my two cents

How to Cope With Being Broke, Angry, and Ashamed

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Before Amanda Clayman became a therapist, she grappled with serious debt in her 20s. When she got her degree in social work in 2005, she decided to help people understand how money is tied to their emotional needs. “I wanted to say to as many people as possible, ‘Hey, it doesn’t have to be like this,’” she told me. While the field of financial therapy is still relatively new, Clayman says a lot of therapists ask how they can address their clients’ financial anxieties. Her answer is simple: “’Talk more about money!’ I’m not offering financial advice.” 

Today, as the entire world grapples with the financial fallout of the pandemic — layered on top of the devastating toll of human loss — her work is more in demand than ever. In addition to treating patients, she recently partnered with the podcast Death, Sex & Money to launch a three-part series, Financial Therapy. We talked about how she overcame her own struggles with money and what she’s telling her clients who feel overwhelmed by financial stress and uncertainty.

How did you get into financial therapy in the first place?

I was raised by parents who were really anxious about money, but I didn’t know or notice. I thought they were just really careful with their finances. So, I inherited a good deal of that anxiety, and I wasn’t conscious of how that led to me to do certain things. As a young adult, I was really impulsive with spending, and I got into a lot of credit card debt. I was super ashamed of it; nobody knew.

What kind of debt are we talking? 

At my rock bottom, I owed about $31,000 in today’s dollars. But I’d basically lost track because I would use a convenience check from one credit-card company to pay another one. My bills were just eating each other. This was also in the late ’90s, when it was possible to wrack up a huge amount of debt without really noticing because there were such low interest rates.

At the same time, my life was a fabulous mess. I moved to New York when I was 22, with no savings, and that was the beginning of my debt because I put my security deposit and broker’s fee on a credit card. I worked in nightlife for the first decade of my career, in the promotions department, putting on parties to get people to come to clubs. And then for different lifestyle brands, like cars and alcohol and other companies, sponsoring events. I was an expert in motivating people to spend money on things. Of course, that marketing was also affecting me personally, which I totally didn’t see, until I finally did.

What kinds of things were you spending on? 

I wasn’t living a lavish lifestyle. I was broke. I hung out at the club where I worked. I didn’t go out to expensive dinners. I was just a kid in New York paying a huge amount of rent and not making much money. I made $25,000 a year at my first job. But even after I got better jobs, I just didn’t have control over my money. I never had a budget. I never had an idea of how much I should be spending on anything. I would carry my bills around from home to work in a party gift bag until I’d wake up in the middle of the night and open them all in a panic. And then I’d send all my money to a creditor, and have trouble making rent.

I had a friend who once said to me, “You know what’s being fabulous? Being fabulous is getting down to your last $5 and spending it at Starbucks.” And I remember putting that in my brain and being like, “Okay, this is totally normal, then.”

So, what made you turn things around?

The straw that broke the camel’s back was that I bounced a check to my hairdresser, so I couldn’t go back and get my hair done. My mom was visiting me, and I was like, “Will you just clean up my hair a little bit?” And she gave me this awful, awful haircut. And I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t call my hairdresser.” I know it’s ridiculous — that being so trapped with terrible hair was what broke me. But that’s when I was like, “This is unmanageable.”

I was also desperate to hide the situation from my mother. But she was just like, “Look, you have five bills. Just write them down. Here’s the amount of money that you have. You don’t have to starve yourself to pay off this credit card debt. You can have a timeline, and you’re in control of that timeline.” And I was like, “What? Really? Where was any of this?”  It took me just over a year to pay it all off.

Are you noticing any common themes in what your clients are struggling with right now, due to the pandemic? 

Really dramatic shifts in circumstances cause moments of deep, deep reassessment. Often those happen around life events, like getting married or having a baby or approaching retirement. But what’s different about this moment is that it’s happening to so many people at the same time, and even though everyone’s dealing with this disruption on some level, each of us can feel very alone because our problems are unique.

A lot of people are coming to me and saying things like, “I don’t feel safe. And what’s it all for? How am I supposed to make any decisions about the future if it’s all so uncertain?” Or, “I poured my whole life into my business or my career, and now it’s been taken away from me. I can’t depend on anybody.”

It’s true that the uncertainty is paralyzing. What are some ways that people can cope with losing money and income?

