5 Confessions of A Former Professional Firefighter and Meaningful Lessons For Financial IntimacyFeb 23, 2023
Dear Healthy Love and Money Couple,
What is your story? All of your story.
We all have a story. Some parts of it we would rather forget, but is that the right way to handle our stories?
I have been on a journey to answer that question and I have come to the conclusion it is far better to own our whole story than try to dance around the parts that are painful and deemed undesirable. This does not mean that we are consumed or defined by these parts of the story. Quite to the contrary, it is when we own our whole story that we can draw powerful lessons from the painful and undesirable parts of our stories.
As a Therapy Informed Financial Planner™ I have come to appreciate that for many of my clients the disowned parts of their story are the parts of the story that are stopping them from authentically showing up fully in their lives and relationships. This is about who you are and how you relate to money.
If you can’t own it, you can’t deal with it.
Your only as sick as your secrets - which comes from the field of addiction recovery.
Bravery and Cowardice
Was I brave as a firefighter? Maybe…
The expectations of being brave are synonymous with being a firefighter. Stop and think about it. Who in their right mind would intentionally run into a burning budling? The instinct for safety and self-preservation is a human response to burning buildings, yet this is exactly what we do as firefighters. We run into dangerous settings overriding so many natural and human instincts. For this, we get called brave.
Not running into danger would leave you subject to being called a coward or far worse. Not running into trouble means the people you have agreed to protect and serve could die, and your fellow firefighters could be put at great risk including death as well.
Not responding to the call to action is paramount to treason. The reality is the stakes are high when you can’t summon up the courage to respond to the call to action.
Here’s the truth I now know as a therapist. Yes, on the surface, I was brave. From a trauma psychology perspective, I learned how to dissociate from my fear, terror, and anxiety so that I could run into danger. Dissociating from fear, terror, and anxiety can be a good thing to make it through a scary and threatening experience. However, when dissociating from fear, terror, and anxiety becomes a way of functioning, it becomes far more problematic. It leads to higher and higher levels of risk-taking and avoidance in other areas of life.
If you had asked me if I felt fear, terror, or anxiety as a firefighter, I would have vehemently denied it in the nicest way possible. To acknowledge those emotional responses would have been akin to cowardice at the time.
Yes, I felt fear, terror, and anxiety as a firefighter, and no, I do not think I was a coward for feeling them now. I am human before I was a brave firefighter. Healing from the dissociated fear, terror, and anxiety has been very challenging and liberating.
Emotions and feelings are valuable information about your environment within you and outside of you. Sometimes we think it takes extra bravery to face our finances and that you are a coward if you don’t. Yet the more profound truth is you are a human with a complex set of emotions, and learning to work with them makes you brave, not the ability to dissociate and suppress them.
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have strong comfortable, and uncomfortable emotions associated with a wide range of money topics. If you don’t feel like you have any strong emotions about money topics then it is likely you too learned to dissociate from your emotions and feelings.
Not Speaking Up and Survival
I hated some of the guys in the fire department. I know that saying you hate someone is strong, and I can even hear some people saying you don’t mean that, and that’s not nice.
Hate is a powerful word. I have learned now as a therapist that the feeling of hate can be a self-protective emotion. When we feel hate, we need to pay attention. This is a major smoke alarm that something is not okay. Denying our feelings of hate leave us stuck in toxic environments.
When I was a firefighter, I was nineteen to twenty four years old. I can now see multiple forces working against me to speak up to the firefighters that evoked hate in me.
I experienced criticism for who I am and where I was from.
I watched and experienced the emotional bullying of other firefighters.
I heard guys use racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist language.
There was an age, respect power differential that at times felt like I couldn’t question
I brought in my childhood trauma and anxious attachment I was utterly unaware of.
I would have to count on these guys to have my back if we got into a bad spot, and at the same time, if I spoke up, I imagined that I would not be safe in the future. The fear of speaking up was my truth at the time.
Sometimes not speaking up is better for your survival in the short run. In the long run, it will drown you in hatred of others and yourself.
The parallel to our financial life is that we count on money as part of life's survival. If the other people we count on financially will not be available to us, if we stand up to them, then we may be much less likely to speak up for ourselves about a wide range of needs.
This is why it is so important to become aware and ask if your partner ever has concerns about speaking up for fear of negative relational or financial outcomes. The threat does not have to be real, only perceived in order to have a negative impact.
This has definitely been true in my marriage. I have often had perceptions my wife would reject me or withhold from me financially if I was honest about a need. I can honestly say this is about me and not her now. She has never made those types of threats overtly or covertly. I see this now through the the lens of anxious attachment.
Part of why I left firefighting is I had no idea how to navigate my fellow firefighters, which evoked hate in me. I choose not to make them villains in this story no more than I want to be seen as the story's victim. I see it now that we are all humans with various psychological and relational abilities. No person is all good or all bad. To be sure, I have had my moments where I have likely evoked hatred in others. While not my intention, it has happened.
Death Is Real
Living in modern western society, most of us are spared from first-hand experiences of death on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis—especially traumatic injury and death. Professional firefighters face the reality of death on a daily basis. This part of the work left me with many unprocessed emotions about the reality of human suffering, death, meaning, and personal safety in the world.
The unraveling of my repressed and dissociated emotions and ability to speak to this reality has been a long time coming. There are so many experiences as a firefighter that left me speechless and gut-wrenched. Yet our familiar friend dissociation helped me to navigate this reality alongside other psychological defense mechanisms I had no idea existed before becoming a therapist.
The sad truth is that as a firefighter, you get plenty of training on putting on your protective gear for your body, but no training on how to project your mind, brain, and body from the psychological trauma of bearing witness to profound human loss.
