Money: Our shadow relationship
Money makes the world go round. Why would I write about this? I was working during the 2008 credit crisis and, strangely – for the first time really – my clients were talking about money issues. This was curious as, typically, the culture in the UK is for this particular part of people’s lives to be kept secret. So much so that it is almost taboo even to talk about it with others. Under pressure, though, the willingness or need to evaluate how money was approached on a personal level rose to the top.
The common belief is that money is an abstraction, equal to wealth, power, prestige, and freedom. Lack of money means poverty, not just materially but socially, and spiritually even. However, this common assumption does not include our personal relationship to money.
I choose to cover this topic because, in these difficult times, this symbolic measure of worth can have a disastrous impact on our mental health. I have seen families and relationships flounder and fall apart over this one essential thing. I have met clients driven to suicidal ideation because of this one thing: money.
Money represents our personal power or lack of it, symbolically and practically. This is a belief common to most global cultures.
We live within an economic environment, invisible, erratic sometimes, mostly unpredictable, like the weather, and not really within our control. Yet there it is, invisibly controlling our lives.
It is not often explicitly spoken about. The assumption appears to be that only a few can understand it. Now money has moved away from ‘cash in hand’ to a ‘plastic digital swipe’, further removing ourselves from its reality.
It is not my intention here to cover the material side to this*. Instead, I intend to produce a brief map showing our ‘money shadow’. This is because money causes many problems within our interior and unseen world: the world of psyche.
Psyche and money – the unspoken relationship
If we have no clear rules in our understanding about our relationship to money or how others see it, the possibility of conflict arises (quickly). This symbolic value of worth and all its variations is the cause of some of our basic assumptions about ourselves and others. And our problematic relationships.
And yet, we never talk about it. It seems to me that money (an essential currency of survival in our social world) and our personal relationship to it, can cause more mental distress, anxiety, depression, etc., than having a difficult relationship at home. There is an anxiety trigger or proof of prowess rarely spoken about or brought to the therapy session, in my experience.
There is a shadow element to this relationship that is worth considering. By this I mean there is a fundamental relationship between how we see ourselves and how we see others via this matrix of meaning. Yet on asking, we seem incapable of being able to meaningfully talk about it and the impact it has on how we evaluate our lives.
The lottery win phantasy
If I start to untangle this further, I will set sail in the world of the lottery win phantasy. This fun phantasy world I have found to be commonplace.
Who hasn’t played with the idea of limitless cash and a chance to escape the daily grind? Here is a playground of escape and desire: the belief that this largesse would answer all our problems and keep us happy forever.
It is a mythical solution that has been passed down through the generations. It has found root in the fairy tales of our childhoods, where the answer lay in a goose that laid a golden egg, or a wishing well, or an enchanted lamp, or marrying into royalty (after proving yourself in a set of arduous trials).
This phantasy world is one of empowerment and instant gratification, or so we believe. It has a magnetic pull drawing us into our own desires. It is a pleasant escape, made more real by aspirational television and movies: our very own societal dream space.
This way lies happiness and release from the burdens of everyday life (allegedly). If we stray from this path – this technicolour dream world – we are then asked to confront the reality of our personal situation face-to-face.
To clarify these points, money is more than a tool – it can become a symbolic creature that devours us whole. If you have something, you now (also) have the possibility of losing it. The money drama in the theatre of our minds.
Our personal ancestral history
Ancestral family roots and an overlying attitude to money often lie at the heart of our own relationship to this chimerical symbol. Attitudes can get passed down the familial line wholesale – or inversely as something to rebel against.
Once we are attached to this hidden dynamic and assumption, it would seem impossible to truly escape. There are many examples of this in the public sphere, from the miserly millionaire to those who have the ‘burning a hole in your pocket’ ability to squander all.
These themes arise in literature, movies, and many dramas. How many murder mysteries have money as the prime motive?
This underlies the symbolic meaning of our hidden ‘understanding’ of cash. Money can be the foundation of our self-esteem and confidence, or else it can be despised (religions tend to be dismissive of personal wealth not shared equitably). It can instil feelings of guilt or (un)deservedness. If we succeed through the support of moneyed privilege behind us, the notion of imposter syndrome can be felt and believed wholeheartedly. We often judge unfairness in the distribution of it.
