The theme of our local weekly paper this week read “Money and Retirement.” Looking at the cover and some of the article headlines, I could almost hear an audible groan from my inner system’s critic, “Retirement? I haven’t even finished paying off my student loans!” And my protector’s quick shut down, “I don’t want to think about it.” As I observed my internal reactions, I started thinking: Why do I and we as humans have such a strong, often negative and avoidant, response to issues concerning money? Here I want to explore money and Parts through my lens as an IFS therapist.
IFS sees everything through Parts, a system of multiple, non-pathologized inner beings that have complex roles and structures, informed by experiences, and need for safety and belonging. These Parts and our inner systems are guided by an inherent desire for wholeness and acceptance. Parts involving money are no different. We have a great opportunity to improve our self-understanding by using IFS to work with our money issues. A common refrain I use with clients is, “Your relationship with money is one of the most important relationships in your life, let’s turn toward the Parts of you related to money and get to know them better.” With this invitation, clients are offered the opportunity to explore what informs their inner financial relationships through the IFS paradigm.
Money worries are one of the leading causes of stress in our lives. As much as it affects us, it’s something that we don’t tend to talk about. In fact many of us have deeply ingrained belief systems that prevent us from talking about our financial situations. Working with our clients to address financial issues can be transformative and fascinating. Bringing money into the therapy office, we can start asking clients how they were raised to understand money; to share how it’s affected their sense of self, place, identity, having enough or being enough. We can also be aware of how our perceptions of social status, class, perceptions and projections around wealth can impact the therapeutic relationship. IFS therapy is useful for identifying how deep-seated financial beliefs can drive financial decisions and self-esteem. With the unbending and unburdening processes, we can shift to having healthier relationships with our financial lives.
If any of us were to sketch out a Parts map of our money Parts we would find a complex and varied diagram. Parts that learned not to talk about it, Parts that want it, Parts that hate it, Parts that feel lack, Parts who feel guilty, jealous, entitled, Parts who feel ashamed, grateful Parts, Parts who bemoan capitalism, or Parts who want to cry. No matter what your financial situation, even considering money can bring up nervous system activation. Many of us carry trauma, lack self-trust, and feel that if we just had enough money or won the lottery all of our troubles would dissipate. Debt and worry are a large part of the story. In exploring individual financial beliefs, we can look at how society has affected our systems. How much does money worship play out within us? We can look at how our family has impacted us. What do we inherit from each of our lineages? It’s a lot to unpack, but because financial situations can feel inherently disempowering, it’s a worthy therapeutic focus.
We can be quick to judge or make assumptions when it comes to financial issues. But curiosity can bring answers to how trauma has shaped our relationship with money. I once discovered, during an IFS session, a powerful financial legacy that was living in my physical body. For years I had severe pain in my lower back. It seemed worse when I was stressed out, but I wasn’t really in touch with what was going on. It just hurt terribly. Once my close friend watched as I writhed on the floor of the local emergency room, completely unable to stand up. On better days I could put my socks on. MRI’s were given, surgery was discussed. I tried every alternative, I was humbled, restricted and at times completely hopeless, resigned to live with the pain. I had practiced IFS for years before it even occurred to me to talk to the pain in my lower back. I’ll never forget the session. There were no fireworks, just a practice session in a side office at a Level 2 training. I asked the program assistant if we could talk to a physical pain. She cautioned that it can be hard to bring Self energy to such Parts, but she encouraged the try. Clear as day, my lower back shared that it was the place that carried and felt the financial burden. It shared how my own intense worry about money was directly from my grandmother, who had lived through the depression, whose ancestors were children of the potato famine. Generations of poverty and fear of starvation were stored up in my low back, including my own youth spent on the fringe of poverty. With subtle ceremony in that practice session, I was guided to unburden generations, future and past, from this intense stress around lack of money and ultimately starvation. Even though I wouldn’t have cognitively connected my back pain to money stress, it made sense and the session helped. My back began to feel better and my system is quieter around fear of financial ruin, adopting a more chosen and true belief that has less charge.
This is an example of how IFS helped me understand some of my own stories around money, to know a somatic Part, and make changes that have greatly impacted my life. I now feel more freed up from my family’s own legacy of poverty while honoring their journey. From understanding how my Parts were shaped growing up, through an almost imperceptible energy my family had around money, I can now quiet some of my fears around money.
Sometimes Parts around money are more front and center and are asking to be known. They aren’t hiding in your back, but right in front of you, shouting and wanting to be heard. I work with a client who has many Parts that come up around finances and status. She was raised in extreme poverty, with food and housing insecurity a normal part of her childhood. As she has grown, many of her siblings have been in and out of jail, or rehab and have struggled to stay housed. My client had a strong determination to leave home and make a life for herself elsewhere. She graduated from college and is now a homeowner who is starting a business. But at each measure of security and financial success, she is overwhelmed by Parts that feel guilty. The guilty Parts say that she is betraying the family and that she is becoming what she was raised to despise, a well off person. As we get to know the guilty Parts, it’s clear that they work hard as protectors to keep her in connection with her family, with the unintended consequence of keeping her from financial success. These protectors guard exiles that remember the many times she felt separate and unloved by her family. The exiles feel the energy around money problems that are a mix of childhood experiences and familial legacy. When they get stirred up, she freezes with doubt. Through the IFS sessions, she is moving toward the burden, guilt and the fear, and finding the freedom to explore her natural state around money. She is free to feel more of how she wants to about it. Taking the inner relationship from the extremes to something that feels more true to her is a gift that has come out of working with her Parts.
