Why Money Makes us Scared, Selfish or Stupid — and What to do About it
I was sick of feeling like a helpless child around money.
Even though I was doing well in most areas of my life, money was my kryptonite.
It didn’t matter that I was crushing it career wise, I was clueless with money — and I began to notice the impact of my ignorance.
I would struggle to negotiate or renegotiate things like phone contracts, my salary, bills, or rent.
I would put off doing my taxes, until the pain of penalties exceeded the pain of having it done.
I would avoid planning how to spend and save my money, and so spend most and save little.
In the end I was underpaid, yet I always overpaid, and endlessly worried about money. I was sick of having money on my mind, dictating my time and attention.
So, I decided to fix it.
I read countless books, attended talks, and took various courses. In the end I realised something about building wealth that few people will tell you.
Intelligence, know-how, and willpower have very little to do with it.
I knew others whose experience were very different to mine. They earned what they were worth, made smart money decisions, and always seemed to have enough for now and the future.
The thing is though, few of these people knew what I knew. Clearly learning about money was not enough. I realised I needed to learn more about the other half of the equation: me.
I was a bit like the rower whose rudder is stuck to one side: I could try as hard as I wanted but I would forever go in circles until I addressed the problem beneath the surface.
My relationship with money.
What I learned both shocked and intrigued me. Money was not my problem. I was. The way I identified with money had a huge impact on my financial fortunes. Once I understood this, I realised something even more important.
I had learned how to ‘be’ around money, so I could unlearn it.
In the six months after I made this discovery, I did three things that previously were impossibilities in my mind.
I saved 50k.
I engaged a professional adviser.
I finally invested my cash and built a passive income stream.
To do all those things, I had to break the patterns of the past. To do this I literally rewired my brain and upgraded my thinking.
How did I do it?
First, I figured out what was driving the destructive behaviours that destroyed my wealth. Once I had uncovered these, I was actually able to put my accumulated know how to work. Before this, there had been plenty of learning, but not much doing.
My wife is a therapist, and she tells her clients: ‘once you can name the game you can stop playing it’. My experience taught me this is as true for money as it is for therapy. By uncovering and understanding the ‘game’ you are unconsciously playing around money, you can speed up your progress and change your financial future.
To Discover Your Destiny, Uncover Your Conditioning
‘Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate’ — Carl Jung
A good friend of mine recently returned from an extended working holiday in the US. She is a teacher and was posted in a small town in the far north west.
She told me a story of a confrontation she had with a boy, not twelve years of age.
This boy was trumpeting all manner of prejudices and targeting minorities in the classroom. At first, she thought he was just a spoiled brat, but eventually she challenged him directly.
She said, ‘look, you’re twelve years old, have seen nothing, and met no one. All you know is this small town and what your parents have told you. You’re wrong and you need to know it’.
The boy remains a bigot.
The first years of our lives are incredibly formative. As the brain builds itself, our worldview comes into focus, and our personality and preferences begin to take shape.
All of this happens as a result of what we see and hear, as well as how these things make us feel. Our brains encode the stimuli as memories and our body stores the associated response.
A blend of all these elements conditions us to see things through a very particular lens. This conditioning can either help or hinder us later in life.
Our young bigot was obviously conditioned to believe that minorities are less worthy, not to be trusted, and even dangerous.
This will probably make it hard for him to get along with many different types of people.
As he reaches working age, his behaviour will no doubt reduce his effectiveness in the workplace, and connectedness in his community. Consequently, his access to opportunities and experiences is likely to be limited. In the end the boy — and the world — will be all the poorer for it.
The same thing happens with money.
Our conditioning informs our response and dictates our relationship with money. This relationship then dictates our financial destiny.
You can think of it like a kind of map for money.
If our conditioning is destructive, the money map will lead us into problems and pitfalls that impoverish and imprison us.
If our conditioning is constructive, our money map will direct us past dangerous obstacles and toward opportunities and experiences that enrich us.
Although we each have distinct money maps, most are printed on the same material. Society and culture relentlessly reinforce pervasive, destructive ideas that create a toxic relationship with money.
By better understanding these foundational scripts, we can begin to modify our money map.
The Three Most Common Money Scripts — And How They Ruin our Relationship with Money
As we grow up, we are exposed to three prevalent ideas about money, and these ideas shape our response to it. The first step to rewriting your money map is understanding it’s origins.
Script 1: Money is scary
For many of us, most of our early experiences with money are coloured by conflict.
This conflict is often the consequence of clashing money maps. It is natural and inevitable as our parents struggle to solve the problem of how to allocate joint resources effectively.
Do our kids really need brand name clothing?
Should we send the kids to a private school or is the public system sufficient?
Can we afford to go on holidays? Or is the money better spent on weekly activities?
In any situation concerning the use money, one person’s money map often specifies a wildly different approach to the others. In most cases, these skirmishes are eventually resolved and couples do get better at managing money together — but for children these experiences leave a lasting impression.
Evolution has wired us to seek survival at all costs. As children, our chances of survival are much greater where there is harmony and cooperation between our two primary carers — our parents.
To a child, disharmony equals danger. Over time, money is conflated with menace. Gradually, unconsciously, we come to view money as monster.
As a result, any time we come into contact with money, or even just the idea of money — it triggers a cascade of physiological responses common to one powerful emotion.
Fear hijacks our nervous system and robs us of our reason. The executive function of the brain is crippled as the blood rushes to the body — ready to fight or flight.
This physiological state is perfect for getting us out of situations that threaten our existence, but pitiful when it comes to educating ourselves about money. Which leads us to our second script.
Script 2: Money is Hard
In the bestselling book ‘Brain Rules’, developmental molecular biologist John Medina outlines twelve rules that can help us maximise our cognitive function.
