Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Saddest Money Piece I've Ever Read

I hear and read a lot of sad stories about money. Stories about loss, about desperation, about dealing with frustration and indignity. But this has got to be one of the saddest money stories I've ever read.

Isa Hopkins's parents used to fight about money when she was little. Sure, lots of people's parents fight about money, but I guess Isa's parents fought a lot. Or the quality of their fighting was particularly toxic. I would guess that the financial insecurity itself probably caused distress for little Isa, and when she looked around for a caregiver to reassure her she saw two people too engrossed with their battle against the world and each other to take care of her. She got the message that not having money meant fear and a lack of safety. And then what happened next? At one point in her teens things changed for the better. Her parents got more money, and the fighting stopped. No money, fighting. Enough money, no fighting. So Isa really got the message that money is absolutely, utterly essential to any chance at domestic felicity.

Though she was curious and even enthusiastic about the prospect of having a lot of money as an adult, Isa chose to pursue a path as a writer. I haven't met or treated Isa, but this doesn't surprise me. I'm sure retreating into an inner fantasy world was a great solace to a little girl in scary, shitty circumstances. Also, as someone who reports close family relationships, up-shifting into a different socioeconomic class can be tricky, even threatening, to family bonds. So there must have been something very familiar about choosing a life as a poor artist.

But this leaves Isa in a bind. Having experienced first-hand the stresses that lack of money put on her parents' relationship, she would not -- would not -- get involved with someone if there was a risk that this pattern would repeat. And in the incontrovertible, ipso facto, If-Then logic that can only be borne from the mind of a traumatized child, that meant that as an adult Isa would find herself stuck not being able to grow, become intimate, partner, and have children.

My heart breaks for Isa. I see her piece not as the brittle and tough expression that it tries to be on the surface. She expresses no self-doubt and presents her argument like there's no debate. Yet the very act of publishing this piece is itself an expression of hope that she's wrong. I feel her writing these words and probing them, testing them, examining them for validity. I picture her continuously updating the comments and hoping for a counter-argument.

The associations that we make with money and relationships when we're young are so deep. We have so little understanding of the world that we think that what happened in our family is the world. Poor Isa. It doesn't have to be this way. Lack of money is a terrible stress, but it doesn't always mean that a person is doomed to suffer that stress alone.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Surf the Urge

Just came from an absolutely AMAZING training with Dr. Andrew Tatarsky of the Center for Optimal Living.  He was at The Actors Fund to talk about Harm Reduction techniques and his book, Harm Reduction Psychotherapy. While this was mainly focused on application with substance abuse cases, it is easy to make the connection to a disordered process with money. My favorite part of the training was the technique of urge surfing, where you delay responding to the urge to "use" (splurge, spend, drink, etc.).

In that delay you slowly breathe into the urge and describe the thoughts and sensations that come up. 

The urge becomes the way in to see what is driving the feeling. You "unwrap" the urge and ask:
  • What does the urge want?
  • What happened just before?
  • What does the urge want to change?
  • If it could speak, what would it say?
  • Is there a story it has to tell?
  • What part of you is speaking through the urge?

For so many of us, financial behavior is not strategic, rational, and deliberate -- oh, no. It is reactive, messy, and confusing. It's based on urges that have their basis in deep emotion and profound personal meaning. It touches on our multiple points of our identity, relationships, and social context. Before we can attempt to change or "clean up" our financial behavior we have to come from an initial place of compassionate curiosity and radical acceptance. Once we can perceive and understand the origin of these behaviors and how those behaviors serve us (even as they limit us), only then do we have the chance to make real, purposeful, substantive change. 

Radical acceptance. It's what financial wellness is all about.