The Psychology of Money

By Kelly Hearn & Susan Tomlinson


Money remains a taboo subject. A recent survey carried out in the US cited money as the most difficult conversation to have, with 44% of respondents saying it was even more difficult to talk about than death – another of the ‘taboo subject triumvirate’ including sex, death and money. But psychotherapy is about addressing difficult subjects and emotions; surely ample time and space should be afforded to these topics in our chosen profession? Alas, no. Both of us, coming from previous careers in investment management (Kelly) and journalism (Susan) have noticed the remarkable absence of money in both our training and group work in transpersonal psychotherapy.

This seems a glaring oversight. If, as author John Armstrong (How to Worry Less About Money), is correct in saying: ‘Our worries – when it comes to money – are about psychology as much as economics, the soul as much as the bank balance,’ then surely money can and should have a place in both transpersonal psychotherapy training and in our consulting rooms.

Our interest in researching the topic and holding a workshop on ‘The Psychology of Money: An Exploration of Money, Values & Self-Worth,’ stemmed from our own personal and professional backgrounds. Kelly recalls working in a somewhat polar opposite environment (finance) where money was the topic of conversation: how much was being made for clients? How much was distributed to employees? An awareness of specific dollar or pound amounts was followed and discussed ad nauseum, while the psychotherapy course was met with near silence on the topic. The contrast was jarring.

As a TV producer, Susan spent many years exploring taboo subjects, but it was while working on a series about money that she realised it really was the subject that nobody wanted to talk about. Not only were all the interviewees tight lipped when it came to the “m” word but it became obvious that it wasn’t money per se that was the problem but the fear of what talking about it might reveal about themselves psychologically or emotionally. It wasn’t until training as a psychotherapist that the penny dropped: money was a physical representation of the shadow.

money has become the object on which we project much of our shadowy unconscious, it also holds many of our polarisations, or splits.

Interestingly, despite our psychotherapy training, money still lives in the shadow. We had both spent four years exploring the ‘shadow aspects’ of ourselves and our clients, and yet this one very shadowy topic remained in the depths of darkness for us as individuals and, it felt to us, in our training organisation. Why might this be?

We came to realise that as money has become the object on which we project much of our shadowy unconscious, it also holds many of our polarisations, or splits. On the one hand, there is what the psychologist Oliver James has termed Affluenza – rampant materialism in our western capitalist societies. It was one thing when all we had to do was ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to feel successful, but in the age of reality TV and social media, the stakes have become even higher. People now strive to keep up with the Kardashians! Love them or hate them, their fan base in the millions attests to some popular attraction. But not among this readership, perhaps. Because, crudely, we sit on the other side of this divide.

Somehow, all consideration of money seems to be divorced from the more traditional ‘caring’ industries (the same can be said for creative occupations where the stereotype of the ‘starving artist’ lives large). There is something that doesn’t sit right with focusing on money when it is derived from working with vulnerable individuals. This may be a reason therapist fees aren’t discussed regularly, or often presented transparently. Because money earned in this way may seem, well, unseemly. Many, if not most of us entered into this work as a vocation, a calling. Surely a price can’t be put on this? Or can there be? Must there be such a divide between the worldy and the spiritual?

Many, if not most of us entered into this work as a vocation, a calling. Surely a price can’t be put on this? Or can there be?

There are ample historical examples to suggest not. Florence Nightingale is known as the ‘all giving lady with the lamp,’ selflessly tending to the sick and needy. We have made her into somewhat of an icon of altruistic giving. However, a lesser-known side to Nightingale is her tireless fight throughout her life for good wages in nursing. ‘God and mammon aren’t enemies,’ Nightingale suggested. Just because God’s work is being carried out doesn’t mean that nurses shouldn’t get paid well for it. (Marcal, 2015). Mother Teresa is a second example. She became the symbol of purity and selflessness, all giving with her help for the sick and the poor. But in reality, Mother Teresa was also tremendously good at opening the purses of the rich. She knew that good works needed funding. They have always done.

In Hillman’s view, such a division between the material and the spiritual ‘deprives the soul of the world and the world of the soul

In our work exploring the psychology of money, we both felt that the ‘split’ described above, so prevalent in societal views, was unhelpful. Instead, we were drawn to a kind of ‘third position’ described by the late Jungian James Hillman. In Hillman’s view, such a division between the material and the spiritual ‘deprives the soul of the world and the world of the soul (Hillman, 1982).’ In other words, the more one concentrates on money, the more one involves oneself in the world at the expense of a spiritual connection; conversely, the more one neglects or abjures money, the more one may be doing a kind of spiritual soul-work but removed from the world. As such, Hillman’s position became one of ‘neither the high road nor the low road, neither spirit nor matter…. I see money as an archetypal dominant that can be taken spiritually or materially but which in itself is neither (Hillman, 1982).’

