My son, Noah, threw himself in the middle of our bed the moment he got home from school.
His blue eyes were rimmed with red and his bottom lip was trembling, he transformed my bed into a tangle of feather pillows and hot tears.
“I can’t read as well as another girl,” he cried, “And I’m in first grade, but she’s only in kindergarten. I’m just not good at anything!”
This is shame—pure and raw.
Shame is a universal human experience, able to cut us all to the quick, whether we’re 6 or 96. Though the sources of shame shift over the course of our lives, it never loses its potency.
When it comes to money, shame is present somewhere in us all, whether it’s right at the surface or swept under the rug, prompting big changes or holding us back from even starting our money healing journey.
Learning to recognize, understand and transform money shame is a cornerstone of Money Healing, the first phase of my Art of Money methodology.
We all carry money shame.
Money shame is an equal opportunity affliction, and it does not discriminate based on who you are, where you’re from, how much money you earn, what percentage you save, whether you pay your taxes on time or what your credit score is.
I have worked with people earning under $20,000 a year and people earning several million a year. Everyone has had some sort of money shame. So, above all, do not shame yourself for having money shame. Secondly, know that there is a way out.
But first, let’s un-sweep money shame from under the rug and get to know it. After all, it’s an illuminating, opportunity-filled and misunderstood beast.
What Is Money Shame?
Money shame might be a universal human experience, but each of us carries our own type and flavor of it, unique as our fingerprints. Our money shame might be tied to specific experiences in our lives, our upbringing in general or none of the above. Here are some variants I’ve heard:
“I’m just not good with money. I can’t be trusted with it.”
“Why can’t I earn more/save more/spend less/pay my bills on time?”
“I’m too right-brained, creative and bad at math to be good with money.”
“If I make a lot of money, I’m betraying my working-class roots.”
“I should be further along with my savings/earnings/debt payoff/investment.“
“I’m so flaky around money. Why can’t I get it together?”
“I can’t believe how bad I screwed everything up. I’ll never be able to fix this.”
“I’m too reliant upon my parents/husband/daughter for money. Why can’t I be more financially independent?”
“People like me shouldn’t make money; it’s dirty and unethical.”
“I only deserve money if I work really, really hard for it. Lazy people (like me) don’t deserve money.”
“Wanting more than ‘just enough’ money is selfish.”
Here are some of the ways money shame can show up:
• That queasy pit in your stomach as you approach the checkout line,
wondering if your card will be declined (or if you’re simply buying more than you “should”).
• Pangs of guilt when you decide how much to charge for your new product or service (if you’re an entrepreneur).
• Feeling hot, sweaty, and anxious when the topic of money comes up in your extended family.
• Feeling sleepy, bored, “checked-out,” or out of your body a little when you pay bills.
• Guilt, frustration, and disempowerment in your personal and business life.
• Procrastination, “freezing,” or denial around paying your taxes, setting up an estate, or some other money-related item on your to do list.
• Fear or guilt that you don’t have way more saved for your future.
• Rabid self-criticism.
• A leaden cloak of grief that’s always with you.
• Rage toward the world, your family or your boss that you even have to deal with this part of life.
• Longing for someone to swoop in and save you from your money struggles or issues.
• Utter hopelessness and despair that you’ll ever figure it all out.
If you recognized yourself in any of the above, or in all of it, you’re in the very best company. In fact, I’ve never met a person who didn’t carry at least some money shame, at some point in their lives—even people who call themselves “money experts.”
If we took all of these various flavors of money shame, put them in a pot, and simmered them down to their fundamental quintessence, it would be something like: “Something’s wrong with me. I’m not okay. I’m bad, deficient or not good enough. I’m doing something wrong in this area of my life.”
For the vast majority of people, this essential core of money shame brings along its buddy, comparison. Like money shame, comparison can take many forms:
“If only I’d grown up in a different family, I would’ve learned about this money stuff.”
“If my parents had been richer, I wouldn’t struggle with money so much.”
“If my parents hadn’t been so wealthy, I wouldn’t struggle so much.”
“If I were a different type of person.”
“If only, If only.”
Comparison boils down to: “Other people have this figured out, so why don’t I?”
Many of my clients not only compare themselves to other people, they compare themselves to an idealized version of themselves: the version of the self who was born into a wealthy family, who instinctively knows how to budget or who fights gracefully for that pay raise. Then, they torment themselves for not living up to this imaginary standard.
This cycle of self-abuse only perpetuates shame. Real, sustainable transformation never occurs in this way.
Where Does Money Shame Come From?
I’ve asked thousands of people: “Were you given a financial education, on an emotional, practical or spiritual level?”
The crazy-ubiquitous answer: “Nope.”
Most of us were simply not taught about money: how to manage it, how to talk about it and least of all how to navigate our feelings about it. In an ideal world, we would learn money skills and tools for understanding it and practices for relating to it and how to talk about it, all in incremental, age-appropriate ways, from grade school on up.
In the absence of this much-needed education, we project like crazy onto money: we conflate it with our identity, our sense of worth, our definitions of success and maturity, beliefs inherited from our community, lineage, culture and spiritual aspirations.
