What's the biggest threat to financial health?
Spoiler Alert: it's shame. But don't tell anyone. 🤫
It’s not pain that takes us down, it's the shame about the pain.
What Rehab Taught Me About Financial Planning 🍸
Before we dive into the details of shame and finances, let me share a personal story. This story illustrates the moment I realized how powerful and debilitating shame can be.
Years ago, I hit a real rough patch in life. I lost my job, was struggling to find a new one and was quickly burning through my savings. It was the financial crisis of 2008-9, so as a finance guy, jobs were not super easy to come by. I was overwhelmed, discouraged, anxious and - frankly - depressed.
Over time - while I wasn’t even paying attention - an insidious solution to my emotional turmoil snuck its way into my life. I had discovered that nothing soothed my emotional disquiet better than a beer. Or twelve. You can imagine how this played out. Things got worse. And a relatively short time later (which felt like an eternity) I found myself walking through the front doors of a residential alcohol rehab facility.
It wasn’t until this moment that I realized how much I was hiding. Hiding so many of the painful details of what was really going on for me and in my life. And as it became clear how much I was hiding, it also became clear to me WHY I was hiding.
The reason I was hiding and keeping secrets was simple. I was deeply ashamed.
I was ashamed of what had become of my life. I was ashamed of how far I had fallen. And I was ashamed that I couldn’t figure out how to pick myself back up and fix things.
What was really going on? Well, a lot. But one thing was that my shame was trying to protect me. Protect me from the pain of suffering the judgment of others. So I took that advice shame was offering and tried to hide my struggles. Did that protect me? I suppose in a way, it did. And yet that hiding was preventing me from getting the help I needed.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk into rehab. I mean, it felt like a lot of things… fear, anxiety, embarrassment. But the predominant feeling was an overwhelming sense of relief.
Relief because I realized everyone around me - everyone there in rehab with me - was there for the same reason as I was. They all had similar struggles and similar stories. And maybe - just maybe - I didn't have to hide all the painful details of my life from them. And the idea that I might not have to hide from the judgment of others felt insanely liberating and empowering.
And so I began sharing. Sharing what was really was going on for me. Sharing what was really going on inside my head. Sharing what I was really struggling with. Sharing where I felt really suck. And sharing about my pain. And that’s when the real magic began. That’s when my problems started to feel maybe not quite as big. And even if they were big, I experienced the miracle of other people saying, “Yah, me too.”
And then the path forward revealed itself. That path revealed itself sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. But the way forward did keep revealing itself. Because I was working for it. And I was doing that work not alone, not in hiding but in community and in partnership with others. I learned how to ask for help, how to receive it and how to put that help into action, one step at a time. Or as the program likes to describe it, one day at a time.
Great story, Dave. But what does this have to do with financial planning and financial wellness? I think a lot.
What’s the Biggest Threat to Your Financial Wellness? 💸
"I figured out that it’s not pain that takes us down, it's the shame about the pain." Glennon Doyle on Episode 209 of Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons Podcast.
What do you imagine the biggest threat to your financial security is? A huge loss in your investments? Crushing student loan debt? Ballooning credit card debt?
Yes, these are all challenging situations. And they can bring up a bunch of emotion. But the truth is that they are all merely situations. There are plenty of strategies and solutions to manage situations.
But you will never step into those solutions if you hide the truth of your situation. And we hide things not only from others, but often from ourselves. What causes that hiding? As I discovered for myself, I believe it’s often shame. Too often, financial shame keeps us paralyzed, keeps us stuck and prevents us from growing, evolving and - most importantly - making our lives better.
The Difference between Financial Shame & Financial Guilt 🧐
Let’s talk about the difference between shame and guilt for a moment. You’re a therapist, so you know this, but let’s review again just for fun. Let’s also review it because shame can be insidious. We don’t always realize we’re stuck in a shame-based thought pattern. We get tricked, or perhaps we trick ourselves. So let’s bring the distinction between shame and guilt into our consciousness and look at it with clear eyes:
- Guilt says “I did something bad.”
- Shame says “I am bad.”
Simple right? This is an easy distinction to make. But how often do you think about your financial situation with shame-based language rather than guilt-based language?
What Shame-Based Financial Thinking Looks Like
“I should have figured out my money by now.”
“Successful private practice owners don’t struggle the way I do.”
“Finance and money shouldn’t be so hard.”
“I’m just not good with money.”
“I’ll never pay off this debt.”
“I could never charge what that therapist does.”
These are all common phrases people utter (usually just to themselves) about their financial situation. And at first glance, it might not be obvious how steeped in shame these statements are.
I call these statements examples of shame-based financial thinking because the dominant concept in these statements isn’t about the situation itself. Rather, it’s about the person having the thoughts. These statements implicitly suggest “I am bad” rather than “I did something bad.”
How to Reduce Shame-Based Financial Thoughts 🤔
How can you better avoid financial shame spirals? Here are a couple things to look for. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a short list of yellow flags. Yellow flags that might indicate you’re stuck in some shame-based financial thinking.
