I hear countless stories of successful people expressing feelings of not being good enough in their respective professions. Part of that distress is related to the money they make or don't make and how they manage or don't manage the money.
Let me be honest, this is also my struggle. I continue in my learning, healing, and growth process to reduce the experience of this reality.
Let's remember that belonging is a core biological imperative, and when we do not feel like we belong where we have achieved success, that becomes an excruciatingly painful reality. Which leads to one of two common responses. One is to leave the very place where we have created success. The other is to stay miserable, trying to achieve even higher levels of success to combat the feeling that we are not enough.
Either way, we need to get to the third possible response, which is the root of the issue: shame, insecure attachment, and nervous system dysregulation.
Imposter Syndrome as Part of The Experience of Shame
How we see ourselves and how we see others is an ongoing process and an essential part of our psychology. Imposter syndrome speaks to how we see ourselves in relationship to others and our accomplishments relative to others, leaving us with the feeling we don’t measure up.
Let’s remember that most, if not all, adverse mental health conditions, such as imposter syndrome, have core emotional patterns associated with them. When we become curious and compassionate with our emotional responses, we increase our chances of returning to a healthy sense of self and emotional balance.
When it comes to imposter syndrome, shame is, by and large, the most prominent emotional response. Shame leaves us with a collapsed sense of self and body posture. Every emotional response has a distinct body reaction, which is why we can tune into our body for clues about how we feel.
As humans, we are relational creatures. We have an ongoing relationship with ourselves and with our social world. Shame, in short, leaves us disconnected from our relational nature and the inherent worthiness of being in relationship with ourselves and others.
Acute vs. Chronic Imposter Syndrome
Before we connect imposter syndrome and shame to your financial plan, let’s talk about acute vs. chronic imposter syndrome and shame. Like most things in psychology, our states of mind and the frequency with which we visit different states of mind vary by degrees.
Acute experiences of imposter syndrome and shame show up situationally and often resolve relatively quickly. A person with a secure attachment can likely navigate through moments of shame and imposter syndrome. They draw on internal psychological resources that help remind them of their worth and belonging. They can look back over their life consciously and unconsciously and recognize other times when their success evoked temporary insecurity and they where met with understanding, acceptance and emotional warmth alllowing them to integrate the experience and move forward feeling worthy and acceptable.
For those of us that experience chronic imposter syndrome and shame, we can become driven for success, and yet despite the success we achieve, we feel worse and worse. The ever-increasing success is consciously and unconsciously buffering against feeling unworthy while simultaneously evoking a sense of unworthiness. It becomes a perfect cycle that often leads people into burnout, addiction, relational loos, and severe negative health outcomes.
Chronic shame and imposter syndrome originate from relational trauma and impact us at all levels of being human. That is, at the biological, psychological, and sociological levels.
At the biological level, our neuropathways and neurochemical firing sequences adapt and develop distinct firing patterns. Which is connected with the reactivity of our nervous system and it’s ability to regulate us. Polyvagal theory has a lot more to say about this.
At the psychological level, the way we see ourselves and others and the validity of their praise become a part of our sense of self. Attachment theory helps explain this deeply.
Professionally if imposter syndrome is acknowledged, it can be trivialized or acknowledged without addressing the deeper issues. Addressing the underlying issues related to imposter syndrome are very often mental health issues. Getting help to resolve imposter syndrome is critical to your well-being and your intimate relationships well-being.
Financial Planning Opens The Door to Imposter Syndrome Being Triggered
When we approach our personal finances, our nervous system can activate ourselves and our self-evaluative processes.
Common thoughts are related to
-What we deserve
- How we have earned it
- What we think others will think of us if they knew what we had
- What others have told us based on what they think we have
These are just a few possible responses that can be evoked when looking at any element of our finances and start us down the path of imposter syndrome.
If we are prone to imposter syndrome or shame, this can become a challenging place mentally and physically, as it will block our ability to look at our personal finances clearly, confidently and with a felt sense of safety. Yet it is our ability to look at our financial information, make sense of what it is telling us and then respond appropriately that leads us to the experience of financial well-being which is in large part regulated by our autonomic nervous system.
This is why it becomes so important to learn how to work with your response of imposter syndrome and shame, as you can use those resources to help you then navigate when you are looking at your personal finances.
I would like to highlight two patterns of response that I see with clients when they struggle with imposter syndrome and shame.
It is “This _______ doesn’t reflect me.” (Fill in the blank money word). When I hear some combination of this response, I often start to think about what makes it uncomfortable for the person to own this aspect of their financial life. Especially when it is positive and good, often it is above their internal level of comfort and psychological acceptance. So they keep a psychological distance from this level of awareness.
This income doesn’t reflect me.
This spending doesn’t reflect me.
This net worth doesn’t reflect me.
This level of financial planning doesn’t reflect me.
The other common statement I hear is that I am not deserving of_______(fill in the blank money word). Of course, the statement has many different flavors, but they can all be summed up as feeling that you are not deserving or worthy of some part of your financial life which becomes very crippling. Many clients feel this deeply in their minds and bodies. Until they get to the root of and resolve why they feel undeserving of their positive financial reality, they will do many different things to keep their distance from the positive reality. Including but not limited to reckless spending, giving away money charitably, sabotaging their career, gambling, and divorce.
I am not deserving of this income
I am not deserving of spending and enjoying
I am not worthy of this net worth
I am not worthy of this level of financial planning
When working through the six major areas of your financial plan, it can be very supportive and compassionate to recognize whether you are experiencing either acute or chronic imposter syndrome and shame.
Six Areas of Personal Financial Planning
- Cash flow/Spending/Debt (Both Personal and Business)
- Investing/Retirement Planning
- Estate Planning
- Education Funding
Each financial planning topic can evoke self and other evaluative responses. Each piece of financial information we see about ourselves we give meaning to. Much like many people struggle to step on the scale to see their weight because of how they will respond to seeing that number (Let's just say it's not pretty). The same can be true for your financial life. Let’s not let imposter syndrome, shame, and insecure attachment stop us from experiencing financial well-being.
The journey of resolving imposter syndrome, shame, and insecure attachment often requires therapy. Finding and working with a therapist versed in dealing with and resolving trauma and shame as these are the deep roots of imposter syndrome. Therapy can be incredibly life-giving as the impacts of relational trauma and shame are resolved more and more. I know it has been for both my clients and I.
Questions For Reflection
1. How have you seen imposter syndrome show up in your financial life?
2. What was it like for you to learn imposter syndrome can be connected to shame and the nervous system?
3. What is a way that you like to restore nervous system regulation and relationship connection?
In the next blog post, I will talk about how we can support our partners or receive support from our partners when we are experiencing imposter syndrome.
Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,
Ed Coambs -
MBA, MA, MS, CFP®, CFT-I™, LMFT
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