Foggy Heads & Knotted Stomachs Looking At Your Financial Numbers

Sep 12, 2022

     Zoe sits anxiously upright on my couch, we have been working together for six months, and I ask her how her financial life is going. On the surface, this would seem like an innocent question, but I have learned over the years of doing financial therapy that this question is far from innocent. It is rather evocative for Zoe. She initially came to me because she received an unexpected inheritance with strings attached. 


     She has spent the last three years without much consideration for how fast she is burning through her inheritance. The trust company that helps manage her inheritance regularly asks her for a spending plan which she can not seem to put together. 


    Before I lose you, if you have never received a large inheritance, I understand that this article may not feel like it is for you, but trust me, it is. You will discover what you have in common with Zoe and money. 


     I think most of us want increases in our income or assets to be a good thing in our life. Our financial lives can increase whether from a promotion, inheritance, lottery winning, marriage, or any other way. 


     Yet from a financial and psychological perspective, we know that “positive” money changes don’t always go smoothly. The psychological adjustment to our new financial reality can be fraught with unexpected psychological hurdles. There are two I would like to introduce you to in this blog post. 


     They are dysregulation and dissociation. I know that these words may feel uncomfortable and may even evoke a threat response. Still, they are important to engage in to understand your relationship with money better and to see why Zoe is struggling so much with her inheritance. Zoe has a business degree and intellectually knows how to set up budgets and spending plans. Core skills for a business student. 


     What she doesn’t know about is regulating the emotional energy flow related to her financial life. Also true for many clients, I work with, and it was definitely true for me before I became a financial therapist. My guess is this is also true for you. So let’s talk about emotional dysregulation and dissociation so you can at least have a starting line to work from. 


Working With The Flow of Emotions When Looking At Your Personal Finance Numbers

     Every time we look at, think about, or interact with our financial lives, it evokes an emotional response. The intensity of emotional response can vary widely from individual to individual. Still, as living, breathing humans, we have an emotional world that impacts how we show up around our financial lives. 


    Our emotional world communicates to us whether we should approach or withdraw from any number of scenarios we find ourselves in.  As I worked with Zoe around developing and maintaining a spending plan for her inheritance, she would get foggy-headed and knotted in her stomach. Clear signs that there is also an emotional response underway, typically that of anxiety, fear, and shame. 


     When we as humans go into these elevated emotional states, it makes it hard to see our financial lives clearly. With elevated emotions, it becomes challenging to organize financial information and interpret what it means accurately. This leads many people to believe they must shut out their emotions to make good financial decisions. I will make a case that we must learn to work with and integrate our emotions. 


     More often than not, when we enter into anxiety, fear, and shame, we go into negative self-evaluations of ourselves with money. Examples include I am not good with money. I am too irresponsible with money. Other people are going to think I am stupid, etc. Do you recognize any of these thoughts? Maybe you have a different thought that runs through your mind connected with a different emotional state you get into. 

When Emotions Become Overwhelming Looking At Your Personal Finance Numbers


      Working with our flow of emotions through our minds and bodies is imperative to establishing a sense of financial well-being and financial intimacy. If we don’t know how to work with our emotions and get the emotional support we need, then the many different topics of money, we have to interact with will remain a source of distress for us and our partner. 


     Many clients I work with, including Zoe, have degrees of emotional blindness. They have difficulty accurately recognizing their emotions and those of the people they are connected with. 


     Whether or not we know it, sometimes our emotional worlds can be so overwhelming that we dissociate. The word dissociation can take on many aspects in psychology, and I want to leave room for that. Not all dissociation is problematic, but not being aware of your dissociation processes can impair your ability to engage realistically in your financial life. 


     Before financial therapy, Zoe was unaware of her dissociation processes. Growing up, she was always compared to her older sister Abigal. Abigal was a good and responsible girl. Zoe was the irresponsible one. She often heard as she got older that she would just blow her allowance and that she would never be any good at managing her money. Zoe watched her sister Abigal save money diligently and felt embarrassed that she could not do the same. 


    These memories and their emotional meaning had been dissociated from Zoe’s memory before coming into financial therapy. She had unconsciously blocked them out to protect herself from feeling the emotional pain of not being good enough in general and especially not good at money. 


Integration and Grounding to Look At Your Financial Numbers

    If you have made it this far in the blog post, congratulations. I know this is a weighty post to read through. You are likely starting to think more about and feel old money-related emotions. In trauma therapy, this is part of moving from either chaos or rigidity into flexibility with ourselves and our emotional world. 


    Zoe having the space to be asked empathically about her numbers and how her financial life was going was and is a transformational experience. It is part of the relational and emotional healing process that she is undergoing. There is space for her to know, own and integrate her different emotional responses to her different money experiences. 


    As she grows this way, it makes it easier and easier for her to sit with her numbers, make a financial plan and then stick with it. She learns to accept that this is an imperfect process but one that can be validating of her actual financial ability. Contrary to what she heard about herself as a little girl. My guess is that if you met Zoe, you would like her and be able to relate to her even if you have different money realities.


    When you look at your financial numbers and try to make plans to effect positive changes for yourself, what emotions come up for you? How are these emotions related to past money experiences that you have had in your life? These are the trailhead markers indicating where there is a need for emotional integration and resolution, allowing yourself to return to a state of emotional equilibrium. Remember that as humans, we are intended to flow through emotions to give us signals about the realities of our environment. 


    The next time you have trouble facing your finances, take the time to notice what emotions are coming up for you. You can even rate their intensity on a scale of 1 - 10. Rating your emotional response gives a sense of proportionality to your emotional response. From your rating, you can then ask yourself why your number is not higher or lower to expand your sense of perspective.


    Some of us are prone to emotional minimization, leading us to miss the emotional significance of our experiences or those of people who are important to us. 


    On the other hand, there are some of us who many things get “blown out of proportion,” and we need to work on recognizing the degree of how intense the actual situation is. 

    If you have read this far, then you are likely ready for your next step towards financial well-being. I invite you to get a copy of The Healthy Love & Money Way: How The Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being, where you can dig deeper into your relationship with money.

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