First, shame-based thinking is forward-looking rather than present or backward-looking. Shame likes to tell us a story about how things will be - and it’s rarely a pretty picture. In contrast, non-shame-based thinking is present or backward-looking. ”I’ve accumulated more student loan debt than I’m comfortable with.” “I’m not managing my money effectively.” Those are both assessments of what is, or what has happened, rather than a story about what the future will hold.
Second, shame-based thinking is generalized and non-specific. “I’m no good with money” is a grand, overarching statement about you as a person. Instead, ask yourself what about your current experience leads you to make that statement? That answer might be “I don’t understand the P&L for my private practice.” That’s specific. And the great thing about specific statements is that they highlight a problem which you can take action to address. Which leads me to the third point.
Third, shame-based thinking is disempowering and robs us of agency. If I tell myself “I’m no good with money,” I might as well pack up and go home now. If I simply admit “I do not understand my P&L at all” that offers agency - and maybe even some hope. I can then say, alright, I can go seek out resources to help me learn about my P&L. That process of learning might be uncomfortable, it might be challenging, but it is an action I can take. And I’ve found that moving out of the paralysis of shame and into action often generates a lot of hope.
The Simple Solution to Financial Shame 🤯
So if you catch yourself meandering into a financial shame spiral, what should you do? Thankfully, there is a simple way to reduce the hold shame has over you. While it IS simple, it isn’t easy. It takes courage and bravery.
Shame loses its power if you drag it out into the light and talk about it. Shame cannot survive once you learn to openly share about whatever is triggering your shame.
Any conversation where you make yourself vulnerable in this way naturally must take place in a safe container. Sometimes close friends, colleagues or your therapist are the right place to start sharing. Other times, talking to a stranger can feel safer. Of course, you should have a reasonable basis for believing that stranger will hold a safe space for you.
What Role Can Financial Professionals Play in Dealing with Financial Shame? 👩💼
There are financial professions out there who will bring an awareness of, and sensitivity to the emotions that come up when dealing with money. Increasingly (if slowly and perhaps begrudgingly), the financial industry is recognizing that emotion plays a huge role in our dealings with money. And why wouldn’t it? Money touches literally every aspect of our lives. Emotion is bound to turn up sooner or later (often sooner).
The way I believe that financial planning can (or perhaps even should) be practiced is similar to how I’ve seen trauma-informed therapy described. If there is financial behavior that you’d like to change, financial planning should focus not just on the behavior itself but also on the underlying reasons for the behavior - and the relief it provides currently. Because every action we take - no matter how counterproductive it might seem - serves us in some way. I believe that all behavior provides some form of relief - even if it plants the seeds of suffering down the road.
I think it’s important to remember when dealing with money, that every decision we make and every action we take serves us on some level. Our behavior always meets some need we have, even if that need is subconscious. Which is why it’s so important to be compassionate with ourselves. We are all simply doing the best we can, with the tools we have. And that highlights one important role financial planning and financial professionals can play: offering you additional tools to navigate your financial life.
Everyone makes financial missteps. It’s unavoidable. Why? Because we’re all human and humans aren’t perfect. And the financial world is complex and confusing which makes going a bit astray even more common and understandable. Not to mention that most of us have no formal training in finance and money. Oh AND there are plenty of financial companies out there encouraging us to take out loans or engage in other behaviors that enrich them while depleting ourselves. So please, please, please be kind and compassionate with yourself. No one does this money stuff perfectly, including financial professionals like me. 😬
Wrapping Up & Key Takeaways on Financial Shame 🎁
To wrap this conversation up, here are a couple key take aways.
- Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Even if some of your financial behavior frustrates you, recognize that behavior is serving you in some way. And remember that the finance world is complex and humans are imperfect. Missteps simply happen.
- Be on the lookout for shame hiding in the way you talk to yourself about money. Your financial situation isn’t a reflection of who you are. It is partially a result of past behavior. And your financial situation is also a result of a bunch of other factors outside your control, like the the degree of privilege you were born into. With a compassionate mindset you can work to change your behavior and improve your financial situation.
- If it feels helpful and safe, speak with a trusted friend (or trustworthy stranger!) about what triggers your financial shame. I've found that sharing with another human being really lessens the grip and power shame holds.
- Finally, mindfully and critically evaluate your need for professional financial advice. Shopping for a financial advisor is much like finding a therapist: the fit has to be right! If you feel shamed or judged, move on! There are financial professionals who will work with you in a kind, compassionate and heart-centered way. But you might have to search a bit harder to find them!
The way I see it, if we can stop hiding the shame of having made some financial mistakes, we get the privilege to learn and move forward. This helps us become more complete and healthy human beings. And in the world of money and finance, that growth will facilitate not only greater financial wellness but also greater financial abundance.
Next Steps 🪜
Want to learn more about how to manage your financial life as a therapist effectively? Check out my free Guide to Financial Planning for therapists.
Questions or comments on what I've written here today? Please give me a shout! 📢 I'd love to hear from you.
And if you'd like to share anything with me about what's going on in your life (in a safe container!), I'd be honored to have a 30 minute conversation with you.
Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes financial, legal or tax advice; a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security; or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Read the full Disclaimer here.