Money means different things to different people. It may be a scarce commodity, pursued like a sort of Holy Grail, or it may be the reliable source of treats—a fancy cell phone, prestige wheels, or a glamorous vacation. Money may be gratifying in the present but menacing for the future. It can morph into a monster over the course of a lifetime.
To understand how money can become a demon in our lives, we must look deep within our own individual histories. We must see how it reflects family dynamics in childhood.
What did money come to mean as a metaphor for safety and security when we were kids? How did it come to signify the power we were allowed to wield?
Margaret M. Lynch, who has built a career around helping people understand their attitudes toward their finances, identifies five areas that are potentially problematic: savings, debt, income, income goals, and toxic money. Once you understand your behavior in each area, you can learn how to change it.
For the sake of this brief discussion, we will leave aside toxic money—alimony, child support, inheritance, and other income bearing a heavy emotional toll that may constrain your earning power. Not everyone has this, whereas we all have the other sorts.
We all have hidden programming that determines how much we save, our income goals, and our earning power. Each of the five kinds of money exhibits three distinct aspects: a programmed belief (you could call it habitual self-talk), an emotion that courses through the nervous system, and associated traumatic events.
Want to uncover your money-related issues? You can chart their outlines on a blank piece of paper right now. Get out your pen and pad.
First ask yourself how much money you have in your savings account. Now look at that number. Sit with it, and notice the emotions that well up in you.
Many people feel badly about the size of their savings. They will report sadness, loss, and disappointment. Asked to elaborate, they may say, “I never feel safe.” Some will add, “I’m such a loser. I have no savings to speak of.”
If this description fits, what does the word “loser” mean to you? If you feel embarrassed, possibly the underlying emotion is shame. Maybe the figure associated with your savings account reminds you of a past loss or trauma that remains unresolved.
If so, every time you think about your savings, these feelings and related memories surface in your mind. Can you send yourself some kindness and compassion as you take stock of this pain and suffering?
Now write down your total debt. If you don’t know how big it is, make a guess. What is the first emotion you notice as you consider this figure? If it is fear, look at the amount of debt and complete the following sentence: “This means I’m _____.”
What words do you choose to fill in the blank? Do you see yourself as incompetent or inadequate? Realize that the emotions aren’t the result of the debt. Rather, it’s the other way around. The debt is the result of the feelings.
When it comes to savings, people usually report shame, a sense of worthlessness, and failure. Debt, on the other hand, is mostly driven by some event—a time in the past when you suffered loss, trauma, or betrayal. Realize again that the trauma drives the problem.
Income and income goals are less unpleasant to contemplate. Write down how much you earn in a month. If you notice distress, does a voice in your head tell you, “It’s not enough”?
Say these words out loud. “It’s not enough.” On a scale of 1-10, how true does this statement seem? What emotions surface when you say it? Possibilities include anxiety, anger, and frustration.
Especially now, in twenty-first century America, there’s not enough money for people like us, the middle class. With the increasing disparity between rich and poor, more and more wage earners—the other 99 percent—are struggling to make ends meet.
The anguish gets worse from one year to the next. Under these circumstances, any traumas connected to income in your family of origin will loom large indeed. What sorts of family influences are we talking about?
In early twentieth-century America, a woman’s social standing and sense of self-worth had much to do with how well her husband was able to support her. If your mother grew up then, what did she teach you? People who as children weathered the Great Depression in the 1930s learned to treat savings like gold bullion. It was an attitude utterly different from that of kids raised in the relative affluence of the 1950s. What would a father recalling the depression communicate to his son born in the mid to late 1940s?
In your childhood one parent may have suffered a traumatic loss of income—perhaps through death, disability, firing, or failure to win promotion. It’s also possible that you grew up in the shadow of the family breadwinner. What would these experiences mean for your attitude toward money?
Alternatively, you may have believed that you could never do well financially, since one parent’s incessant criticism systematically undermined your self-confidence. Looking at your income and your lifestyle, past and present, can you identify an income set point that you seem never to exceed?
Now consider your income goals. Write down a figure that is double your present income. Looking at this amount, how do you feel? Many people get spooked. If the number seems okay to you, you may not be really seeing it, because if it truly seemed fine, you would be earning that much now.
Look again at this income goal. Say out loud, “It’s impossible.” How do these words affect you? Rate the feeling on a 1-10 scale. If you believe that the figure is 50 percent possible, can you see that you are settling for your present income level?
The more impossible the doubled amount of income feels, the more likely you are to be noticing a fear of failure. When something seems truly out of the question, a limiting belief is at work.
In the business world people often avoid setting income goals even though it’s been proven time and again that such goals lead to increased earnings. The reason for this avoidance is the businessperson’s unwillingness to experience the anxiety that comes from contemplating the goal.
Can you now see how your programmed beliefs are limiting your income potential? Once you understand how your past is playing out in your present, a shift will be possible for you.
By now you may be wondering how to make a change. Just thinking about the causes of your programmed behaviors won’t do the trick. Insight alone is no good.
You need to involve not just your conscious thoughts but also your nervous system, where all of your old messages are stored. The remedy is one of the newer mind/body techniques. In the months ahead, I will have lots more to tell you about this method and how you can use it to achieve your full potential for financial success.