Of the people I see, the ones who are most stressed out are the planners — the people who manage their anxiety by coming up with a strategy for what to do next. In many cases, that’s just logical behavior. But right now, the future is so uncertain that they’re experiencing a tremendous amount of loss in terms of the plans that they’ve made, and also their perceived ability to control the outcome of something by planning for it. So in addition to suffering a financial loss, they’ve also lost their preferred coping strategy. They may know logically that the best-laid plans don’t always work out. But they are not often able to sit with the emotions that come up when they truly contemplate not being in control of their lives, and accepting that reality.

A lot of my work is just about not pushing those feelings away, or arguing with them. If you’re feeling fear, I want you to ask, “What am I afraid of? What are the things that I am worried about losing? What are the hopes that feel more out of reach?” If you can reconnect with the things that are important to you, and why you chose them, it can bring you back to the things that are within your control.

Sometimes it can be tough to do that in a really anxious moment. Are there other ways to self-soothe more immediately, if you’re panicking?

First of all, limit how much time and energy you want to give to this sort of problem, or this question. You want to decouple your normal pattern of, “I feel stressed about something, so I’m going to find a way to control it, and plan for it.” That’s the most well worn track in your brain, and it isn’t available to you right now. But if you are flexible enough, you can use this moment to grow in all kinds of other capacities. You can calm yourself down by seeking out reassurance from someone you trust. You can go clean the bathroom, or find some other tangible task that has a beginning and an end, and that can help you feel grounded in something that you can control in the here and now. Even worst-case scenario planning can be helpful — mapping out what you would do if worst comes to worst. Even if your options aren’t great, at least you know you have them. It also helps to review your strengths and think about things you’ve overcome in the past.

How about people who are genuinely in a financial crisis right now? How can you take a therapeutic approach when they have a serious reason to be worried about their livelihoods?

When someone’s in crisis, you want to take an informed approach. So, first is safety planning. Do a review of what your resources are, and how much time you have to work out a plan. Who’s in your social support system? What institutions and services can you reach out to for help? That first step isn’t necessarily about how you’re feeling. You want to protect a person’s ability to function and respond to the challenges they’re facing. One thing I’ve done with clients at this stage is make a list of the things they can do each day. You can open your mail, you can make a list of how much money you have in your accounts, you can write down what bills are due when, you can call your creditors and landlord and let them know what you can do for now.

Still, there needs to be an understanding that the emotional bill comes due, and will need to be resolved. There’s a loss that happened. How do we make sense of that loss? How do we understand what that loss is and recover from it, and still think of ourselves as people who can be safe? In crisis, you probably aren’t doing that deeper work, but that doesn’t make it more or less important — it’s just a different stage of the work.

You’ve talked a lot about grieving the loss of money, which is complicated. I think a lot of people feel guilt and shame when they’re mourning a future or a lifestyle that they thought they’d be able to afford and now can’t. How can people deal with that?

I think it’s helpful to understand the purpose and role of shame in the first place. Shame is an emotional fail-safe to keep us behaving appropriately, so we don’t get shoved out of the tribe and die an isolated death. I’m being hyperbolic, but it’s meant to protect our place in the community. So when we feel shame, it’s usually around something that we think is going to offend people or cause rejection. It can feel awful, like life or death. But it’s really just a signal that you should proceed with caution, or maybe rethink what you’re doing.

It’s okay to feel sad that you won’t be able to afford that thing anymore. But what you don’t want to do is tell yourself that you’re wrong or “bad person” because you have that feeling. That’s toxic shame, when it’s directed against your internal character, not just what you’re experiencing. Instead, your mourning process could be, “I have lost this thing that would have made me feel safe and happy. How can I take care of myself and rebuild that sense of safety right now?”

A lot of people also see money as a reward for themselves, and if they’ve suddenly lost their income, it’s hard for them to feel like they can ever take a break, or treat themselves to something pleasurable. What can they do about that?

It’s really another example of how money gets mapped onto our emotional needs. Using money to reward yourself is usually a reliable thing that works. And when you can’t do so anymore — it is a loss. One thing you can do is to just let yourself be sad. It sucks. You can’t have the reward that you like, and you may not be able to replace it. But there’s also room for growth there, because you’ll learn that you’re still okay. Even if you can’t have that thing, you’ll be okay. And that leads to an overall sense of safety in ourselves, in discovering that capacity.

How to Cope With Being Broke, Angry, and Ashamed