Do you feel guilty about your money past? Perhaps you’ve made a bad investment, or haven’t invested at all. Maybe someone you trusted someone stole money from you, or you have a spending addiction. Whatever it is, we all have times that we have made bad decisions involving money, and that can lead to all sorts of negative emotions – guilt, anger, betrayal, shame, and more. What’s worse, over time it can leave you feeling in doubt of your own ability to manage money.
My family history with money
You are not alone! Most people have a bad story involving money. My personal story is actually rather average. My father made pretty good money all throughout my childhood, but neither of my parents were really good at managing money, so all through my childhood, even though we were middle class, it always felt to me like we were one disaster away from total financial devastation. It think that is particularly common in today’s environment of terrible healthcare coverage, among other things. That fostered a lasting feeling of insecurity that I have spent most of my adult life trying to create a perfectly secure environment around me. In the small things, I’m spontaneous (friends might call me “random”), but in the large things I am very conservative. I started saving for retirement early by saving into my very first 401(k) and starting a Roth IRA as soon as I had my first job. Investing may seem very risky to many people, but I saw it as a way to make sure that I never ended up depending on a by-no-means guaranteed social security check in my old age. I knew that if I invested early in relatively risky stocks, I would have time to recover from market downturns, and reap the rewards of time spent invested.
That all may seem fine, but I did it to the exclusion of other parts of my life. I was so scared of losing that ability to save, that I stayed in jobs long after they had ceased to be a challenge, or made me happy. I stayed in personal relationships because they were a good bet financially (well, it’s never that simple, but it was certainly a factor). So my life got pretty far out of balance for a lot of years. I’ve made changes to try to counteract it, but like many things, it’s a work in progress.
And I do feel guilty. I also feel sad, like I lost so many years being scared. And a bit angry at myself for not being more true to myself. I acknowledge those feelings, but I also am working to change my world as it is right now. That is most important. I think I will always struggle with finding the balance of too stodgy and too reckless. But the most important thing is that I’m aware, and I’m always trying to find the balance.
Other reasons we may feel guilt and shame
You may, like me, feel guilty because of behaviors you learned from your family history. But there are other reasons, too. Some of them are cultural. Perhaps you are a woman, and have been told in countless small and large ways that you can’t possibly be good with money. Or maybe the cultural stigma of not talking about money has made it hard for you to seek help when you were confused about your money situation. There are many ways our own culture and society can undermine our relationships with money, and what’s worse, they can be hard to identify, because we’re so steeped in our own cultural biases.
Or perhaps you have had one or many bad experiences with money personally. Perhaps a bad investment, or getting out of the market at the wrong time made you lose a lot of money, and your confidence was lost at the same time. Or you’ve always been a shop-a-holic, and you know how much that has damaged your financial security. Whatever it is, you can absolutely have negative feelings that undermine your ability to get back to a healthy, trusting relationship with money.
What should we do about our guilt and shame?
I first want to make sure that you honor your feelings. So often, we push away our negative feelings, because they are unpleasant. But to truly savor the joys in life, it is necessary to be fully present when we are experiencing the negative. So before you do anything else, spend a few moments just sitting with your feelings. What are those feelings? When you contemplate them, do other feelings wash over you, too? Or maybe memories come back to you? Sometimes it is helpful to journal this experience. You may find that journaling (like the Five Whys exercise) helps you dig deeper into your past experiences.
It is important to feel your feelings, but you can then harness them to make positive changes in your life. I like to reframe my negative emotions about money – they are trying to send up a red flag that your finances are not in balance with your values. If you see the red flags, you can change your behaviors. Once you have acknowledged and honored your feelings, you can get down to the business of figuring out how to modify your behaviors. Remember, even small changes can make a huge difference in your life overall.
Your negative feelings about money can be a natural consequence of your cultural, familial, and personal experiences with money. You are not alone in feeling guilt and shame about our money situation, most of us have had negative experiences in the past with money. The great thing is, they are important red flags that can help you recognize what you want to change in your life. And once you start making changes in your life that align your finances with your values, you will find yourself healing your relationship with money.