Money issues in counselling
I wonder how many people will feel a slight tightening or anxious response to the subject as they read this. It’s a tricky subject, particularly in this caring profession. In a field of practice where payment – often in cash, directly hand to hand - is made for working on the self, counsellors and psychotherapists are often faced with money as a core aspect of the work.
For example, take the therapist who increases her fees with ongoing clients every year by 20% increments: she claims it is part of her strategy to discourage dependency and encourage ending and a healthy – albeit often angry - departure. Another keeps on with the original fee negotiated with a client no matter what the circumstances, and will sometimes reduce them if the client puts a reasonable case. They want to make the client feel unconditionally accepted. Some therapists charge for the first assessment meeting. Is that a measure of their confidence, or their insistence on giving nothing away? Others offer it for free – is that a marketing strategy? Indicative of self-doubt? Or perhaps a sign of a more giving nature? Some therapists prefer that their clients arrange to pay by direct debit because the handling of cash during a session is distasteful – but distasteful to whom?
Money is, in its essence, a simple tool for trade; yet it is the associations we have with it that invest it with so much potency. Freud recognised the link between instinctive conditioning in infancy and control of faeces and money, but it is also a symbol of exchange between people in the widest sense. It is a symbol of power and control; a tool and symptom of personality. It is often a core problem between couples in counselling because of different attitudes and beliefs about it. It is naive or disingenuous to ignore the ways in which both client and counsellor/psychotherapist feel about it, react and respond to it, as a part of the therapeutic mix. Yet, so often the subject is brushed under the carpet – at least, in so far as it is played out between therapist and client.
People are so variable in their relationship with money. One person believes that it is bad taste to talk about it within the family: it’s something he learned from his parents. Accordingly, he feels ashamed of having it when it’s there, and ashamed of the lack of it when it’s not. He finds himself sabotaging his own efforts. Another person with chronic anxiety feels they never have enough, that somehow the universe is set against them in a way that is played out through lack of money. Deep feelings of fear, resentment and anxiety are directed to the manager of the universe. A city financier seemingly has it all, yet suffers from despair and a sense that it is all meaningless.
A person who is vulnerable to bullying might use money to exert some control over the therapeutic relationship. The counsellor wants to offer wholehearted support; the client fears manipulation wants to control and contain their process. As they begin to form a relationship the client expresses a pressurising sense of wasting time because ‘time is money’, and the money is limited. So there’s no space for expansion of self or for development of trust in the relationship because money has become the bully of both client and therapist. Like any bully, the money issue has to be faced up to if there is to be any resolution and freedom to flourish.
What’s the best approach? Seemingly alienating actions by a therapist can be good for the client, provided they are explored openly. On the contrary, self-sacrifice and collusion with missed sessions, late payment and so on can be counter-therapeutic. Above all, if you are conflicted about money as a counsellor, it will lead to problems and you are likely to find yourself challenged by that conflict until it is resolved.
The answer is that providing the therapist is whole-hearted and self-aware in their approach, the outcome can be worked with deep-reaching positive results. Some people's challenge is to trust that they won’t be abandoned and that they are loved for more than their attributes. The counsellor who communicates that he won’t give up on this kind of person because of financial pressures is helpful. However, the therapist who communicates the fact that they will take care of themselves in the therapeutic relationship, no matter what may be exactly what another client needs if they have experienced a smothering or martyr parent, or have a tendency to lose themselves in caring for the needs of others.
As long as the issue of money has the upper hand in the therapeutic relationship, it is a sign that both counsellor and client are caught on some hook of personality, not acting from their deeper self. When the source of the hook is found, both therapist and client may be released from money’s tyranny.