The Surprising Risk Of Believing That Money Makes You Successful
I've spent the last few months interviewing wellness leaders about their relationships with money for mindbodygreen's Well Spent series. Regardless of whether it's a functional medicine doctor, a nutritionist, or a spiritual healer on the other side of the phone, it seems there are some things everyone can agree on: High-quality food is worth the steep price tag, kids need to be taught financial skills earlier, and everyone—everyone!—gets stressed about money at one point or another.
But this financial stress affects everyone differently. For some, it serves as motivation to take on more work or get better about saving. On the other hand, it can spiral into full-blown financial anxiety that leaves others feeling panicked, paralyzed, and unsure whether they have what it takes to get back in the green. One of the key drivers of the stress response seems to be whether you let your bank account define other areas of your life.
In other words, if you tie your self-worth to your net worth, chances are they'll both suffer.
A 2017 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin backs up this observation with some initial research. In it, hundreds of participants from different backgrounds journaled about their financial stressors. In the end, those who connected finances to self-worth wrote in a way that hinted at negative psychological consequences, such as "feeling less autonomy and control over one's life, and experiencing more financial hassles, stress, and anxiety."
"They also showed more disengagement from their financial problems—they gave up searching for solutions," a lead researcher wrote. So according to these findings, defining yourself by your bank account not only dampens your mindset; it might keep you from making the right financial decision.
Untangling the web between net worth and self-worth can be messy—especially when you consider that so many of us were raised to equate money with success. Mainstream media only reinforces this idea, touting celebrities and influencers dressed in expensive clothes, driving expensive cars, and having expensive experiences as something to aspire to. However, the tide could finally be starting to turn on that one.
"This whole minimalist movement helped a little, I feel," said Megan McCoy, a financial therapist, of people's changing view of what money can buy. "The housing regression and student loans scared young people from buying a house, so that became one less status symbol to tie to your self-worth. And we're moving more into urban environments where cars are less important. So it might actually be getting better—minus social media's negative impact."
How to stop attaching your success to your bank account.
When I asked McCoy for strategies that have helped her patients stop giving money so much power, she said that identifying your financial "script" is the first step.
She's referring to the four money scripts formulated by Brad Klontz, Psy.D., CFP, a clinical psychologist turned financial planner who spent years studying patients' relationships with money looking for similarities. He came up with four money camps—money avoidance, money status, money vigilance, and money worship—that everyone seems to fall into.
"Each of the money scripts hints at the different reasons people equate net worth to self-worth," McCoy said. For example, money worshippers think money is going to fix everything, so they feel like they're lacking no matter how much of it they have. Money-vigilant people, on the other hand, are hyper-focused on saving money for a rainy day and can be workaholics whose net worth becomes "like a drug."
Very rarely do people like other people because of status.
Once you figure out your script (you can take the quiz here), you're on your way to at least being aware of how you tend to tie money to self-esteem. From there, you can start to do something about it using self-worth building exercises.
One that McCoy recommends is journaling on what you love about a friend or family member. Get all of your favorite qualities about them down on the page. From there, think about the points from that list that you also possess. This quick exercise can help you overcome some of the cognitive distortions—aka tiny white lies that our brains tell us—keeping you from knowing that you are so much more than your bank account.
"Very rarely do people like other people because of status. You may think other people are judging you because of money, but you yourself don't do that to others. Why do you love your best friend? Is it because of how much she makes and what she has? Or is it because she's funny and kind and caring? It's about recognizing this thought process and making it more overt."
Financial worries will always come and go. The knowledge that the best things about you have nothing to do with your wallet? That lasts forever.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.