Powerful questions evoke powerful opportunities for learning, healing, and growth. Anthony Weaver of About That Wallet recently interviewed me for his podcast. I had met Anthony the previous month at a conference for money nerds called FinCon. He struck me as someone I needed to talk with, and boy, did he deliver.
We are rolling through the podcast interview, and Anthony asks me a question that shifts my internal paradigm. When is the first time you felt afraid of money? Then he sits silently and waits for me to answer.
I start to search my mind, I am used to reflecting on deep questions, but this one takes a minute. I feel the distress in my body before the story emerges. I know there is a first experience of feeling afraid of money. Financial therapy has taught me we all have emotional experiences connected with money that start in childhood.
The next thing I know, my mind flashes back to being a young boy, and my mom is talking about her father and how he was taken advantage of financially. He lost a bunch of money in a bad investment scam. She also seemed angry with her dad for falling for an investment scam. The full details are foggy, but what is not is the negative emotional energy associated with that season of life. It likely is not one memory but a constellation of memories.
Anthony listens carefully with no judgment, just acceptance, and empathy. I come out of my emotional cloud with greater clarity about my fearfulness around money. The deeper truth is that I have been trying to overcome my money fears for years through ever-increasing amounts of money education. This is in part why I have earned a MBA - Finance, CFP®, MA - Counseling, MS - Financial Planning, Certified Financial Therapist.
What I now know is that just more knowledge about how money workes will not be enough for me to feel financially confident. It is about working with the unresolved money experiences of my past that provide increasing relief and courage to take on new financial challenges.
No, I do not think this one family event is the sum of why I have become so hyper-focused on mastering money and yet feel defeated by money and relationships so often. At the same time I feel confident that these childhood memories of my grandfather falling victim to elder financial abuse have been an unconscious driver up to this point around my dogged pursuit of trying to find financial peace and freedom.
Why Understanding Your Financial Fear Matters
Financial fear can be a major conscious and unconscious driver of many of our financial thoughts, behaviors, other emotions, and beliefs. Financially traumatic events often leave a deep emotional residue.
Many people mistakenly believe that what happens in our childhood does not have or should not have a lasting effect on our adult reality. Yet, it is our memories of experiences related to money directly or those witnessed in our family that have the longest-lasting effects.
I was recently reminded of this while reading What Happened To You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert in childhood development and therapy. They shared a story that because of the power differential between Oprah and others in her life, what she says softly can resonate loudly with those who follow her. Parents also have a tremendous power differential relative to their kids. In short, what happens in our families and parents’ lives happens to us as children. Children can not keep that separate.
What You Can Do To Reduce Financial Fear
Sitting with difficult questions is challenging. Yet it is sitting with and reflecting on difficult questions that give us a chance to surface and work with issues that lay in our past. Financial fear, in particular, is important to tap into and find ways to work through it so that you can move towards increasing financial confidence.
As my dormant fear of money memories came forward, I also felt a sense of relief in identifying some of my obsessive behavior around mastering money. Many people trying to master money are trying to guard against the experience of feeling fear around money again. This is especially true of people who are misers and spendthrifts, two ends of the money anxiety continuum. Remember, anxiety often emerges out of fear.
Yet it is guarding against experiencing challenging emotions like fear that can lead to compulsivity, anxiety, anger, and shame, especially around our financial lives. Being able to normalize the experience of emotional reactions to a variety of challenging financial situations starts to give us increasing emotional freedom, understanding, and flexibility.
Writing this blog post and acknowledging the normalcy and understanding of challenging emotional reactions to my grandfather being taken advantage of financially provides some self-empathy. Especially to the little boy within me who watched his mother navigate this difficult time with her father. I could not have fully understood all the moving pieces as a child, yet I was significantly impacted by the impression that money can be scary and dangerous.
Working With Your Partner’s Financial Fears
The challenge is not just your early memories of feeling afraid around money. It is your partner’s money memories related to fear as well. Combining two people with their respective fear-based experiences related to money is a powerful combination to navigate. Ultimately the goal is to care for and help each other work through their respective fears.
Sadly many adults, myself included, in the past would have strongly denied that we felt fear about anything, let alone money. Yet our denial of fear in response to threatening money situations will keep you stuck from connecting with your own and partners’ fear-based responses to money.
As I work with couples, I am trying to find where their first painful memories were around money and then discover what conscious and unconscious lessons they have carried forward from those experiences. I am also watching how each partner cares for the other when they are triggered into a fear state around money because this is where the real challenges emerge in the couple’s intimate relationship.
I know in the early years of marriage and the financial blending of our lives, I would never have guessed what a long and lasting impact financial fear would have on our responses to the experience of money in our relationship.
My wife had her own set of experiences she saw through her childhood and adulthood related to family and money, leaving her with her own constellation of financial fears. We have both been learning to identify when financial fear is triggered and how to navigate caring for each other through the fear response related to the money decisions we are trying to make.
How Your Shared Financial Life Improves When You Face Your Financial Fears Together
I recently got to talk with Janet whose husband, Jack is a financial planner. She reflected on what it is like to try and navigate decisions about how much money to spend on family vacations. She wanted to spend more now and create memories with their kids. On the other hand, Jack wanted to make more affordable trips now to have more money in the future.
Beneath the surface of this reality are layers of financial fears I discovered. For Janet, it was the fear of not creating the memories she had longed to create for her kids and did not have as a child. For Jack, it was the fear of going into debt over travel and many other discretionary items as his parents had and then having to file bankruptcy in later adulthood.
As I started to uncover the legacy of financial fear in their individual stories, they were both able to start to create financial compassion for each other. They also began to focus more actively on their current financial reality and what they could afford.
What turned out to be true, as it is with many couples, is that there was a financial middle ground that could work for both of them. As Jack looked at their current financial reality and their overall progress towards enough money for retirement, he could reality check and see that they were not in debt like his parents. Which allowed him to take a deep breath and see their financial life in it’s current reality. Janet, on the other hand, realized that he was not just trying to be controlling and dismissing her dreams. She also learned how to advocate for her desires in a way that honored who both of them were.
So I ask you
When was the first time you felt afraid of money?
When was the first time your partner felt afraid of money?
How can working through this question help you learn, heal and grow in your relationship with money?
To Your Financial Well-Being and Financial Intimacy,
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