The fourth rule has to do with stress and learning. It states: ‘a stressed brain doesn’t learn the same way’.
Medina goes on to explain that cortisol (the hormone released by the body in times of stress) actually damages cells in the brain related to learning and remembering.
When the concept of money triggers a feeling of fear, this stress response takes over and our brain suddenly turns to mush. No matter how smart, talented or capable we are, we may as well be braindead.
Simple concepts feel difficult to grasp, and we struggle to retain the information and build our intelligence. No doubt this is a big part of the reason many people lack financial literacy.
This perpetual problem leads us to the conclusion that money is a complex topic. We slowly tell ourselves money is much to too abstract for someone like us to understand.
The finance industry loves this, why?
Because there’s plenty of money to be made from ignorance.
They invent all kinds of weird and wacky words like ‘collateralised debt obligation’ to cloak simple ideas in mystery. Then they make it even more exclusive by only ever talking in acronyms (like ‘CDO’).
Remember, your uncertainty is their opportunity.
The more we convince ourselves money is hard, the more we put it in the ‘too hard basket’. It’s easy to tell when we are doing this, we use language like ‘I just don’t have the time’. Or ‘I just can’t think about it right now’. Or ‘money is just not my thing’.
Our deep disdain for money makes it difficult to build real wealth. Think about it, if you deeply fear and resent someone, it is unlikely the relationship will be a fruitful one. It’s the same with money.
Script 3: Money is Scarce
As we grow up and learn to express ourselves, we learn to put to words to our wants. Walk through any shopping mall and you’ll see what I mean.
‘Mommy I want this dollhouse’
‘Daddy, can I have that train set’
Some of these requests are reasonable and are met with a reasonable response. Others are more outlandish and require tempering. The problem is, all too often our parents are too time poor to explain that although money is everywhere, we don’t own all of it.
Instead, many resort to using the fastest, most effective way to change a child’s behaviour: guilt and shame.
‘What do you think, I’m made of money? ‘
‘Money doesn’t just grow on trees you know!’
These short, sarcastic rebuffs are usually accompanied by the appropriate pitch, tone and body language to ensure the child is in no doubt whatsoever that somehow, they’ve done wrong.
Over time, the message sinks in: money is hard to come by and it’s bad to want more of it, or more of what it can buy.
As we grow up, we learn more ‘appropriate behaviour’ around money. We hoard and hide what we have from others. If we seek more, we try to be as covert about it as possible lest we be seen and scorned.
Of course, none of this actually helps us with our relationships with money.
We treat money as a dirty necessity, and swing from loving it to loathing it as our financial fortunes rise and fall.
We ride the rollercoaster of emotions toward the destination dictated by our distorted money map.
To Conquer Your Conditioning, Question Your Narratives.
When we can’t predict or expect stable outcomes from our efforts, eventually we do the only thing that will offer us the certainty we crave.
Psychologists call this learned helplessness.
Here’s how it works: when we can’t make sense of the way our actions impact our outcomes, we tell ourselves three destructive stories. These stories corrode our sense of confidence and immobilise us in a prison of our own construction.
First, we tell ourselves that the problem we can’t seem to solve is personal. There must be something fundamentally broken about us, and us alone.
Next, we convince ourselves that because (despite our efforts) the situation has not changed, it will not change. We tell ourselves that it’s permanent.
Then, we begin to imagine how the issue bleeds into others aspects of our lives. This story persuades us that the problem is not only personal and permanent, it is also pervasive.
These stories slowly seep into in our psyche and poison our minds against money. This only serves to keep us trapped in the same cycle, repeating the same patterns.
Here’s the thing though. It’s all bullshit.
Like the child terrified of monsters in their room at night, we are fooled by an illusion of our own creation. The stories we tell ourselves about money and relationship to it are just that: stories.
When we have the courage to challenge these stories, we can change them.
There are plenty of others like me, who have rewritten their money maps, and changed their financial future.
Most of the time though, it happens because life throws up some challenging situation that becomes the catalyst for change.
A teen witnesses their parents go bankrupt.
A child gets sick and the families costs skyrocket.
A parent loses their job, and the family home is in jeopardy.
When the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of change people spring into action.
But you don’t need to wait or will life to make you change, you can simply make a choice. And herein lies the secret of those who rewrite their money maps to change their financial future.
If you choose to lean into the fear caused by the monster of your making, you can call its bluff. If you do this, you can largely avoid the crisis that usually precedes significant change.
How do you do that?
You need to reach deep within yourself to question the narratives you’ve accepted about money and your relationship to it. These narratives are like vines growing in and around your potential, restricting your movement and stifling your growth and abundance.
To do this, you need to meditate on some serious questions. These are the questions I start with when coaching others to rewrite their money maps. If asked and answered honestly, they can be powerful catalysts for personal change.
- Am I really broken? Is it not possible that I can evolve? Have I not already done so in other areas of my life?
- Does this really need to be permanent? Could this situation not change if I do?
- If I stay the same, where is my money map likely to take me? What impact could this have on those I care about? How would that feel?
- Given all of this, what are the costs of doing nothing?
To Move forward Go Inward
When it comes to mastering money to get ahead, effort and intellect are not enough. Instead it’s your conditioning that determines your relationship to money, and this relationship dictates your financial destiny.
To improve your results, first rehabilitate your relationship with money.
This requires curiosity and courage. Curiosity, to understand the narratives that underpin your relationship to money. Courage, to question these narratives and their validity.
If you have the humility to own side of equation, you can resolve the unconscious motives that drive your destructive behaviours with money. Once you’ve taken your foot off the brakes, you will be astounded at how quickly you can achieve things that previously felt like impossibilities.