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As I was growing up, my mom often worked 12- to 14-hour days — born as she was in an era in which hard work for long periods demonstrated devotion and a strong character. As an adult, she followed in the path of her parents and their parents, and so on. My sister and I watched her wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m., leave the house at 6:00 for work and not make it home until around 7:00 p.m. most of the time, which meant we were latchkey kids for most of our childhood. Another thing it meant was that we rarely spent quality time with my mother. We played sports but she was never able to make it to our events. When I would ask, “Mommy, are you going to make it to my track meet?”, she would reply, “No, I’m going to work.”
Although I despised her working such long hours, watching it conditioned me to believe that the only way I could provide for myself and my family was to do the same. As a result, I earned my doctorate degree while working a full-time job and contracting as a school social worker for six hours a day… while being married! I was exhausted — using every ounce of energy I had. But why did I think that was acceptable? Without even realizing it, I was living a life based on the belief that no amount of money was ever enough, and that if I didn’t “grind and hustle,” I would be broke. Unfortunately, so many of us have the same belief and have subscribed to a similarly punishing lifestyle.
What is financial trauma?
In 2016, Dr. Galen Buckwalter, a research psychologist, conducted a study that focused on the connection between personality and financial behavior. He found that one in four Americans suffer from financially-induced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, which include irritability, self-destructive behaviors, isolation, avoidance, denial, agitation and hypervigilance when it came to facing financial realities.
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There are several factors in adulthood that can lead to such trauma, including a history of loss of income, limited savings, high amounts of debt, being evicted, divorce, financial abuse in a relationship and several others. But so much of who we are as adults is also shaped by our childhood. My perspective derived from communication directed to me and things I witnessed, as well as overhearing my mom discuss her views of money (principally not having enough). Have you ever considered what lessons you were taught in childhood and how they contributed to your relationship with finances as an adult?
How is it manifested?
Everyone is susceptible to financial trauma, whether you grew up with limited means or expansive financial resources. Some signs to keep an eye out for:
• Avoidance. This can take the form of not opening bills, not discussing money and not looking at balances. It’s a symptom in which even thinking about money can be very stressful and as a result a person chooses to evade the topic altogether.
• Overspending. This essentially boils down to making purchases, large and small, without having the finances to cover them — living outside of your budget. One of the patterns I see among a number of clients is not even having a budget in place. Committing to one and staying within it are extremely important.
• Lack of boundaries. Not requiring payment for your services or products, lending money when you cannot afford to and under-charging and/or not asking for more money even when you deserve it are classic examples of this characteristic. Valuing who you are and your gifts are extremely important when it comes to both mental and financial health.
• Underspending can present as not investing in yourself or your business — holding onto funds so tightly that you don’t position yourself for growth — and is a consequence of fear of not being able to make more money and otherwise viewing your finances from a place of scarcity. You have earned your money, and deserve to use it to position yourself for opportunities and development: Don’t hold onto it so tightly that your situation becomes stagnant.
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Moving beyond financial trauma
Healing from any type of trauma begins with a choice to do so, and here are a few tips to get you started:
• Recognize that your current relationship with money is not helping to produce the financial results desired. Once you acknowledge that you want and deserve better, you can then accurately assess those needs. It’s important to be ready to shed old ways that aren’t helping you become the person you want to be.
• Decide what you want your money relationship to look like. Do you want to spend on yourself without fear? To create a weekly or monthly savings goal? To draw boundaries around taking care of others and the degree to which you sacrifice yourself? Identify what it will look like for you to be happy, and these considerations aren’t about other people: focus on you.
• Seek professional assistance. I would recommend that either before or while working with a financial professional, you also work with a mental health practitioner who specializes in healing trauma. Trauma impacts so much of who we are, how we think, how we respond to others and how we treat ourselves, and it’s entirely possible that it occurred in childhood. If that’s the case, you have been operating from a place of hurt for several years. Having a support team in place to help you through the healing process will not only be helpful but keep you from having to go it alone.
Related: 3 Simple Steps to Keep You From Drowning in Collective Trauma