My parents went bankrupt when I was very young, and they worked really hard to get out of it. As a result, we didn’t have a lot when I was growing up. I had a great upbringing and my parents were very loving, but they hid finances from me, likely because of embarrassment. I’ve been on my own now for a couple of years, but I’m struggling financially. I tend to overspend on luxuries – eating out, new clothes, concerts – and I know these things are eating up a lot of my income, and as a result I’m accumulating unnecessary debt. I’m having trouble breaking that habit. I grew up with the lesson that money was “none of my business” so I never bothered to learn, but now that I’m responsible for my own financial well-being, I need to know! How do I break this cycle?
I’m very sorry to hear what your family has been through. Bankruptcy is an extremely difficult circumstance for everyone involved, financially and emotionally.
I also want to recognize your intelligence and maturity for connecting your present and past in a non-judgmental way.
At the heart of your financial patterns is an extremely important issue that we don’t talk about enough: trauma.
To be more specific, trauma and money.
Human beings are loving and abundant by nature. Unhealed trauma is what interferes with our ability to manifest the life we want, including wealth.
This means you have VERY GOOD reasons for treating money the way you do!
It also offers hope, because trauma can be healed.
What is trauma?
Trauma can simply be defined as the experience of feeling unsafe. Bankruptcy is DEFINITELY unsafe, because not having money is life-threatening.
In a traumatized state, the body shuts down regular brain functions to divert resources towards physical survival. This means that the overwhelming feelings we experience cannot be processed because our emotional centres are offline. Instead, the mind represses them into the subconscious to be dealt with later.
While this survival feature keeps us alive, it also prevents us from dealing with the trauma, and so we unconsciously create all kinds of adaptations and behaviors to protect ourselves from ever feeling this terrifying pain again. These become our patterns in life, and we rely on them to feel safe.
Your parents were overwhelmed and terrified at having to deal with bankruptcy. It is normal to feel paralyzed by trauma and so it makes sense that they hid finances from you as a result. Like so many of us, they were not equipped with the skills or resources to handle the situation differently.
A look inside the ‘bankrupt brain’
I’d like you to step outside of your situation for a moment. Think about what kind of beliefs a child who experienced bankruptcy would have internalized. Perhaps things like:
-money is the cause of our problems
-money is something to be afraid of
-money and love don’t go together
-adults are in charge of money (yet look what happened)
-I have no real control over my life
-debt is normal/familiar
-having money is unsafe because I could lose it at anytime
-I will never be able to succeed financially so what’s the point in trying?
Do you recognize any of these thoughts/emotional patterns?
When you’ve experienced trauma, your brain will automatically do everything possible to create safety.
The inevitable conclusion a traumatized mind would make is this: feeling these life-threatening emotions is unsafe, so how can I avoid them and return to safety?
To your subconscious, having money screams DANGER because you’ll lose it all just like your parents. So, you’d better get rid of it. Spending not only avoids having to feel the underlying pain and fear, it also brings you pleasure. You have not only created an adaptive pattern that protects you from pain, you also feel good! We can easily get addicted to these kinds of behaviours.
There are likely other unconscious factors at play. You may be spending on luxuries now as an overcompensation for the lack of possessions as a child, which is understandable. You have probably internalized your parents’ embarrassment about finances which makes it very uncomfortable for you to manage them. And if your brain believes it has to choose love over money, there’s a very powerful incentive not to have any.
We do the things we do because we derive some sort of benefit.
It would be extremely difficult to ‘take responsibility’ for your finances before understanding and healing your patterns.
None of these things are your fault, nor do they come from lack of discipline or laziness! They are your brain’s way of keeping you safe and giving you what you crave based on your traumatic experiences.
How do you heal trauma?
I would love to give you a quick and easy solution, but that isn’t how trauma works.
While it might be tempting to learn about financial strategies like how to budget or pay off debt, they aren’t likely to be successful at this stage because our need for safety trumps everything.
What is needed is a compassionate and safe space that allows you to feel the supressed emotions that are still binding you to these patterns of getting rid of money. The fear, trauma, and pain are wired into your nervous system and this requires a skilled professional who can help you to release the energy and re-imprint new neural networks. A good therapist or trauma specialist will attune to your needs and go at the right healing pace for you.
You need to be ready to get uncomfortable, so you should choose someone you feel utterly safe with. You will feel vulnerable, but this is where the real growth is. It will take time to develop the ability to be with deeper and deeper levels of emotion, until you have faced the root and no longer need this protection. It’s important to remember that you are an adult now, and you have additional capacity and resources to heal what you experienced as a child.
There are a number of effective therapeutic methods such as somatic/body-based psychotherapies, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), EMDR (eye movement therapy), expressive arts, and neurofeedback. I recommend researching what resonates for you and taking your time before jumping in. You will intuitively know when you are ready.
In the meantime, you could start by noticing your emotions about money, and allowing yourself to just be with them. You might even consider journaling your thoughts and feelings to start bringing greater awareness to your patterns.
Although healing trauma can be challenging, you will develop true inner strength – an indestructible confidence that you are living your life for YOU, not out of adaptation to what happened in your past. Now imagine learning financial education with this as your foundation! Your entire experience of money would be completely different.
Once money no longer feels embarrassing or outside of your responsibility, I’d suggest this is the time to begin learning about budgeting, saving, and debt elimination. There are numerous resources on the stnce site – check them out here. In particular, you’d benefit from reading the article “the end of financial guilt and shame”.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Equitable Bank. Any information provided is for information purposes only and Equitable Bank makes no representations as to the validity, accuracy, completeness or suitability of any content. You should seek the advice of a qualified professional or undertake your own research before making financial decisions.