How different this approach seems from our prevailing cultural thought. And yet, how much common sense it makes. Taking Hillman’s slant one step further, we would assert that there isn’t a singular ‘third position,’ but an infinite number of positions on a spectrum from material to spiritual, each unique to the individual. The crucial element, however, is that our personal position is held in line with individual values and ideals. The goal, therefore, is to explore and discard any outdated family or cultural beliefs around money that no longer serve us, and forge our own, unique and conscious relationship.

because our work naturally falls into the ‘caring camp’ of the money split, we are more likely to undervalue our own work and profession monetarily

There are several reasons why this is an important aspect of our work as transpersonal psychotherapists. Firstly, because our work naturally falls into the ‘caring camp’ of the money split, we are more likely to undervalue our own work and profession monetarily. In doing so, we may inadvertently place ourselves in a position whereby we struggle to cover our own expenses and lifestyles. By contrast, taking ownership of our finances means we’re both looking after ourselves and also modelling responsible self-care for our clients. Secondly, if we’re not comfortable with our own relationship with money, how can we be so working with those of our clients? In this case, do issues surrounding money stay noticeably absent from our therapy rooms? And do we shy away from addressing issues with fee payment that arise? Thirdly, if we are not consciously facing the importance that money has in tying us to the earthly realm, the subject is likely to surface in shadowy, distorted ways. Finally, if we remain ‘split’ in our views on money, what judgements are we placing on clients who fall outside of our own position? For example, if we remain solely in the ‘carer’ camp, how will we look upon more financially wealthy clients who come our way? Will we judge their seeming comfort in the material world and not honour their spiritual side, their humanity?

If readers are in agreement that working with our money shadows is of as much importance to transpersonal psychotherapists as anyone, we suggest a few ways forward.

Family Money Stories

The first step is getting clear on our familial money ‘baggage.’ What were the messages – explicit and implicit – we absorbed while growing up? A few questions to consider may be:

  1. How did your parents spend money?

  1. Did they buy things for themselves?

  1. Did they enjoy their money or did they struggle to have enough?

  1. Did they talk freely with you about how much they earned or was money a forbidden topic?

  1. How did they spend on you?

  1. What implicit/explicit counsel did you receive from your parents regarding the importance (or not) of your own money making or spending?

  1. Did your parents allow themselves to spend and earn money in ways that brought them happiness and wellbeing?

  1. Can you see a connection between the way you relate to money now and the relationship your parents had to money?

Another exercise we like to use is asking clients ‘What is your first memory of money?’ as it is usually quite informative about the family conditioning. One client of Kelly’s mentioned his mother berating him for spending the 10p change he got from buying groceries on sweets. This particular memory opened up several more in which the message was consistent: ‘do not spend on yourself.’ It is unsurprising that this individual, now in his 40s, still finds it difficult to do so even though he is a comfortable earner.

Through the process of identifying what our family conditioning was, we can then pinpoint the messaging that is in line with our own adult values (the bits we want to keep!) By contrast, we can learn to create distance from any scripts or beliefs that aren’t working. Another client vignette: a successful working woman in her 30s was told at an early age that she needed to work three times as hard as anyone else, as she was female and an immigrant. Coming from a poor, first generation immigrant family, the measure of her efforts was consistently seen as financial. Accordingly, this client became an academic and professional overachiever, living in the ‘top 1%’ economically. Yet she was miserable and called her work ‘soul destroying.’ It was only by identifying and rejecting some of this early money messaging that she was able to re-balance her working life to suit her more varied interests and values.

Getting Clear on Personal Values

As noted above, there is no one healthy relationship with money; again, a ‘healthy money relationship’ is personal to every individual. Therefore, it is important to investigate what really matters to us. The author David Brooks (The Road to Character) describes how we’ve become a culture obsessed with our CV (extrinsic) values, rather than focusing on the far more important ‘eulogy’ (intrinsic) values. CV values are the skills we bring to the marketplace, in contrast, eulogy values are the ones talked about at our funerals. Whether we were kind, brave, honest, faithful, capable of deep love…

While we may know that our eulogy values are what really matter, our culture, our education systems and our workplaces spend a lot more time teaching the skills and strategies needed for career success rather than those we need to build inner character, to find joy and meaning in life. We would argue that it is these more intrinsic values that are begging for acknowledgement in our making and spending of money. So spending time getting really clear on what these intrinsic values are is a vital step in aligning those values with our efforts and spending of money.

Oliver James uses the term ‘self concordance’ to describe the balance between our life and our values and suggests this is a key predictor of our wellbeing. Along these lines, John Armstrong writes: ‘our goal is to translate efforts and activities that are inherently worthwhile into possessions and experiences that are themselves of lasting and true value.’