As a firefighter, I responded to the deaths and serious injuries of infants to the elderly. There is nothing like trying to save a young child from death, giving it your all, and being completely powerless to save the child. There is a psychological responsibility you take on as a firefighter to save people, and when you “fail” at that, it is crushing.
At the time, I could not articulate this, and we certainly wouldn’t talk about it openly and honestly amongst ourselves as firefighers. We would more often fix a big delicious meal and eat ice cream to navigate the psychological realities of what we had seen that day.
The fear of death in psychotherapy is known to be the greatest anxiety of the human condition. It’s not hard now to understand why. There is a finality to death, unlike any other experience in life. When doing financial planning, the reality of a clients own mortality proves to be the most challenging for many people. Yet our feelings and experiences with death determine consciously and unconsciously how we organize ourselves around money. The passage of time in life and the moving toward our mortality continuously shapes what we are doing and not doing with money in our lives.
Behind The Hero Is A Human
Getting stuck behind the mask of being a hero is a terrible place to be. Yes, it was and is a great honor to have been a firefighter, and there is no changing the reality of its impact on me. I only wish that someone would have been teaching me the psychology of archetypes and how we can get stuck behind a role at the same time they taught me how to put on my air pack.
Being a firefighter is a professional identity that blends so deeply with your sense of self and role in the world that you no longer know where you start and stop and where the work of being a firefighter begins and ends.
The role of being a hero and in my case, a firefighter gave me a sense of identity that I lacked independently of the role. I used the firefighter role to cover for my insecurities and lack of sense of self. I did not know that was what I was doing or part of why I was attracted to being a firefighter.
But here’s the truth I never loved running into burning buildings. I loved the idea of being a hero way more than the actual reality of being a firefighter.
As a therapist, I have come to appreciate that this reality is not unique to me nor to firefighters. It is common amongst formal professions that also share a hero archetype, including but not limited to police officers, soldiers, doctors, pastors, paramedics, lawyers, and actors.
There are always people that want to and need to save the day. Wanting to be a hero is not all bad, but it can become problematic. Here is the amazing thing the hero archetype shows up in every possible profession.
People with an insecure attachment style will function in their hero role very differently than people with a secure attachment style.
Let’s talk about financial heroes for a moment. Financial heroes are special heroes who use their ability to make money, rescue companies/organizations, and save people from financial despair including their loved ones. The unintended consequence is that this often leaves them bankrupted literally and or figuratively.
I often work with family members who have been on both sides of this coin. The heroic big sister that has to financially support her divroced aging mother. The Father that won’t stop financially supporting his adult son, to his detriment. Moving out of the hero role and relating authentically as humans with diverse needs becomes the real life and financial saving journey. The hero and victim dynamic builds in a destructive power differential over time.
It is perfectly understandable that from time to time we may all face a crisis and need a hero, but to continually live life on either side of this is problematic. Imagine me as a firefighter following a person around in the big red fire truck after helping them out of their crisis, just so they wouldn’t get in a crisis again. What does this convey to them?
Seeing people in financial despair can evoke the hero’s response. It certainly has for me on many levels and in many ways.
Every hero has a shadow side that needs to be explored. Otherwise, self and other destruction will come in time. Embracing and working with the shadow side of being a hero is imperative to mental, relational and financial well-being.
Every Hero Needs Saving
It’s dark, hot, and smokey. I am lost and can’t find my way out. I can’t let the terror override and stop me from getting out. Yet the truth of my body is that I am terrified. Next thing I know, I am gasping for air and out of the building. What happened in the between only floods back as I try to process this traumatic experience. As I write about this time of being lost as a firefighter, fragments of body memory come flooding back.
John Braiser, my training instructor, pulled me out of the burn building by the shoulder straps on my air pack. To say this experience was terrifying is an understatement, yet my ability to process and acknowledge this remained hidden behind a wall of bravery for many years. Not wanting to show cowardice.
It felt like a failure to need to be saved. I am the hero, not the victim, in the story of my mind. At least, that’s how it used to be. It is changing now. I am embracing that I am both hero and a victim in the story of my life. Being a hero and victim is true for all of us in varying degrees.
I love the Karpman Drama Triangle to understand the roles of victim, persecutor and hero. It reminds me that we all move around these different roles in life. The winner's triangle also helps reframe the roles of victim, persecutor and hero to vulnerable, assertive, and caring. For the long run this reframe is more helpful in solving human problems.
As a therapist, I recognize and think that many heroes before they were heroes were victims of childhood trauma. The little kids grow up to be hereos to save others from what they experienced, either literally or symbolically. Yet what they really need is to be saved and ultimately heal themselves.
Before I was a hero, I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other more common forms of emotional misattunement. These memories were dissociated before I started my journey of healing. My ability to dissociate in the face of overwhelming terror developed long before I became a firefighter. Now I believe it is nearly a prerequisite to bravery. The journey of healing leads us to walk between the valley of hero and victim to discover our authentic humanity and the right to be fully human outside of these restrictive roles.
Financial planners are another type of hero. They are not as obviously considered heroes, yet I have met and worked with enough of them to recognize the patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors connected with being a hero. I initially brought my hero mentality to financial planning after being a firefighter.
When I ask other financial planners about their families and the money experiences they saw as children, there are inevitably pain-saturated stories that warrant a hero response. Yet it is those same hero dynamics that block financial planners from helping you be the hero of your financial life in the healthiest way possible.
Time For Reflection
What stands out to you about the role of bravery and money?
Which of my confessions was most meaningful to you and why?
How can you become the healthy hero of your own love and money story?
If you would like to learn more about how Therapy Informed Financial Planning can help the two of you on your Hero's Journey, I invite you to schedule a 30-minute discovery call.
Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,
MBA, MA, MS, CFP®, CFT-I™, LMFT
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