By Lisa M. Juliano, Psy.D.
“Money makes the world go ‘round,” says the song from Cabaret made famous by Liza Minelli. Liza (AKA, Sally Bowles) had an easy time with “money, money,” but for most of us money is a tricky subject.
Money and Family Values
Like so many things we encounter in our daily lives, we develop many of our attitudes about money in relationship to our families of origin. One family may value “saving for a rainy day,” while another may value experience over financial security and spend money on adventures and vacations. For some, money is tight, but no one goes without; for others, money is plentiful, yet there are still restrictions.
When Your Money Values and Your Family's Money Values Collide
What happens when we make more money than our parents did? What happens when we make less? Or when we view money differently than our parents did when they were younger? Although this may not seem to be a psychological problem, it may cause a good deal of anguish. When adult children find themselves in different financial situations than their parents, tension may ensue.
An Example: Bob
Bob, a 53-year-old man originally from Georgia, is a CEO of a multinational company. From the outside, Bob has it all: spouse, six-figure salary, home, freedom to purchase what he pleases—all the external trappings of success. Yet Bob feels restless, anxious and convinced that his very secure position is always on the line.
This anxiety became very intense recently when Jim, Bob’s 82-year-old dad, came to visit from Atlanta. It would be the first time that Bob’s father had come north to see his son Bob was losing sleep anticipating the visit, unsure how his dad would react to seeing how much Bob had acquired. “He never was too ambitious himself,” Bob said wistfully, “he was content just getting by. I’ve made so much more of my life than he did.”
The visit itself went without incident, but a week later Bob was wracked with more anxiety. “The last thing he said to me, “'I really love your new house and I’m really proud of you,’ that made feel so weird.” “Weird how?” I asked. “I don’t know… guilty, I think. Guilty that I had it and he never did.”
It’s not that Bob feels that his dad begrudges him his success; in fact, Bob admitted he would have had an easier time if Jim had belittled him or become dismissive. In a real way, Bob not only left Atlanta behind but found a new identity through his wealth and ambition. The pain of that separation causes Bob to feel unsure about his career and his professional choices.
By contrast, Lily, 32, and her husband Matt, 30, moved from a Philadelphia suburb to an inexpensive apartment on the outskirts of the Bronx to pursue a "creative career path." Both gave up more lucrative full time jobs that were, in Lily's words, "soulless" in order to have the freedom to create music projects, visual art pieces and interactive theater. They transformed their living room into a recording and video studio as well as an atelier.
Lily says she is only happy when she is creating art, and she and Matt are committed to their joint pursuit. They have made it clear to their parents and siblings that they have no interest in "saving for some damn house," or having children, or pursuing the kind of conventional lives that are satisfying to their families. Despite this declaration, Lily's parents, well-off homeowners and management executives, continue to ask when she and Mat will be finding "real jobs."
Lily struggles most just after she succeeds in creating art that gets noticed. At first she is elated, then becomes defensive, angry, sad and withdrawn. Recently, Lily and Matt produced a music video that got favorable reviews. Initially Lily was excited, but shortly after she became distracted while telling me about it. When I inquired about her change of demeanor, she responded, "I don't feel like I can own my successes. I don't feel legitimate." Lily feels like such a stranger in her family because she is the only member who has chosen to forego material security for artistic fulfillment. "I know they're happy for me, but....I can't always trust it."
What Do To
Economic success has a lot of meaning for many families. When we deviate from our family’s values and/or expectations, it can be painful and distressing. In an effort to minimize hurt feelings and/or avoid scrutiny and criticism, we may find ourselves being less than truthful about our financial situation. This can compromise family relationships. If this kind of distress interferes with your life significantly, it may be time to seek out a therapist to help you understand and sort out what's going on.
Lisa M. Juliano, Psy.D., is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute and works in a private practice in New York City. She provides adult individual psychotherapy primarily, but not limited to, the psychological issues of the creative artist. She also works with couples, both gay and straight. In addition, Lisa offers bariatric surgery patients pre-surgical psychological evaluations and post-surgical counseling. Please visit her website: lisajuliano.com.