I was interviewed by a journalist recently who wanted to write an article about ‘financial therapy’ - a combination of financial advice and therapy for unhelpful money behaviours - that is currently popular in the US.
The article - Do you need financial therapy? – was published by The Guardian this week. While I don’t describe myself as a therapist, my work often involves helping clients address the emotions they experience surrounding the subject of money and helping shift unconscious patterns of behaviour around money.
As well as interviewing me about my work, we did some work on the journalist’s relationship with money so that she could experience what I do. She’d never before given much thought to her relationship with money.
Developing a healthy relationship with money
Through the exercises and questions I asked, she came to realize that she had a bit of a warped sense of money. What she presented to me was a situation where she wasn’t struggling badly with money, but was never getting ahead. She’s not in trouble but not moving forward: stuck in a cycle where she sorts out debt, but soon gets back into it.
What was revealing was that she can get herself out of trouble but can’t maintain that forward momentum once it no longer feels like a problem. We did an exercise where I got her to personify her relationship with money, and what came to her was ambivalence, disinterest and discomfort about engaging with money. We realised that her focus was on survival: getting through the month, paying off debts, but not on thriving.
So we looked at the concept of thriving financially, not just surviving. For her it was looking into uncharted territory: the idea of stepping into a zone of abundance was unfamiliar, even uninviting. She hadn’t thought beyond the familiar cycle of having a bit of money for a short while, before then getting back into debt.
In terms of practical action the most significant thing we focused on was to help her commit to not accruing any more debt as a first step, to break the relentless pattern of paying off, accruing more, paying off, accruing more. So we needed to work to a plan with fixed monthly contributions and saving towards occasional costs.
A shift in attitude
Alongside this, we also worked on helping her shift her mind-set. We discussed her focus as if a centre line on a football field. She’s stuck on one side of the field like a team always playing defensively, safeguarding the goal but not able to push forward and score. If we talk about this in terms of motivation, she’s not working towards something she wants, she’s focusing on defending what she doesn’t want. Our minds can’t process double negatives (“Don’t think about a black cat” – you can’t not think about it, without first thinking about it). The more you try not to think about something, the more focus you’re giving the thing you don’t want to happen. And, as we know, the more focus you give something, the more it grows.
The power of focus
So, by her focusing on what she doesn’t want (i.e. debt) – thinking about it, worrying about it - she’s likely to get more of it. This is why yo yo dieting is so prevalent as it’s a classic ‘away from' motivated goal. The motivation only lasts as long as you experience the pain of being overweight. The minute you can fit back into the clothes that make you feel slimmer, or your weight has reached the target set, you’re no longer motivated to take action. This is exactly like the way many of us interact with money too, only motivated when there’s a problem.
The chances of maintaining consistent results are so much higher if you shift your focus from what you don’t want – the fear, anxiety, worry, not feeling good about yourself – towards what you do want. That way, your motivation doesn’t stop the moment you stop feeling bad. Instead, if you focus on a powerful representation of what you do want, and take action towards getting there, you’re far more likely to get positive results; consistently.
It’s all about awareness and understanding – changing language and internal dialogue and the focus of your thoughts and attention. I’m not a believer in ‘positive thinking’ alone - there needs to be positive action too - but I do believe that when your focus changes material things will start changing.
Which way is your motivation pointing?
So, my question to you is “Are you focused towards what you don’t want, or away from what you don’t want?” Start observing your own motivation and that of the people around you and notice how much time/energy/thought you’re putting towards the things you don’t want compared to the things that you do. Instead, shift your focus towards what (better control of) money can create for you in your life. Here’s a great exercise to help you focus on what you want.
The article – Do you need financial therapy? - talking about what financial therapy is, and featuring the session I had with the journalist - was published by The Guardian on 5th January 2016.