deserved,” how much is to be spent versus saved for a rainy day, may be heightened by messages handed down by family. Still others worry about envy, whether having more or less than siblings or friends gets in the way of their attachments. 

Perhaps the reason these issues loom so large is that they have the potential to disrupt either our attachments to those we love, or our identities (our sense of who we are), either of which strikes at the very heart of our well-being. These feelings exist at various levels of our awareness, and when outside our awareness, threaten to do the most damage. 

Everyone has issues about money that warrant examination. Not everyone has a self-destructive problem in this area, however. It all depends on what those feelings are and how intensely they are felt. 

If you are struggling with money, despite having access to knowledge and information, perhaps it’s time to get to the root of the matter: first, by acknowledging that it’s all in your head and next, by looking at your money beliefs. By doing so, you’ll gain control of your unwanted money behaviors, and hopefully achieve a healthy relationship to your nest egg.

Look for my next Psychology Today Blog where I discuss the 4 major money beliefs that cause trouble.

Valerie Golden, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Medical School and Clinical Psychology Program.

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