Given that most of us simply were not taught how to make sense of money in any conscious way, is it any wonder, then, that we flounder when it comes to money?
As shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown explains:
“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgement.”
We’ve already seen these three ingredients in action: most of us keep our money shame to ourselves, never (or rarely) speak it aloud and berate ourselves for even having it. Simply naming and speaking money shame aloud is an important step in healing it.
As Brown continues, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.”
Back in my social worker days, one of the heaviest pieces of money shame I carried was the belief that I shouldn’t try (or even want) to earn a comfortable income: that would be too materialistic, shallow and un-spiritual. Instead, I told myself I should just do good work in the world and be happy with that. Unfortunately, this shameful money belief only fed another: I was supposed to earn more money and “be a grown-up” about it.
Satisfying both of these demands wasn’t just difficult, it was utterly impossible. Indeed, when we look directly at money shame, we can start to recognize all of those sneaky contradictions and impossible double-binds it puts us in. It took me years of reflection, forgiveness and practice to let go of these beliefs about money, and took me on a journey of self-inquiry and deepening financial literacy. But the first and foundational step in healing money shame is acknowledging, as gently as possible, that it exists.
Gentleness: The Only Way Out of Money Shame.
One of the trickiest things about money shame might be its ability to shape-shift. I’ve seen money shame masquerade as many different things. For example, cynical judgments that wealthy people are spoiled and heartless might hide a deep shame of being raised by a poor single mother. The belief that a welfare recipient is lazy may stem from a guilty unease around the privileges you’ve been handed.
Perhaps the most common mask money shame wears is that of the helpful self-disciplinarian: “I have to keep beating up on myself about this money stuff so that I toe the line!”
Please do not be misled by such rhetoric. As helpful and mature as this tough love approach might sound to us, this is often unhealed money shame, yet again, keeping us under its thumb.
Shaming ourselves is an old, unconscious pattern. Telling ourselves, again and again, that we are not doing it right, that we’re not good enough, or that we’re unforgivable is self-directed violence. It’s unhelpful and flat-out inaccurate.
The path out of money shame is not getting smarter or working harder or restricting our spending more harshly. We hold the shaming whip in our own hands and it won’t stop hurting if we lash ourselves harder or in a new spot.
Tough love is simply not an effective way to heal emotional wounds.
When Noah cried about not being able to read as well as he wanted, I didn’t tell him everything will be okay once he can read. I reminded him that I love him right now, right here, just how he is—and that I know he will learn to read at his own pace, on his own timeline. Likewise, tough love approaches to money, while they might work on a practical level for a time, never create sustainable, positive healing. Saying you’ll heal your money shame by getting your act together with budgeting is simply madness.
The Antidote to Money Shame: The Body Check-In.
If I could give every person on the planet just one tool for working with money shame, it would be the body check-in.
This tool is inspired by my Somatic Psychology background, but you’ll find it echoes practices from many paths and traditions, from Buddhism to contemplative Christianity to mainstream mindfulness and beyond.
And it only takes a moment.
Here’s how to do a body check-In:
Pause. Listen. Notice:
the feeling of your breath, in and out
emotions, feelings, sensations in your body
any thoughts or images passing through your mind.
Be open, curious and gentle. Simply notice, without seeking to change anything.
Gather data, info and clues. These are the keys that open your access deeper into your money relationship.
Let yourself get in there, into your body, into your Money Shame. Pull it apart.
Name some of its tentacles.
Add more doses of compassion and curiosity.
Move it to the side. See it next to you: “Hello money story/money pattern/money shame. Who are you? What do you have to say?”
Breathe. Add another dollop of compassion and two more teaspoons of curiosity. Breathe.
Stay with this open, gentle curiosity for a few moments or a few minutes.
That’s it! You’ve done your first body check-in.
When and where to do a body check-in:
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Before, during, and after you feel Money Shame. In tough times, when you’re triggered, when you’re stressed, when you’re simply feeling “off” or even when you’re feeling wonderful and want to let it sink in. For example:
● In the grocery store.
● In the parking lot of the mall.
● When you are going online to look at your balances.
● When you are going to your mailbox to get your bills.
● When you are reviewing your income and expenses at the end of the month.
● As you are about to have a money conversation with your partner, your parents, your client, your children or your business partner.
● Any money interactions throughout your day.
The body check-in is extraordinarily simple—and extraordinarily difficult. It’s my favorite tool because of its simplicity, elegance and profound power to uncover our money stories and open us into much more.
And, it is transformative and supportive. I pinky swear.
The path out of money shame isn’t shaming ourselves harder; it’s finally putting down that lash, releasing those unrealistic standards, and cultivating every last drop of forgiveness, self-love, compassion and mindfulness we can muster.
Be on the lookout for the next time Money Shame arises. Be gentle with yourself. And recognize it as a gorgeous opportunity to practice compassion and mindfulness.
This was adapted from Bari Tessler’s book, The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness, available now from Parallax Press.
Author: Bari Tessler Linden
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock