So much of the money advice out there is couched in a “tough love” approach. Finance experts justify this so-called tough love by saying it comes from good intentions of trying to help you improve your money management and build a better life.
But let me tell you a little bit about how this has often worked for me.
I’m stressed about money and looking for answers. But instead of solutions, I’m called “stupid” for making an incredibly common money choice. Like running up a credit card balance, borrowing for college, eating out “too often.”
In all of this personal finance advice, I’d just hear judgments: immature, ignorant, lazy, poor self-control, or simply “not wanting it” enough.
And maybe it works for some people. But for me, the financial tough love approach can be downright dangerous.
Is shame a useful motivating emotion?
Sometimes shame is called for. Healthy shame — guilt — acts as a natural check on our own behavior. It’s an emotion that alerts us to choices that are inappropriate or potentially harmful.
Healthy shame can arise in response to actions that hurt ourselves or others or aren’t in line with our values. With the awareness this shame brings us, we get the chance to course-correct, try something new, and make healthy changes.
But you have to know the difference between healthy shame and unhealthy shame. And that’s not a distinction I learned until well into my adult life.
Instead, my shame turned toxic, regularly bleeding over from what I’d done into who I was. The negative judgments I passed on my actions were automatically applied to my identity and self-worth, too.
Healthy shame might prompt a person to consider, “Maybe that was a poor money choice.” But my unhealthy shame pushed me to label and put myself down: “I’m just bad with money.”
How my financial shame spiral kept me stuck
What I thought of as my “tough love” approach to money and behavior management, however, was anything but loving.
It wasn’t about taking an honest and unflinching inventory of our problem areas. It was a pattern of putting myself on mock trial, already having every intention to burn myself at the stake.
My toxic shame used my financial situation as evidence to underline its basic thesis: that I was worthless.
The student loans I’d graduated with made me a burden on my husband. My crap credit was proof I was unfit for adult life, and again, a burden on my husband. My inability to find a job immediately after my internship ended, or later when we made a cross country move — also still a failure, also still a burden.
Where natural guilt and shame can provide an opportunity for self-evaluation and improvements — my toxic shame just cut my growth short. It put me in a loop of self-recrimination and feelings of failure that robbed me of the ability to change.
Instead of money mistakes being about a choice made in a moment that could be resolved and learned from, they became about who I was all the time. And when I was stuck in toxic shame, ultimately, I was and would always be a financial failure.
You can’t shame yourself into better money habits
All my financial missteps became fuel for shame that I wielded like a weapon, aimed at my own failings. I tried to use this shame to burn away the frivolous spending, the vain consumption, the weak will, the ignorance or inattention.
If I made it extremely shameful and painful to make a poor money choice, maybe I’d think twice before daring to do it again. It was punishment-as-deterrent — and it didn’t work.
If I scathingly judged my imperfections, burned them up, hated them — well that was better, isn’t it? Better than just letting those failings and flaws sit there, taking root like weeds, growing and becoming worse.
This pattern of putting myself on internal blast provided a moment of feeling in control, knowing that I hadn’t let myself off the hook. It made me feel
But this short-term self-satisfaction came at a high cost: my mental health.
What I forgot in all of this hot, stinking shame was that those failings and flaws I was targeting, the earth I was scorching: All of those things were also me.
“We can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.”Lori Deschene, author of “Tiny Buddha”
All of this war-waging just turned my mind and heart and finances into a burnt-up battleground. There was nowhere for new habits to take root and grow. I was constantly shell-shocked, hollowed out, hurting — and I was doing it to myself.
And slowly this truth set in: I could not wear myself down into a person better with money. I couldn’t beat sloppy financial habits into submission.
But I was too busy constantly tearing myself down to even think about starting this kind of construction. Shame kept me exhausted, scare, anxious, and ultimately undermined my ability to actually do any better.
4 ways to reframe your toxic money shame
I invested everything into the misguided idea that somehow, inexplicably, this shame cycle would mold me into the responsible, functional, in-control person I so desperately wanted to be.
But it didn’t — it just left me miserable and running on empty, unable to improve much of anything.
When I started challenging my shame and the self-criticisms that fed into them, however, that made all the difference. I was able to see myself as someone who wasn’t perfect — and didn’t always have to be. I could give myself room to stumble and be human. It opened up the possibilities for myself to grow, change, and operate
My toxic money shame still comes up, but I’ve found some effective ways of addressing it. Here are some strategies and tools that have helped me.
1. Put shame in its place
Shame is just a feeling. And feelings are not facts.
So fact-check your feelings of shame. Are you really a failure 100% of the time? Or can you think of at least one thing you did in the past day or week that went alright?
Left to its own devices, shame expands until it’s using up all the oxygen in our mental space. Shrink it down and put it back in its place.
You are so many more things than the one misstep your shamey brain wants to fixate on. Remind yourself how much your pet loves you, or how hard you’re working, and how much you’re doing.
Bring those amazing things about you back into focus and recognize all the amazing and beautiful ways you are showing up in your life, day in and day out. Shame might still be there, but next to all that — it’s smaller and easier to move past.
2. Seek professional mental health support
I highly suggest seeing a mental health professional (which I am not). There’s no replacement for the personal care and one-on-one help of seeing a qualified, licensed counselor or therapist. My therapist’s office has been the stage of some of the biggest breakthroughs and healing in my relationship with shame and money.
If you’re dealing with toxic shame, regular therapy or counseling is the most important investment you could make in your financial and mental health. Your mental health care provider can give you
3. Identify and step away from financial shame triggers
Think about the experts, topics, advice or situations that tend to trigger shame and kickstart your self-criticism cycle. You don’t have to keep engaging with people or topics that make you feel bad and guilty.
If all financial advice is this for you right now — you might need to take a break for a while. And that’s ok! There have been times when I had to stop tracking my finances so closely, because even totally normal and reasonable expenses would bring on a tidal wave of disproportionate guilt.
You can’t constantly be working on your money situation, and other issues might be more urgent and deserving of your attention. Step back, take time to rebalance and work on your emotional and mental health directly. Once you’re in a better place, you can work on your finances without it being so emotionally fraught and charged with shame.
4. Come to your own defense
If your shame gets out of hand and reaches “toxic” levels when money is involved, you can work on that. You can recognize when you are labeling yourself and passing negative judgments. Have rebuttals ready and become your own defender.
When my toxic shame says, “You should have known better than that,” I say, “It’s impossible to always know everything. I am still learning and that’s okay.”
Your brain starts on the track of, “Seriously, you bought that? You have no self-control or discipline.” You respond with “I’m not ‘out of control.’ I bought something I wanted, and that’s all this is.”
As I’ve practiced these shame-fighting tactics, my financial management has become healthier and more resilient. I’m less likely to spiral into feelings of worthlessness and depression when I make a poor choice or blow my budget. Instead, I can take a balanced look at what went wrong and make a plan for how to move forward.
Feature image courtesy of Nicolas Prieto via Unsplash.