I’ve worked with a number of clients for whom this scenario is very familiar: they live paycheck to paycheck, and no matter how much or how little they earn in a month, they wind up with nothing in the bank. Somehow, they cover their basics, but there’s nothing left over. They feel ashamed, they tell themselves they should be saving up, they fear the future without any kind of financial cushion to fall back on, and yet month after month, the bank balance goes back to $12. In fact, for a long time, I’ve lived this pattern myself, so I know it inside and out.
So, what is going on here? There can be so many different things at play here, but I am going to describe one very common unconscious dynamic that could be driving this particular pattern.
So, it’s a typical month, and you are making a relatively predictable income. Then, suddenly, something breaks your way and you have some extra money coming your way. It feels amazing, something in you relaxes, you might start thinking about putting away some of that money for the future, fantasizing about how amazing life would be if this “extra” was a regular thing, how you might now be able to afford that trip to see your friend upstate, and so on. Then, this new pocket of ease compels you to go on Amazon and order something extra – something you don’t actually “need” per se, but that makes life a little easier. Or, you order takeout and get something fancy. Maybe you treat yourself to a trip to the clothing store. This new sense of having a bit more in the bank feels so wonderful that you want to commemorate it with a new pair of jeans. You’ve been working so hard, that you do need some treat, something to validate how much you have to hustle and juggle every month. After all, you’ve had so little for so long, you’ve had to deny yourself most luxuries and make do with basics. Maybe none of this is consciously thought – you just make the order and try to enjoy the bounty while it lasts, because you know it won’t.
I know this will feel familiar to many readers. What’s at play here revolves around the experience of deprivation or a sense of lack, often stemming from the far reaches of our childhoods. We get so used to that state, that it’s hard to imagine anything else. Those of us who came from poverty will have this state ingrained very deeply – but even those who grew up with financial comforts may feel ashamed or guilty about it (or about something else within the primary relationships) and unconsciously punish themselves by living a life of deprivation to make up for it. Whichever way it comes about, it’s the air we breathe, it’s the way we experience equilibrium in life – the life of husting and juggling just feels “normal” even though it certainly doesn’t feel good.
So, what gets created – and recreated over and over – is a similar state of deprivation, even as consciously you might be wishing for a very different kind of life. And then there are all kinds of issues around the fact that if we grew up in poverty, then we also know that our parents struggled as well. My own mother tells me how when I was 3-4 years old, she would often go hungry in order to feed me. The layers of guilt and shame around having things (including money!) might build even more. Having more money would mean living a life that’s different from (i.e. better than) our parents’, and not wanting to disturb these relationships in our minds, we simply stay where we’ve always been. It’s a kind of equilibrium: no money, no problem…-ish…
Then, what happens when someone like this gets a bit more income in a given month (or week, or even day!) is that unconsciously there is some signal going off, saying that the familiar equilibrium has been disrupted. Consciously it’s a sense of “well I deserve the treat because I’ve worked so hard to get it!” or even “I’ve had to put off buying this because I couldn’t afford it until now!” – and that’s absolutely undeniable, which makes it hard to get underneath that. But what’s underneath is the “compulsion to repeat” (as Freud called it), which drives us to recreate familiar situations, even if they are painful – because there is much in them that needs to be experienced and “worked through.”
When I work with clients and we arrive at this realization, they often ask, “So what do I do to change this?” Seeing how deeply this goes, there might be a kind of despair as to whether it’s even possible to really change anything – or perhaps anger that we’re getting mired in old stuff that keeps us from addressing it in the present. I will explore this in part 2 of this blog post. And as I write this, I very much feel like the analyst who says, “Let’s talk about it next week” – but there’s a reason for that. This is deep stuff that takes time to integrate. But I will say that making these dynamics conscious is an enormous step in itself – where you recognize that on some level you do believe that “no money, no problem” is true. That’s where space opens up for real change.