Meditation on Money
How my recent unemployed status has unearthed fears around financial lack, emotional abandonment, and “not being enough.”
I have had an ambivalent relationship with money for a long time. In light of my recent unemployed status, however, old fears and triggers around the concept of money have been rearing their ugly heads. After reflecting on another anxiety-induced breakdown spurred by fears of “not having enough,” I decided to spend a bit more time unpacking my current relationship with money to see if I could disentangle some of its complex resonances in my psyche. In turn, I hope to free myself (even a little) from the echoes of the past.
I am prone to overthinking and have suffered from generalized anxiety in varying degrees for as long as I can remember. My anxiety often manifests as relentless extrapolation as a sort of protective mechanism — if I can anticipate all possible outcomes to a given situation, perhaps I can protect myself from deeper fears of uncertainty and not being “in control.” I recognize that this sort of protective mechanism is more or less bullshit because not one of us can predict the future. That said, I have never known anxiety to be concerned with rationality in the first place.
Case in point: earlier this week, I woke up in a lower mood around productivity and money. It had been about a month since I left my position and Mondays without structure (and, for me, without purpose) have been rough. I spent the afternoon with a dear friend helping her write copy for her foray into freelance hairdressing though as the sun started to go down that evening, I slowly became less confident in my ability to support myself for the foreseeable future. As I took the train back to Surrey, I started thinking about and then obsessing over what would happen once the middle of December rolled around and I didn’t have enough money for a pre-authorized loan payment. What started as fear of not being able to pay one particular bill quickly snowballed into feeling convinced that if I went into overdraft for this one bill that (a) I was a failure and that (b) I would never be able to get myself out of this hole, however small. Even though going into overdraft for one month — if this even happened at all — would not be the end of the world, I pictured this pit growing until I could no longer possibly keep up and I would lose all control.
I can understand why I reacted so intensely about the possibility of using overdraft. Back in 2017, I left my position with Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics where I had worked for two years. I had just finished my Master’s degree and along with feeling burnt out after a veritable crawl to the finish line, I felt disillusioned about not just what I wanted to do with my life but what I thought was actually possible — I no longer saw a place for myself in a field that I had held so dear for seven years. Even though I felt overdue for a break at the time, I did not (and could not) anticipate how this decision would affect my professional and financial landscape for the next two years.
After leaving Lush, I half-heartedly applied to jobs in my field despite no longer knowing what I wanted from my career. As you can imagine, I wasn’t contacted for the few jobs I did apply for — I put all my eggs in one basket and got my hopes up, my first two mistakes — and I took these rejections as further evidence that I wasn’t good enough for this field in the first place, so I stopped trying (mistake number three). I also knew shit about applying for jobs as a new graduate and was woefully idealistic and naive but, hey, we all have to start somewhere! The only job that I ended up being able to land that summer was a hostess position at Browns Socialhouse and though the pay was low, it was something I could work hard at and move up quickly.
I won’t go into the details of my work at Browns — the good and the bad — though I will always be grateful for the opportunity to learn new skills, earn money, and build a community of friends in a city that didn’t quite feel like home yet. Still, the period I spent working at Browns was the first (of many) times where I remember relying on overdraft to make ends meet. Even though I picked up as many shifts as I could and worked hard for promotions that I wasn’t always ready for — as a shift leader, then as a server — I was still going into overdraft hundreds of dollars a month, maxing out my credit card, and quickly racking up my tab with my partner. The student line of credit that I had taken out to fund grad school had been filled up the prior Fall. I felt lost, depressed, and alienated from myself during this time, not just for financial reasons but also as a result of the ongoing disillusionment I felt after school. I had no idea what I wanted to do anymore, thus I also no longer knew who I was. It’s true that I also knew almost zilch about effectively managing money or, if I did, I didn’t feel capable of adequately following the wisdom I had accrued in order to survive at the time. Even though (lack of) money seemed to be the trigger, the scarcity mindset I felt engulfed by transferred to other areas of my life.
Looking back, I see how much meaning I attached to the fact of having to go into overdraft to pay my bills: “I am financially irresponsible,” “I am a failure,” “I am a loser,” or “I am not valued for my talents and not having enough money to pay my bills is evidence of this.” Etc. etc. etc. It hurts my heart to think about hard I have been on myself (a deeply-entrenched set of neural pathways). Moreover, survival doesn’t really need to have meaning attached to it — the need to survive is not fucking personal. None of us are perfect and we all have to do things to get by. Have I forgot to mention that I live in one of the most expensive regions of Canada? People my age are struggling to make ends meet here, unless of course they have some parental seed money to work with (all the power to ‘em). Still, because of how personally disempowered I felt at the time, I associated financial hardship with impending emotional doom — or did I associate lack of money with the depression I was feeling? Whatever the case, I was caught in the muck of it all.
