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Finance

What your financial behaviour says about you – and how to change it

By Diana Chambers, Family Wealth Mentor and author of ‘Money Wisdom Unlocked

We cannot fully appreciate any aspect of our lives, including our relationship with money, without appreciating the context into which we were born and in which we live. All of us carry ancestral, collective, and individual trauma, though we may not immediately identify with it. It shapes our belief systems, which then form our experiences.

We also each have a unique relationship with money, just as we have relationships with people. We express our desires, needs and beliefs within those relationships in patterns that are positive, negative or neutral. Any detrimental beliefs and emotions in relation to money may be the result of unresolved individual and family trauma which, when healed, can help us to develop new money patterns and lead to greater freedom in other areas of our lives.

Trauma shapes our financial behaviour

In my early forties, I was partially disinherited when I was bought out of two family-owned businesses, negotiating with my father over one and with my older sister over the other. I vowed never again to be financially dependent on my family. It was another 20 years before I learned that my father had excluded me from his will when his estate passed to my two sisters.

It was only recently that I got to the bottom of a powerful core money belief that served me as a child but has tripped me up in adult years. I profoundly believed that receiving resources would curtail my freedom to be fully myself. In my family, I was expected to conform to be resourced by my family; I could belong to the family, or I could become my unique self, but I could not have both. That caused me to believe that I would lose myself if I received generously from another person, whether material generosity – such as dinner invitations, gifts, or holidays – or emotional expressions of care and love.

The unfolding field of trauma research is investigating three principal categories of trauma that can be interconnected. The first is collective trauma, which affects an entire group or society and becomes embedded in the collective memory of that group. The second is epigenetic trauma passed down to us through ancestors whose life situations left chemical marks on their genes. The third is trauma from our individual lives, resulting from experiences such as accidents, ill health, or inadequate nurture.

I traced the roots of my beliefs to my early experiences and the ways they shaped me. My parents were unable to nurture secure attachment and they set their three daughters in competition with each other. I learned not to rely on others but to provide for myself. This was reinforced at pivotal times in my life, such as being treated as an outside minority shareholder in the family business rather than as a valued family member.

Look in the Money Mirror

How we behave with money reflects our inner world. I call it the Money Mirror: looking in it helps you identify what is motivating you, ranging from what you truly love to what you most fear. How you handle money reflects whether you are connected or disconnected from yourself and from the people with whom you are in relationship.

Not only do we equate money with our survival, but we also charge it with our hopes, desires, and intentions. We have given money meaning that it cannot realize and created a delusional bubble around it, wanting it to achieve the impossible for us. Yet if we are aware, discerning, and intentional we can use money to enhance our happiness.

Your financial behaviour explained

I have mentored clients for almost 20 years – teaching them to manage their wealth in emotionally intelligent ways – and have observed that unhelpful financial behaviour can be traced back to three main categories of trauma.

Scarcity:

At some point, often early in life, we might have lacked love, attention, food, or shelter, even temporarily. This can express itself through greed, hoarding, fear of loss, or entitlement and dependency.

Many of us are afraid to lose our wealth, which is why most investors prefer to mitigate loss on the downside than to make gains on the upside. I lost substantial investment value in 1987 and 2008 and the second experience caused me to withdraw from the stock market during one of its best streaks in recent history. I hope I have now healed that wound, allowing me to make future investment choices from a conscious, considered position rather than being driven by an old fear of loss.

Control and insecurity are other symptoms of scarcity. Many families tie their children and future generations in knots with complex trust structures designed to maximise wealth for their benefit, but that may reflect the settlor’s lack of trust in their descendants and desire to protect the wealth from the beneficiaries.

Separation:

Many of us experienced fractures in significant relationships earlier in life that led to a sense of separation, whether physical, psychological, or finding ways to distance in our minds. This may be expressed in our financial lives through hiding, lying, envy, or conversely by giving away our wealth.

Hiding our wealth can be an expression of shame to avoid the judgement and separation that disparities of wealth can engender. It means we are constantly disguising our reality and may live in fear of being discovered. I once had a client who was significantly wealthy but had convinced herself and those around her that she was poor – so much so that her church community considered providing financial support for her until they learned that she was one of the wealthiest members of the congregation. By lying to ourselves we create separation and erode trust, destroying the possibility of an honest relationship.

People who give away their fortunes may be lauded, but some do so because they are afraid of the impact the wealth might have on them. I had a young client, about to receive the first tranche of her inheritance, who told me she wanted to give it all away. After digging deeper, I learned that she had seen her parents arguing about money and made the connection that money damages relationships.

Absence:

When we face disruptive challenges, one response is to absent ourselves as part of our adaptive trauma strategy, blinding and de-sensitising ourselves so we can no longer feel our response to the overwhelming experience or name our emotions. When we are not in touch with ourselves our capacity is diminished, and we may not understand why. This may be expressed in our financial lives when money is dominant, through excess spending or frugality, and wasting resources.

Money has an important role to play in our lives, but it should not dominate. When money becomes the dominant factor in our lives or in our primary relationships, we are no longer in charge of and managing the money – it is running us. When we rely on external resources we are absent from ourselves and others.

Other symptoms of absence include excess spending and consumption or, the flip side, which is frugality and that can also go too far. For example, one of my former partners did not want to replace his leather hiking boots even though the soles had cracked and were leaking. What beliefs had he inherited through his family or life experience that caused his extreme frugality? Why was he so absent from his body that he could not appreciate the need to care for his feet? I had to agree in advance a budget for any shared experience, such as a holiday, which I managed so that he was in his financial comfort zone and I was not constrained by his frugality.

Healing your trauma

Our unhelpful financial behavior is a gift because it points us to our underlying trauma which can then be healed, bringing multiple benefits. However, healing trauma is not straightforward and I recommend professional support as needed.

The first of several steps is to recognize your fear and anxiety and appreciate why you carry it. Then tease the fear and anxiety from your current reality so you can be present in the situation and begin to sense what is right for you to do rather than attempting to pursue what you believe will give you security.

Wealth does not equal freedom and our financial assets cannot replace an inner sense of wealth. If material wealth is being used to replace inner wealth, the emptiness and sense of scarcity, separation, or absence will remain. Our work is to heal and in so doing to build our inner wealth.

About Author:

Diana Chambers is a Family Wealth Mentor and author of ‘Money Wisdom Unlocked: Understanding Trauma as a Key to Your Financial Behavior’ which can be downloaded free at https://dianachambers.com/

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