Something I have come to know well in my years as an IFS therapist is that when we have many Parts around a single issue, or if we have polarized Parts around a single issue (Parts that want money, Parts that avoid money), there is always an exile that these Parts are trying to protect. It’s no surprise that the more extreme our beliefs around money, the more unstable our relationship with money will be. For the client above, mapping out her Parts around money has helped to clarify what is happening inside, but it’s hard for her to envision having a fully positive relationship with money. Working with the managers who keep her productive and the ones who sabotage her success has allowed for some exiles to be seen and witnessed. Continuing to offer hope that the inner relationship with money can improve, regardless of what one’s bank account looks like, can be a tough sell. Beliefs about money run deep and are often reinforced by experiences.
IFS isn’t the only psychological modality looking at the intersection between money and therapy. Drs. Brad and Ted Klontz, a father and son team in the emerging field of financial psychology explain,
Our disordered relationships with money aren’t our fault. They don’t stem from a lack of knowledge or a failure of will. Instead, they are a product of subconscious beliefs and thought patterns, rooted in our childhoods, that are so deeply ingrained in us, they shape the way we deal with money our entire adult lives.
These financial psychologists have created an effective methodology to help people look at what underpins money trouble. They encourage having clients look deep into themselves and their pasts with regards to money, using a format of prompted writing and exploration that allows people to reveal their own money scripts. “Money Scripts” is the term they use to describe beliefs about money that we inherit from our family, culture, economy, people around us and events that have happened.
Dr. Klontz describes the use of the term scripts because he says,
How we interact with our relationships with money can be like an unconscious inner narrative or script written in a play that was passed down to us.
He is not an IFS therapist, but he describes a way of looking at our relationship to money through different parts. Like most aspects of psychotherapy, it is more relevant for creating change to focus on the negative money scripts, the ones that hold a self limiting belief within them. If you’ve taken some IFS training, you’ll recognize this as the place in the therapeutic process where you listen to the client’s story about an issue and then reflect the story back in Parts. Once these Parts have been identified, they serve as trailheads for deeper work. There’s also an inventory you and your clients can take on the Klontz website: https://www.bradklontz.com/moneyscriptstest to find out how extreme your beliefs are around four financial factors; Focus, Vigilance, Status and Avoidance. The inventory is interesting because it can make you think about money in ways that may highlight Parts and polarities of which you may not be conscious. For example, finding out you have beliefs about money that seem to oppose each other, such as holding the belief that “money is bad” while also believing that “things would be better if I had more money.”
Using a Parts map, money script or simply talking about money can be a deep and profound way to get to know someone better. We can ask about how they were raised to think, feel and live with money. Some sample questions are as follows:
- What was your parent’s, and grandparents’ (as individuals) perspective on money?
- Where did their philosophies come from?
- What was the energy in your household around money (anxious, optimistic, secure, insecure, fights, etc)
- How did you feel about your own socio-economic status when you were growing up?
- How did that affect your sense of belonging with your peers?
- What happens inside when you think about money?
- What would you like to change about your relationship with money?
These questions can elucidate valuable dialogue, help identify those money scripts and clarify which Parts need attention. In relation to colleagues or partners, it can help clarify how both of your systems around money interact. Without exploring these Parts, we miss the opportunity to understand the beliefs and burdens that underpin them. When we’ve identified target Parts, with a sense of what beliefs these Parts may be holding, you can ask what the Parts carry, where it came from and what they need.
With all of this emphasis on working with our clients’ money scripts and Parts, one thing that is really valuable is doing our own Parts therapy. I like to start with flushing out some of the unique aspects of our personal money scripts. We may have beliefs around money that create biases that affect the therapeutic relationship. Starting with personal inner work around money and class is fundamental to identifying these biases and minimizing their effect on the therapeutic relationship. We become so much more clear when we ask what may be present in the therapeutic relationship around financial perceptions and discrepancies. This comes in the form of looking at our own Parts in the role of the therapist and being considerate of how it may impact the client. Do we have judgemental Parts around clients on medicaid, do we have envious Parts of a client with a large diamond ring, do we have Parts that have strong feelings around poverty or wealth?
While it’s perfectly normal to have such Parts, looking at them and working to understand them in our own therapy can help us arrive at our sessions with more Self available. This calm acceptance will resonate with clients, and allow for more compassion for our shared humanness, no matter someone’s financial background. In this way we will bring more calm, stability and peace to ourselves and the clients we work with. With attention to Parts and money scripts, we can learn to recognize negative and self-defeating patterns, and move toward more empowered, healthier inner beliefs about money.