How your emotions rule your money

Kate Levinson explores the complex and often confusing relationship between our emotions and our finances

how-your-emotions-rule-your-money-260x456Money is an emotional currency. Whether we think we have too little, too much, or just enough money; whether we ‘manage’ it or ignore it—deep emotions lurk beneath those thoughts and behaviours. We have emotional reactions to money and even use money to express our feelings.

Spending our emotions

I’ve come to appreciate that having feelings about money is actually a good thing. What gets us in trouble is when we don’t know what those feelings are. All feelings need attention and recognition, including our feelings about money, or they operate covertly. Unexamined, they can control our money behaviour under the radar and lead us into making poorer money choices. We overspend, under-earn, gamble, shop impulsively, give away money and indulge in a host of other self-destructive habits. Our emotions can act out like rebellious teenagers, demanding our attention yet refusing to engage in any constructive dialogue.

The spell of rationality

So why aren’t we more mindful about money? One reason is that we are under the spell of the financial model that sees money only as something concrete and quantifiable—to be dealt with rationally. This model also regards emotional considerations as dangerous when making any kind of financial decision; so if you have feelings about money, it’s deemed best to ignore them.

This may work as a short term coping strategy, but it is disastrous in the long run. Exploring our feelings around money helps us make better decisions. Those emotions that are counterproductive and threaten to derail you need to be understood, analysed and healed.

What are your feelings when you spend

Here’s a simple example, one that can be applied to almost any money dilemma. I put myself on a budget, limiting my spending so that I can put ‘X’ amount of savings away each month. It seems reasonable and achievable, and in fact I do very well for the first three months—until I impulsively purchase a new cell-phone. [In your case, it could be a new car, piece of jewellery, article of clothing, vacation, gift, charitable donation or any of the endless opportunities to ‘blow’ the budget.]

It feels great at the moment of the impulsive act but the next day I’m surprised and upset by the purchase as I didn’t really require a new phone and had already decided to hold off buying it. I could even become angry with myself for splurging.

Why rationality doesn’t work

In the financial model, we set a budget or financial goal and stick to it and if we go off track, there must be something wrong with us. But that is a naïve and simplistic view of our complex relationship with money.

Whether I keep the new cell-phone or return it, I need to understand what I thought I was buying—beyond the actual phone. What was the purchase saying to me? What was I hungry for? Did some incident trigger the purchase? Was I compensating for something that I lost or a bad feeling about myself? I need to analyse and identify every aspect of the tapestry of emotions that led me to take the plunge.

I have often felt that horrible sinking feeling in my stomach because of—what was in hindsight—a poor purchase decision; or when I discover I have less money in the bank than I expected or when there’s an unforeseen and vital expense. That sinking feeling should be the entry point into working to understand why I feel the way I do. It is an opportunity to better understand myself and my relationship with money. It’s more complex of course when the impulsive action has bigger consequences, but it is just as important to understand my motivation behind the purchase decision.

Mindfully managing your money

One per cent of our behaviour comes from our rational mind—99 per cent is influenced by our subconscious. So it is quite unrealistic for us to expect to be rational about money all the time. Here are some suggestions that could help bring about a more balanced relationship with money; ones that take into account and make room for both your feelings and your rational mind. I promise that if you work with money from the ‘inside’, your emotions won’t get the better of you.

  1. Make a list of all the words you associate with money
    Let the words flow; don’t give much thought to them, instead just write them down as they occur to you. Keep adding to your list as you go about the day or the week. This will give you some sense of the range of feelings, thoughts, social issues, spiritual concerns and personal relationships that are affected by money. It will also provide a more realistic and balanced perception of money and what it really means to your life and the quality of your life, not in terms of what it can buy you, but in terms of how it affects your inner life.
  2. Be curious
    Observe your actions and reactions, without judgment. We’re full of judgments about how we spend and manage our money—either we’ve blown it or we scored! Looking at money emotionally is about seeing what is, without critiquing it as good or bad.
    A woman came to see me for help with her obsessive shopping at a certain boutique. She was heavily in debt as a result and felt she was a terrible person because she couldn’t stop shopping. We worked to get her off the moral high ground from where she castigated herself, moving her instead to a place of curiosity about what this behaviour might be telling her. Through curiosity, we eventually came up with what lay beneath her obsession. Identifying the underlying trigger helped her to stop her overspending.
  3. Examine your emotional responses to money matters
    Emotional responses to money are natural—we all experience them. This isn’t something that you need to get beyond or get through; rather, they are to be explored and understood. Listening to your feelings will teach you much about who you are, what you value, what you long for, what is out of balance and what needs more attention. Even the simple act of handing money to a sales clerk can illuminate some aspect of your relationship with money.
  4. Don’t let feelings of shame stop you
    Shame is unavoidable when it comes to money, but feelings of guilt and shame, although hard to deal with, will not kill you. The main source of shame is feeling judged by others as unworthy. A friend asked me how much I made and when I told her, she laughed at how little I made and I felt a deep sense of shame. Generally the trigger is something not spoken of directly, but rather sensed and sometimes imagined. I can feel shame for having more money than a friend and ten minutes later feel shame for having less money than another friend… without any change in how much I actually have.
  5. Unpack your feelings about money
    Family is a good place to start. Explore how each of your parents or someone else who raised you, influenced you. What did they tell you about money? How did they behave with money? How did they feel about what they had? These kinds of questions help discover what you learned about money from your family.
  6. Talk with trusted others about your money dilemmas and decisions
    The taboo against talking about money keeps us isolated when we deal with our money dilemmas. Through conversation we come to identify and process our dilemmas and successes—to ‘talk through’ our conflicts, struggles and blessings. This taboo is most hurtful to women, because a primary way women learn in the world is through sharing with friends.
  7. Heal what needs to be healed
    Find the pains and disappointments and feel them, understand them, express what needs to be expressed and heal them. Work with it as you would any other emotional issue in your life. Find other ways to nourish and support yourself that don’t involve money.
  8. Recognise that there’s no single ‘right way’ to deal with money matters
    We each have our own unique and complex relationship with money, full of multiple layers of experiences and contradictions. You can’t follow a formula for dealing with money emotionally; you have to start with where you are and work with who you are.
  9. Bring your whole self to your money life
    Include your heart felt feelings, intuition, web of relationships, vulnerabilities and strengths when dealing with money.

 This was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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