Talking About Money: The Challenge of Financial Shame

“Money is the last taboo.”
-Robert G. Allen

money-and-shame-bag-on-headPeople talk about all kind of things with each other, in person, through email, even on social media for the world to see. “TMI” is now part of our vocabulary, because we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of over-sharing and “too much information”!

Yet, for the vast majority of people, the topic of money is still just “not polite conversation.” Financial blogger J.D. Roth asks his readers, “Why Don’t People Talk About Money?” And in The Number, former Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg describes how posing simple financial questions during his research for the book raised anxieties and branded him as bad company at times.

We’re not suggesting that your personal finances become next topic for coffee shop and Facebook conversations, but here’s the deal:

Sometimes we need to talk about money… but we still don’t.

Not even to our best friend, significant other, or the professionals we trust.

As a financial advisor, it’s a frustrating experience to finally connect with a long-term client who has made an avoidable financial mistake because they were too embarrassed or ashamed to reach out to me earlier. And yet, this happens again and again.

They tell me that they declared bankruptcy – or liquidated their savings to pay debt – when there might have been a much better solution for them. Or they confess to cancelling their whole life policy because they were unable to pay their premiums for a few months and didn’t understand their options or the flexibility inherent within the policy. Or they admit to losing a chunk of money on a dubious investment scheme introduced to them by their brother-in-law.

I wish I could have reached out to them earlier and said, “Please contact us when you find yourself at those crossroad moments.” But I didn’t know. And too often, people don’t, even when invited.

Why don’t people reach out to talk about their finances? Often, it’s because they’re fearful, embarrassed, or downright ashamed. They feel like they should not have ended up in whatever predicament they’re in, or that they should already know the answers and the right thing to do. They fear they’ll be judged, looked down upon, or thought less of.

Sometimes they can’t even face their own predicament, much less discuss it with someone else. It’s easier to avoid the situation entirely, unless a cancellation notice or debt collector forces the issue.

There’s even a whole group of people in their 50’s and beyond who have never met with a financial advisor, because they feel they have nothing to talk about. They have little money to invest, often with debt on the side, and are immobilized by fear and anxiety about their lack of financial resources. They need help – desperately – but financial shame keeps them from getting the help they need.

The root of the word shame comes from a word meaning “to cover.” When we feel ashamed, we go into hiding. We want to cover up our perceived mistakes, or even, ourselves. When we feel ashamed, even our non-verbal communication says so, as eyes gaze downward and hands cover the face. Likewise, we keep our finances in hiding, perhaps hoping that if we don’t look at our lacking account balances, they’ll magically improve by the time we muster the courage to peek.

Fortunately, there are cures for financial shame. Shame and vulnerability researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown gives us one in one of her famous TED talks:

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

Empathy is an antidote for shame. And as Brown says, vulnerability is a measurement for courage. When we reach out, often times we hear back, not the scolding or lectures we fear, but words of encouragement and acceptance.

“I understand; thank-you for sharing.”

“I’m sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Me too.”

What if our audience is not so empathetic? Move on to the next friend, counselor, or advisor. We’ve got to reach out for support when we feel ashamed. It’s the opposite of what our instincts may be screaming for us to do, but it will bring us closer to healing, and a step towards prosperity.

With or without support from the outside, another essential key to healing financial shame, as financial therapist Kate Phillips explained on a recent Guide to Financial Peace radio episode, is self-acceptance. We’ve got to find our own confidence, our own center, and acceptance within ourselves. When we release self-judgment, then it doesn’t matter as much how much empathy we encounter from outside sources.

As Kate says, we’ve got to find our wealth within first. We’ve got to understand that our “assets” are not merely external containers of dollars or wealth, but that WE are the asset, we are the creator of wealth. And we don’t have to wait until our account balances recover to allow ourselves to experience inner wealth. But it’s not an either/or,  inner wealth vs. outer wealth scenario. With self-acceptance and confidence, we give ourselves the tools to take the actions needed to then change our external circumstances.

Action is the third cure for financial shame. When we take positive steps to save or invest or get out of debt, we become more confident, and our confidence crowds out the shame.

Are you experiencing financial shame? Perhaps you lost your job. Maybe you got divorced. Perhaps you took a financial gamble that didn’t pay off. You may have even simply been too embarrassed to ask about something you didn’t understand, and you made decisions based on poor information. Whatever the case is, don’t let shame, embarrassment, or anxiety stop you from moving forward and getting support.

Take the opportunity today to contact a friend, a trusted advisor, or a professional who can help. Below are some helpful resources.

Got debt? Partners 4 Fiscal Fitness helps people become debt-free… permanently. With a combination of support, education, and professional help with restructuring debt and/or negotiating other solutions with creditors, P4FF helps people get out of consumer debt fast and on the road to saving and investing.

Need a budget? Partners 4 Fiscal Fitness also offers a “Fiscal Fitness University” program for those who need support with establishing and following a budget. Contact for details.

Do you need financial advice and solutions? Contact Partners for Prosperity, we are here for you. If we can’t help or don’t provide the right solution for you, we’ll do our best to refer you to a resource that can.

Are your emotions around money keeping you from moving forward? Kate Phillips of Total Wealth Coaching can help you transform your relationship with money, calm your financial anxiety, and support you in your next financial steps.

Are you looking for a new direction in life, perhaps a new career or way to make a living? Tammi Brannan of Instinctive Life has a powerful process that can help you (or your teenager) discover your passion and purpose.

And for inspiration, we’ll invite you to push play on the video below:

If you liked this article or know someone who could use it, please share!

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