Auditing our Efforts and Spend

Once we are clear what our personal intrinsic values are, we can analyse how aligned they might be with our work (and outside of work) efforts. We can ask questions like: Are these values present at our work (and outside activities)? How can we develop them throughout our live? Are there aspects of our work we don’t value and could let go? Sometimes, as in both of our personal cases, these types of questions prompt an outright career change. But they need not. Often there is a ‘tinkering around the edges’ that can be done. Truth be told, both of us are still ‘tinkering’ in our newly chosen careers. For example, the decision to host The Psychology of Money workshop in the first case came up, in part, from an understanding that we both value the power of group connection and experience. We wanted more of that in our professional lives and so continue to layer it in.

The flip side of the equation is looking at our spending. Recall, that if money is merely a medium for exchange, we can exchange our (hopefully meaningful) efforts for experiences and material things that are meaningful to us. Here, a caveat: we are not talking about conspicuous consumption, sometimes referred to as ‘the hedonic treadmill.’ While we may think that a new pair of shoes, a new car, or a bigger house, will make us happier, research suggests that it doesn’t. That material purchase may temporarily lift our spirits (and give us aa dopamine hit) but it doesn’t last. Moreover, just as soon as the effects have worn off, we become fixated on the next best thing…thus the ‘treadmill.’ However, we can focus our spending on experiences and items truly aligned with our values.

A quick exercise is to list the top ten or so things that we’ve spent the most money on over the last 12-18 months (excluding non-negotiables like utilities and bills etc). How much ‘bang’ (in intrinsic value terms) are we getting for our ‘buck’ (er, ‘quid’…)? Maybe we spend an inordinate amount of money on rent/mortgage but truly love our home. In which case, this spend is aligned. But if this same monstrous sum goes towards a home that feels anything but, does it raise the question of a move? Maybe it should. So there may be glaring examples of ways to eliminate or reduce spending when it doesn’t serve our greater values. Equally, there may be many simple ways to moderately increase our spending, while bringing even more meaning and value to our lives. For example: a client who prioritises the £10 per week she spends on having fresh flowers for her kitchen table. She values beauty and living in a beautiful space and while she does struggle to make ends meet, the flowers are non-negotiable because they bring her so much joy.

Maintaining a Healthy Relationship with Money – The Importance of Self Care

Our relationship with money is like any other relationship – it requires care and attention. Getting out of our default ‘autopilot’ position is easier said than done. It means knowing and understanding our old, familiar patterns of behaviour and asking ourselves questions like: Do I spend more money when I am feeling unhappy? Or out of control? And what might trigger me to unconsciously act out those old patterns? Does being on social media mean I reach for the credit card? When I am feeling stressed at work, am I more likely to go on a spending spree to ‘treat myself?’

Knowing, and sidestepping when we can, our ‘money triggers’ is one half of the equation. The other is developing new tools to re-regulate when we do find ourselves emotionally hijacked

Knowing, and sidestepping when we can, our ‘money triggers’ is one half of the equation. The other is developing new tools to re-regulate when we do find ourselves emotionally hijacked. The goal is to build the capacity to stand back, pause and observe what is happening. Doing so gives us the space to try something new. An ongoing practice can assist us in getting to the ‘noticing’ or detached’ part of ourselves; it fosters the ability to sidestep autopilot. Practicing regularly means we have new tools at our disposal for when the stress really does hit.

Here again, there are multiple options to practice so knowing what helps calm you is vital. Is it Running? Swimming? Writing in a journal? Meditation? Creating a gratitude journal? Maybe it’s just spending more time in nature. All these (and many more) simple things can help, not just for our relationship with money, but for our relationship with everything.

Beyond knowing our triggers and working with new ways to react to them, there are a number of techniques that can foster a closer and healthier relationship with money. Having a regular ‘money date’ with yourself is a way to check-in and ensure you are staying on top of your relationship. Equally, having a ‘money buddy,’ someone you trust wholeheartedly to share each others’ on-going money stories, can help keep you grounded and on track.

Essentially, all of the above are geared at rebalancing ourselves towards our more intrinsic values and away from our extrinsic ones. The more we can talk to ourselves openly about money, the more that relationship will become aligned to our intrinsic values.

Spending just a little bit of time reflecting on and nurturing our true relationship with money will help uncover any shadowy material and bring it into consciousness. Only then can a ‘third position’ bridging our material reality with our spiritual wellbeing become possible.

Our next money workshop: The Psychology of Money. An exploration of money, values & self worth will run on Saturday March 10th 2018 in Holland Park. For more information, please contact Kelly@ or on 07961 840623.

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