Breaking Free of Money Shame

Money shame has been a big thing in my life. A thing I’ve largely kept hidden. That’s how shame works.

This past Sunday, May 10, was Mother’s Day in the USA, and I set myself the task of finally starting this post which has been incubating in my head for awhile now. Mother’s Day was a good day for me to start this post, because in the past I made choices under the influence of money shame that kept me separate from my parents and other loved ones even as I wanted more closeness and authenticity.

My parents have both passed, and I have regrets about the times I let my money shame come between us. But, over the past few years I have done some deep work on my beliefs about money, so as to never again let money shame come between me and any other loved ones.

I’m hoping this post will help other people avoid some of the struggles, and unwanted distance from loved ones, that I experienced because of my money shame.

Negative beliefs about money have caused a lot of strife in this world. In the USA, we have virtually built a whole culture around money obsession. People who don’t make much money are often targets of derision. “You should get a better job”; “Why aren’t you successful like So-and-so?” We definitely have a lot of our self-worth tied up in money, and I have only met relatively few fellow USAmericans who feel at peace with money and feel they truly have enough.

Here are a few things I experienced over the years, regarding money shame. (My personal experience only; your mileage may vary; take whatever of this is helpful to you and leave the rest.) Mistakes I made; insights gained:

• The shame I felt about being in financial hardship was a million times worse than any aspect of the hardship itself.

• Money shame caused me to stop believing in myself and the good work I was doing (am still doing). I pretty much bought into the idea that I was fundamentally flawed and deficient because my work was earning me barely enough money to keep a roof over my head. For a while, I lost one of my deepest joys in life: the joy of having a sense of purpose and being engaged in meaningful work.

• Derailed by money shame, I became unable to help and support my loved ones. My Mom would ask or say something on the phone, and I would take it to mean she was ashamed of me for not being financially successful like my siblings. Looking back, I realize she was probably anxious about her own finances more than anything else. Had I not been emotionally destabilized by money shame, I would have been in a better position to try to help her deal with her anxieties. And really, her state of anxiety was most likely just part of her grief at Dad’s passing, and if I hadn’t been so immersed in money shame and trying to put up a good front, I could have been more present with her in her grief.

• Money shame is an emergency. If I had a do-over, I certainly would have treated it as the emergency that it was. I have tools for identifying and dissolving my harmful beliefs, but I was not using those tools enough at the time. Instead, I was channeling huge amounts of energy into pretense. Trying to convince my Mom how perfectly-fine I was doing; how my choice to drop out of the middle class was not bringing shame on our family. — When in fact, that is exactly what I believed at the time: that my decision to pursue a non-mainstream career path, with no steady paycheck, would bring shame on my family unless I could keep up the pretenses that I was doing fine. My reasoning at the time was, “They can suspect all they want about my financial situation, but they don’t know anything unless I slip up and reveal it.” I felt like I was living in the closet. I was!

• Shame of any kind is an emergency and needs immediate attention. Shame about one’s body or another aspect of one’s looks; shame about mental-health issues; about some perceived lack of intelligence or other ability. In fact, in my experience, money-shame rarely travels alone; it often has one or more other types of shame alongside or underlying it.

• Even in the pits of my financial collapse, I was doing all kinds of cool stuff. Living on a friend’s farm painting signs and teaching an art camp and solar-cooking classes; organizing my first art show, which showcased several other artists’ work besides my own; making new friends in a strange new place. But I allowed money shame to dampen my joy. Basically I started to tell a loved one about all this cool art stuff and farm stuff, and they seemed unexpectedly unsupportive, so I started to feel that what I had considered these great, fun, thrilling milestones in my life were actually silly. Even though I was totally doing things I had long aspired to do! And even though these activities were also in fact helping me get back on track financially!

Some of this might sound really sad but I’m not here to elicit pity or to wallow in regret. I’m here to grow and learn; I’ve had an amazing life so far and it’s only getting better. And, I think mistakes can be one of life’s greatest treasures, as long as I learn from them and use my experience to help others.

(More bullet items to come — stay tuned.)

My suggestions, what I would tell myself if I could talk to my past self:

1) You have to get re-centered and reaffirm to yourself that you are doing the work you’ve always dreamed of doing. You are falling into feeling apologetic about your life’s work! That is not good for you or for anyone else!

2) You have to find a way to talk with your close people, not only for your sake but for theirs as well. Share more, not less, about how you navigate life’s troubles. People in our cushioned prosperous country are suffering from financial and other material anxieties, and they need more examples of someone falling to the financial pits and living to tell the tale.

3) Tell your parents in detail how your occupational choices and your other life choices are directly related to the deepest, most cherished values you learned from them growing up. Caring for the environment; going for your dreams; using your creativity; exploring and experimenting and stretching your wings; not letting money rule your life. (Yes, all of those things were values I absorbed via my upbringing.) Feel awkward talking about such goopy topics with them? Of course you do! That’s what letters are for. Write it while there’s still time!!!

Here are some links I’ve come across recently on the topic of money shame, which I hope you’ll find helpful!

Further Exploration:

• Article: “Financial Shame Can Carry Big Cost”; Liz Weston/Nerdwallet, Daytona Beach News-Journal, Apr 11, 2021. “The U.S. suicide rate has risen dramatically in recent years, and certified money coach Tammy Lally of Washington, D.C., is convinced money shame is a contributing factor. Lally’s brother died by suicide in 2007 after receiving a foreclosure notice. Shortly afterward, Lally’s mortgage business collapsed in the Great Recession. She says she went from driving a Mercedes and living in an oceanfront house to filing for bankruptcy. ‘It blew me away, the level of pain and sadness that I was experiencing,’ Lally said. ‘I didn’t tell anybody. I was pretending like nothing was going on.’ She eventually realized she was experiencing shame – a deep sense that she was fundamentally flawed and unworthy because of her financial problems.”

• Article: Befriend Your Money and Reap the Benefits”; Laura McMullen/Nerdwallet, Daytona Beach News-Journal, May 9, 2021. Tips for cultivating a healthy relationship with money. “What’s your relationship with money? Maybe your personal finances are like a distant cousin you barely think about – or an unsettling stranger you avoid. Or perhaps money feels like your enemy, frustrating you and rarely doing what you want … 31% of Americans said they feel anxious when thinking about the current state of their personal finances … A more positive relationship can help you feel more confident and empowered to make the most of your money.” The tips include a couple that have been working really well for me over the past few years: appreciating what I already have; and using more empowering language when talking about money.

• TED talk: “Let’s Get Honest About Our Money Problems”; Tammy Lally. Money shame can be devastating, even fatal. (The woman giving this talk is the person mentioned in the first article above, whose brother committed suicide.) This 12-minute talk is deep, goes into the importance of breaking our silence about money shame; delving into our own beliefs about money; experiencing our feelings rather than shutting them out. She mentions the role of unforgiveness — one form of not letting go of the past — in creating stubborn debt. Ms. Lally’s talk moved me to tears, then left me feeling energized and inspired to help break the silence about money shame.

“Impressions” (video talk by Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar® materials). While not about money shame per se, this talk fits in well here. “The events of life leave tracks in our consciousness that inspire us to tell ourselves stories to explain them. The success or failure of your life is all about the story you choose to tell. What you experience is the story you tell yourself and the power to change the story is the power to change your life. This talk by Harry Palmer, the author of the Avatar® materials, was recorded live at the July 2009 International Avatar Course in Orlando, Florida. (length 33:00)”