Even in writing this, it is clear to me that I have harboured a scarcity mindset for a long time — these structures don’t just pop up out of nowhere! In learning to live on my own and then with my partner, I would get the opportunity to work through some of my issues surrounding money and materiality. Whether I was conscious enough to see this as a learning opportunity was another question altogether (Hint: I wasn’t. That’s the thing about hindsight…). When I moved to Vancouver for school in 2014, I was living on my own for the first time and was using scholarships to fund my education and pricey residence — in other words, I was completely disconnected from the value of my money. This isn’t to say that I have always been financially irresponsible. Quite the contrary, my parent’s divorce and the financial turmoil that plunged us into can still make me feel guilty about spending on anything I don’t inherently need. Even when I was monitoring what I was spending, I still clung to fear-based beliefs about money and acted out the moral system I saw as attached to it (“I can’t spend this in case one day I don’t have enough” or “I don’t really need this, it’s better not to spend money” or “I’m being a more mindful, controlled person by not spending money”). Eventually — and perhaps inevitably, given the system I was operating under — I retaliated by spending, especially while living in Vancouver. I tried incessantly to beat back the fear and guilt I felt around materiality and buying things, seemingly without guilt, gave me something to latch onto, something to fasten my identity to (a complicated dialectic I’ll save for another post). In a way, a feeling of scarcity has permeated my subconscious for a long time and even when I am rallying against it, I am still caught up in it.
So how does one break the chains of an oppressive mental system? First, with awareness about what’s happening.
My fears of never having or, really, being enough take me back to growing up with my father. My dad was a particularly neurotic, compulsive man and suffered immensely from multiple mental illnesses that would remain hidden and untreated for years due in large part to his entrenched narcissism (for instance, I didn’t know his “official” diagnoses until late 2018 — sixteen years after my parents’ divorce). He was also the first person to really teach me about money. My dad worked at a financial firm in downtown Saskatoon as an Investment Advisor and it was his job to help other people make money through their investments. To my knowledge, he was damn good at the job, too — he grossed over six figures a year and worked 80 hours a week. Our family appeared to benefit from his dedication as well: we lived a middle-class life in the suburbs of Saskatoon and, from the outside, didn’t want for much. The emotional landscape of our home was a different story.
My dad did the best he could with the resources he had available to him at the time. We haven’t been able to have frank conversations about our shared life together at this stage — who knows, maybe it isn’t too late for that yet — so I can only conjecture about my father’s own beliefs about money, trauma, love, and self-worth. Here is what I have come to believe. Throughout his life, my dad has placed his sense of self-worth solely in external factors: how much he excelled in his work, how much money he made, what kind of car he drove, and so on. Not so different from what were expected of men growing up in the 50’s. My dad was simultaneously being crushed under other weights, too. He had a deep sense of abandonment from being put up for adoption, was frequently beaten by his alcoholic adoptive mother, and felt suicidal from a young age, among numerous other traumas. These wounds were never dealt with and my dad’s narcissism (finally an official diagnosis) shielded him from facing himself or seeking help at all. His obsessive drive to collect external markers of success became a way to beat back the internal chaos.
So how does one break the chains of an oppressive mental system? First, with awareness about what’s happening.
So how did my father’s emotional legacy affect my relationship with money? There was never enough unconditional love from him and, eventually, there was never enough money for my family. Emotionally, the environment of our home ranged from cool austerity to fiery anger; my father’s moods were unpredictable and all five of us, including my mother and my three siblings, lived in fear of both his rages and his deafening withdrawals. To be loved by my father was to avoid inciting his anger, so I learned to earn his approval which I interpreted as “love.” As most adult children of alcoholics will know, growing up with a dysfunctional parent often leads to the development of adverse coping mechanisms: codependency, fawning/people-pleasing, hypervigilance, and so on. Fawning for my father’s love lead to an unhealthy perfectionism that mirrored his own. Even more, the threat of emotional abandonment as a result of disagreeing with my dad meant whatever boundaries I might have had slowly eroded over time. I so desperately wanted to be loved unconditionally by him and developed a bouquet of coping mechanisms to try to secure his love.
