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Overcoming financial PTSD: payment traumatic stress disorder

By Doug Lynam


Chip Conley, the founder of the Modern Elder Academy, recently asked me a question that changed my perspective on my financial struggles: “If you were in therapy with your money, what would your money say to you and what would you say to your money?”

If my money could talk, it would have a long list of complaints. It would say, “Doug, I often feel neglected. You are sometimes distant, avoidant and only give me your full attention when there is a major problem, or you want something from me.”

My partner, Antoinette, has said the same things.

No wonder my money keeps trying to break up with me. Luckily, Antoinette is more patient.

The irony is that I am an investment adviser who helps manage hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, I have always disliked talking about my money. Helping others with their finances is fine, but I procrastinate on paying my bills and balancing my budget each month.

But why do I have so much trouble paying my bills even when I’m in good financial shape? Like all good therapy questions, I had to dig into my childhood to find the answer.

The reason I struggle with my money is that I have “PTSD” — payment traumatic stress disorder. It is one of the reasons I took a vow of poverty and lived as a Benedictine monk for 20 years.

Money has caused me so much heartache that just looking at my finances triggers all my difficult memories. But to be financially secure, you need to face this stuff head-on. Triggers be damned.

The root of many money issues is that when we suffer money trauma and live under severe financial stress, especially in childhood, it can create an anxious or avoidant relationship to money.

Under stress, our limbic systems kick in and produce a fight, flight, freeze (or refinance) response. Those of us stuck in an unhealthy relationship with money tend to feel constant stress about our finances. So we get trapped in an unhealthy state, which makes us either anxiously attached to money or avoidant of it.

People who are anxious about money are in constant fight mode and seek safety or status from wealth, so they become clingy and obsess over their finances out of fear and insecurity.

On the flip side of anxious attachment are people like me, the avoidant money type. We tend to have trouble engaging with our finances, like in human relationships when one has a fear of commitment, and are continually stuck in a flight or freeze response. We run away or detach out of fear and insecurity. We leave our money at the altar, as it were.

And some of us are a combination of anxious and avoidant. We might anxiously earn a lot but act avoidant by pushing money away through overspending or not investing for our future, or both.

Unfortunately, few of us get through life without some money trauma.

If you have financial PTSD, what actions would be helpful for you to overcome your anxious or avoidant behavior?

If you are anxiously grasping at money, could you fight less with your finances and let go of your need for perfect control? Could you work a little less and spend more time with your family, or spend a little cash to invest in the future of others?

Or if you are fearfully avoidant, could you stop fleeing from your money by creating a budget, paying off your credit cards or making a financial plan?

In my journey from monk to money manager, I learned that you can heal your wounds and have a healthier relationship with money, even if, like me, you still hate paying your bills.

It helps to remember that money is not good or bad; it is simply a spiritual sponge that absorbs the intent of the user. It is up to each of us to make money a force for good.

If I had a therapy session with my money today, I’d be able to answer back, “I know we still have issues, but I’m so delighted that we are back on speaking terms.”

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Doug Lynam is a partner at LongView Asset Management in Santa Fe and a former monk. He is the author of From Monk to Money Manager: A Former Monk’s Financial Guide to Becoming A Little Bit Wealthy — And Why That’s Okay. Contact him at douglas@longviewasset.com