The Belly of Beliefs

Most therapists I know love the word “inappropriate.” In social work assessment, where we look at how the individual functions in his/her environment, “inappropriate” usually means that something in the client’s presentation is inconsistent with other aspects of his/her life. In my work, a good example of this would be, “The client’s lack of anxiety was inappropriate given the severity of his financial crisis.”

Inappropriate is a flag for further investigation. When we probe how individuals think and feel about the events in their lives and their role in shaping these events, we find a gateway to clients' underlying beliefs.

Belief frameworks are what financial wellness work is all about. Beliefs tell us what is “good” and “bad” behavior, and we measure ourselves against these internal standards. Most beliefs about good and bad can be traced back to our families, the original crucible where we are taught how to understand and interpret the world. Depending on the circumstances, children come to either accept (repeat) or reject (react against) their parents’ interpretations. 

If prompted, most people can recite a laundry list of financial lessons learned when they were growing up. Some are popular adages, such as “money doesn’t grow on trees,” or “if you do what you love, the money will follow.” 

However, the strongest beliefs are often unconscious, and uncovering these unconscious beliefs can even surprise the person who holds them. Children are finely attuned to the emotions of their caregivers, so when a parent angrily tosses off a comment like, “Look at that jerk in the BMW,” a child may understand this to mean that having a nice car is somehow associated with being a jerk, so if they want their parent’s love they shouldn’t have expensive things. This may sound far-fetched, but I’ve treated many adults who experience powerful ambivalence about material good fortune, and in 9 cases out of 10 it is because a parent felt unfairly thwarted or punished by others’ success.  

Parents themselves can be surprised to learn what interpretations their children are making. Children lack adult cognition, so when left to fill in the blanks they can make wild leaps that may be far out of line with what the parent intended. If seeing mom take out the checkbook to pay bills is usually followed by a period of crabbiness and hearing her say “no” to anything you ask, you’d better believe that children will learn to fear that checkbook. Because of this, a parent who is careful to the penny may have a child who eschews even the most basic activities of financial management because he associates them with anxiety. 

Parents can mediate this by talking about money more openly with their children. Asking children what they think about who should earn the money in a family or how the family’s money gets spent can provide parents with an opportunity to guide and reshape beliefs as they form. 

For adults, cognitive therapy techniques can be an effective in exposing beliefs that are unconsciously directing present day actions. 

Though we may think about money often, many of us still experience a disconnection between financial activities and the more personal aspects of our lives including relationships, values, and dreams. Yet money is a subject that is deeply personal, often painful, and very seldom rational. Financial wellness work is a way of exploring the role of money its full context: taking into account our cognitive processes around money, how money is a factor in our social environment, and how we learned about money in our family.