Financially, my dad was despotic. Years later, my mom would tell me about how he made her feel guilty for asking for grocery money because she wasn’t the “breadwinner” of the household though it wasn’t like he was offering to help with my mom’s professional development. What I now understand as manic episodes, my dad would make increasingly impulsive, exorbitant purchases, especially near the end of my parent’s 13-year marriage. These were done all without my mom’s consultation or consent. The biggest one of all was a 1968 Plymouth GTX that cost a cool $53,000. Even though I ended up loving that car fiercely as a child, it feels difficult for me to reconcile whatever enjoyment this car gave my dad and my siblings and the ways that he gaslit, infantilized, and belittled my mom…This shit is complicated.
My parents had a difficult divorce. I have a vivid memory of being around 12 years old, sitting in our garage, feeling so relieved to hear that my dad wouldn’t be living with us anymore. Even though my dad loved my siblings and I to the best of his ability, the vitriol he directed at our mom for the divorce was antithetical to our mental and emotional safety. The divorce also triggered his own downward spiral that would last well over a decade. During this time, we were lucky to see him once a week if he was mentally well enough to care for us though no-shows became more frequent as time went on. Sometimes we wouldn’t hear from him for months and then he would come back into our lives out of nowhere, as if nothing had happened. I also learned that he had withheld thousands of dollars of child support payments over a period of many years and forced my mom to take him to court over them. Having been a stay-at-home parent for the entirety of her marriage, my mom was forced to find any sort of work that would allow us to survive, including entry-level administrative work at an optometrist firm. She worked night shifts at the post office well into my teen years. Also, were it not for my grandparents’ support and child-minding at the time — including allowing us to live in one of their rental properties as we couldn’t afford a house after the divorce — our lives and futures would have looked very different.
I would be lying if I said this wasn’t a heavy piece to write. Part of why I love writing is that it allows me to trace thoughts and feelings back to some sort of source or sources so that I can better understand myself and the world around me. Sometimes things still don’t feel real, though. For instance, my dad: he has been living in a subsidized long-term care facility in Saskatoon for about three years now. His health has declined so rapidly over the past few years that he can no longer walk, care for himself independently, or speak more than small sentences at a time; his medical team doesn’t expect him to live all that much longer. He’s 66 years old. I don’t think he has much money to his name and certainly doesn’t have what most of us would associate with a “quality of life.” He has also been grieving the loss of his own father only a few months ago, a funeral I wasn’t able to attend because my job was so short-staffed at the time (I’ll try to release the bitterness). I feel deeply, almost incalculably sad when I think about where things are now. The grief echoes back.
It’s so funny to me how a piece that started off about my personal relationship with finances has ended up talking so much about my family life growing up, though I guess it makes sense — my dad was the first person to really talk to me about money and actually instill good habits in me. However, as the years have gone by, it’s clear that we both haven’t followed his original, good advice. And that’s okay. If this writing exercise has done one thing, it has helped me begin to see that you don’t need to be perfect to deserve emotional and financial security, to deserve love (the process of unlearning and re-learning is ongoing). If my dad had been able to know this, things likely would have been different for him and for my family. I choose now to know this for me so that I can create a different emotional and financial legacy. Even when the chips are down, I now know that I deserve to have my needs met — emotionally, financially, spiritually, and so on. I have always deserved this.
Back to the present. Right now I am balancing two part-time jobs alongside the creation of my own business, which I have put on the back-burner a bit (working retail for the Black Friday season = pure exhaustion) though it has definitely allowed me to squeak by this month, which is more than I thought I was going to be able to do. I am also waiting to hear back for an interview with a salaried position next week and am hopeful that more opportunities will come my was as a result of the hard work I have put in. I feel proud of myself for my ability to improvise and to trust my feet to carry me — to trust the wild unknown, as a tarot reader said to me. Though I still feel the surge of financial fear from time to time — if I am being real, I have about $6 in my bank account right now — I am learning that I get to choose the sort of conditioning that guides me. I can be guided by the fear of lack, the fear of never having or being enough (which are so intimately attached in my life) or I can unpack these fears and move forward with optimism, hope, and belief in myself instead. Which honestly feels a lot better. I am still figuring out things as I go — who isn’t — though I feel excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for healing, joy, and enrichment. I know that I’ll be okay.