Relationships with people are hard enough, but communication really gets frustrating when you’re the only one verbalizing all that stress. Sure, money talks, but it doesn’t give very good advice.
Most people in the US don’t receive any kind of personal financial training through the education system, and can end up with a super stressful relationship to their wallet. But if you’re one of those people who finds financial situations to be totally overwhelming and draining, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own; a financial therapist might be able to help.
Dr. Cécile Lyons, a psychologist practicing in California, began to study financial psychology in order to better understand how the vast majority of us in the US are very engaged with money, for obvious reasons as well as metaphorical. Money is very important and valuable in our society, and so our relationship to it becomes highly important as well.
Money, whether someone has very much or very little of it, is a source of stress across broader society. Our own financial habits can often inspire feelings of guilt and shame, which can grow into very serious issues if left unchecked. But Dr. Lyons doesn’t drop the two in the same bucket.
“Generally I think that shame is more of a constitutional, core issue; kind of what I would call a default position particularly when a person feels vulnerable,” she says. “And it has to do with a narrative like ‘I’m a bad person’, ‘I’m not worthy’, ‘I’m not good enough’, for example. That is more of a core issue that is coming out around money and the money part in the story, in a perverse way, helps to confirm that negative self-narrative.”
So while shame comes built-in, or at least baked in, guilt tends to be a little more circumstantial. “In many manners or other manners, what might be referred to as cognitive dissonance is saying the belief I have that is in conflict with the behavior that i’m exhibiting or want to exhibit,” says Dr. Lyons.
“So my belief might be that I need to be saving a larger percentage of my discretionary income, but I want that dress. I’m feeling guilty in anticipation of indulging my desire as opposed to my belief of what I feel I need, and afterwards I have some remorse, some guilt after the fact that I did it in spite of the pleasure that might be of the dress. I’m not calling myself a bad person, it’s more of a ‘in the circumstances’ having a conflict between me and desire, between belief or behavior.”
Even our generational status affects how we feel about money. Dr. Eric Dammann says that older generations were much less forthcoming when it came to discussing finances in an open arena. “That’s definitely changed,” he says. “Millennials are growing up in a world where people are somewhat more comfortable talking about money. And with all kinds of apps obviously now, people are more aware of the importance of dealing directly with money and having conversations about it. On that level, I think there’s been a positive shift and I think there is less guilt.”
For money-associated guilt, both doctors approach the issue like they would most others; by identifying the underlying fears that are leading to the behaviors. Feelings of guilt could be tied to a childhood in financial instability, or they could be associated with uncontrolled spending sprees and irresponsible budgeting, or even guilt born out of having more financial freedom than family members or close friends.
These different sources of stress can call for different approaches in treatment, emphasizing why the underlying issues are more important to identify than just the feelings they inspire. If you find yourself struggling when it comes to finances, you might just need to make an appointment with the doctor!
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.