When gamblers ‘invest’ a bet, the notion of fortune or luck and the meaning of the outcome are internalised rapidly. The bet is an emotionally invested part of themselves. It must mean something, surely?
How we used to live, the inherited family story
We are often following unknown rules and assumptions passed down through our familial lines. This message is usually amplified at the extremes in a family’s past. Previous poverty or wealth can have a distorted effect through the generations.
Occasionally the message is clear: both parents (and their parents) follow the same rules.
With monetary considerations the long-time message is clear. For instance, that the family was once poor (years ago, in a different economic time) does not alter the rule. Today the assumption remains the same. No matter what the present circumstances, this rule must be followed diligently. For example, the hunt for bargains, not being ostentatiously showy, and keeping an eagle eye on expenses are all meaningful activities beyond their sensical reality. Whether you have £100 saved or £50,000, the ancestral family relationship to cash is somehow writ in stone.
The opposite can be true if you have an aspirational parent past. Perhaps now the cost of everything is openly discussed and expensive items worshipped and on open display. Instant gratification rules all.
Of course, ‘old money’ can be curated by families like a precious object that needs to be handed down the generations. The hidden rules come in many guises.
The unrecognised-rule followers in this family dynamic can indulge in a vicious civil war if the rule giver dies and the inheritance is seen as somehow unfair. The family-money rule may prove disastrous when the responsibility passes from one generation to the next.
Self-inflation, shame, and guilt
We have since our early childhoods been encouraged to see our efforts measured by reward. From gold stars at primary school to exam results, there have been symbols marking our progress or defeat. In an institutional setting, this works well. But when we once again have control of our own individual lives, the hidden lessons we have learned here can become problematic.
The notion that we need to earn reward for it to count, the simple equation that effort and hard work equals a gold star, can now be problematic. Free money not ‘earned’ has a different meaning from our internalised rules.
Bonuses, redundancy payments, lottery wins or an unexpected legacy can have a disastrous impact on our psyche. We have become lost as the assumed rules suddenly no longer apply. Often feelings of guilt or even shame result from an unearned ‘gift’. We can feel that we did not deserve any of this, perhaps locking the money away ‘for a rainy day’ to be forgotten or giving it away as if it meant very little to us.
The opposite can lead to an inflated version of ourselves, an inflation of our sense of self-esteem, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.
There is also the compensatory anxiety around cash. Well-off parents sometimes withhold money from their children, in order to teach them the lesson that it is important to earn it properly and not take it for granted. This regime is rooted in their own childhood or ancestral family experiences.
At the other end of the scale, parents raised in poor circumstances may overcompensate by making sure their children never want for anything, an effort to restore the injured (maybe traumatised) inner child that the parents are unaware of.
Lastly, the responsibility of having money can weigh heavily on some, to the point where it becomes too difficult to deal with. There are many distorted possibilities in the interplay between money and the internal theatre of our psyche.
Towards a shared understanding
Here is the complicated, fertile ground for our hidden attitudes to come out in the open. If there is a large imbalance between the couple in terms of finance, many anxieties or indeed paranoid phantasies can emerge, often expressed through simple disagreements about something that appears trivial.
Couples who have never discussed their finances, and operate with different attitudes and rules that have never been made explicit, can come across a deep fracture in their relationship, one that seems impassable. If we do not talk about it, well, then trouble lies ahead. Occasionally this is solved where one person takes on the responsibility and the other follows blindly.
Again, the symbolic world of power raises its head. If that has not been negotiated fairly, then the trail of relationship problems can begin unseen.
Society, money, and ourselves
Peacocks and mice
Finally, our performative social self can be given weight by the cash behind it. It (money) means something about our sense of self. It can demonstrate how good we are (charitable donations) or how flashy we like to be seen as (fashion, cars, etc.), a clear material message to be seen by the society we live in.
The flip side here is that, as fortunes can come and go, often we are reluctant to let go of the one that gave us a sense of self-worth, often leading to neurotic levels of hiding shame and guilt.
I have tried to write a summary of the pitfalls of having an unseen and unspoken relationship with our shared symbolic value of worth (£, $, etc.) and the psychological depth at which it can affect us beyond the reality of what we have.
I end with just this simple advice: talk about it and come to terms with your shadow relationship to this symbolic totem.
If you can see where you stand in your relationship to it (real and in phantasy), then perhaps you can control it and it will not control you.
*To learn more, I recommend: