When Money Enriches Our Suffering

Money is a counterfeit coin for measuring our value.

Money is important—it’s the grease in the economic machine. Some of us, though, get that grease all over our clothes, hair, and skin. When our body is overlaid with it, and every pore sealed up, the smear of cold cash turns our humanity blue.

Money can be greasy to the touch, whether we have a lot of it or a little. A shortage of it provides us with the opportunity to feel deprived, refused, helpless, abandoned, unworthy and unloved. A big stash of it enables us to feel smug, intolerant, greedy, and fearful of losing it. We can use money to feel elation and to know despair. Like sex, romance, and food, it offers us a smorgasbord of positive and negative emotions.

How do plain old dollar bills get so entangled in our emotional life? All of us have unresolved conflicts in our psyche that produce emotional and behavioral difficulties, including self-doubt. This sense that we’re lacking in value is a widespread human weakness. For many of us, it’s part of our identity. Sometimes it’s just a vague, uncertain sense of uneasiness. Giving up (or letting go of) this self-doubt can be difficult, even when we know we’re good people trying our best to do what’s right.

Self-doubt can stick to us like thorns dipped in Crazy Glue. Some people are strongly attached to the negative feeling, to the point where it produces self-pity, depression, and despair. Often we scramble to cover up, with psychological defenses, our attachment to (or resonance with) this painful self-doubt. Money, it turns out, can buy a lot of self-deception—and we don’t even have to spend it. We can simply accumulate it, or we can long desperately to possess it. The more money we have or the more we want, the more we’re using money (or misusing it) as a prop to avoid seeing our unconscious, emotional entanglement in feelings of unworthiness and helplessness.

In this manner, our high regard for money and our striving to accumulate it “prove” that, in denial of the underlying reality, we’re not emotionally entangled in feelings of unworthiness.  Our fondness for money, we claim, establishes our fervent desire to feel and portray our value. The more we value money, this rationalization claims, the more we can establish our own value by accumulating and hoarding money and by flashing it around.

This approach, of course, rests on a thin veneer. If the money is spent, stolen, or lost, we will easily collapse into a painful sense of physical and emotional destitution. People can thus become highly dependent on their wealth, and they’re determined “for safety’s sake” to accumulate more.

Money is also a counterfeit coin for measuring success and avoiding a sense of failure. Financial success can be associated emotionally with one’s alleged superiority, while financial failure (or simply less-than-spectacular success) can be evaluated as an indication of inferiority. On the playing field of our psyche, the desperate person slices reality as thinly as needed to “prove” his value and feel his “power.” Typical risks associated with this measure of success include a ruthless ego, greed, a workaholic schedule, and cold-hearted ambition.

The miserly person—the kingpin of greed—displays an unwillingness to part with money in conjunction with an intense desire to accumulate it. Both of these behaviors are defenses. The first proclaims, “I’m not a weakling who can easily be separated from my money. I aggressively hold on to it. Not even the taxing authorities can get at it.” The second defense might proclaim, in some cases, “I’m not a frightened weakling. Look at how aggressively I go after money. My professional money managers are the best and most aggressive in the business. I don’t even care if they rob from the poor.” Deep in their psyche, though, such individuals can live in anxious fear of being taken advantage of in money matters and losing what they do have. Their mentality underscores the power of unresolved negative emotions to torment us—even when all we’re doing is imagining worst-case scenarios—no matter how much (or how little) money we have.

The hurt of deprivation also comes into play. A person can feel deprived just through the impression or the prospect of loss. Real loss is not needed for suffering to occur. We can plunge into discontent or distress simply by using our imagination to produce an impression that our assets are not as significant as we would like them to be. In the process of spending money or being asked for it, some of us can feel sharply reduced of assets, even if the amount spent or requested is a tiny percentage of what we own. It’s as if who we are and what we have is cut in half. If, deep down, we’re mired emotionally in a devaluation of our own personhood, $50 out-of-pocket can feel like forfeiture of a pound of flesh.

When asked for money, some people erupt in indignant anger: “You good-for-nothing! Go out and make your own money!” Instead of calm refusal, they express outrage. The outrage is a form of aggression that’s employed to cover up inner passivity. Money neurotics feel that the requests made to them for money indicate that they’re seen as an easy mark. No one would dare to ask them for money, their skewed reasoning goes, if they were a more formidable figure. The allegation that they’re an easy mark comes from their inner critic, and they absorb the negativity contained in that criticism. In turn, they lash out critically at the one who requested the money. They also perceive, in the moment of being asked for money, weakness in the person who requests it, and they identify with that weakness. Their indignant anger is their attempt to cover up that identification.

All of us can embellish on the feeling that we’ll be rendered helpless, and perhaps homeless, if we run out of money. True, if it happens we’re likely be in a messy pickle. But people who worry about running out of money often never do. That means they worry for nothing. All their suffering is unnecessary. Still, they’re determined to suffer in this way because of the human compulsion to feel and recycle unresolved negative emotions such as helplessness, abandonment, and unworthiness. To stop doing this, we just have to see more clearly into the irrationality of our worry, while exposing our secret desire to recycle unresolved negative emotions.

Our relationship to money is a huge national problem. Money in politics is corrupting our democracy. We all contribute to this corruption when money is the bloodstream of our consciousness instead of the grease in the economic machine.