Growing Your Income

Your brain may be sabotaging your financial or career success

Money can be hard to talk about.

A 2021 report by researchers at George Washington University showed that 50% of surveyed U.S. adults felt stressed when discussing their personal finances, and 60% experienced anxiety just thinking about their finances.

That’s often true even for high-earners, or people who have earned a steady paycheck for decades on end now. And according to Ed Coambs, a couple’s therapist who specializes in financial therapy, there’s a psychological explanation for it: Your anxiety around money is often deeply tied to your childhood experiences with financial stability.

What’s more, Coambs adds: What you think you’re capable of achieving as an adult is often directly influenced by how much money your parents made when you were a child. And your brain might not be able to let go of that idea — meaning that when you do find success, you might subconsciously sabotage yourself to get back to a place of financial familiarity.

Here’s why, and what you can do to shift yourself out of this mindset:

How your brain might be sabotaging your financial or career success

Think, for a second, about what you’ll realistically be able to achieve for the rest of your career. What type of job could you one day have? How much money might you make?

Odds are, your answer is pretty close to the level of success your parents or guardians enjoyed when you were a child. “Psychologically … you have to overcome [that] to see that you can make a difference,” Coambs tells CNBC Make It.

The phenomenon has some fascinating implications. If you parents held standard day jobs when you were a kid, for example, you might find it harder to take the leap into launching a side-hustle or growing it into a full-time gig. Or, if you grew up in a lower- or middle-class household, you might have a tough time envisioning a direct path toward greater wealth as an adult.

If you grew up in a wealthy household, you might be just as self-constrained by the social expectations of your family and peers, says Preston Cherry, an assistant professor of personal financial planning at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. For instance, you might feel drawn to a small school or community college that particularly excels in a field that you want to study — but your social upbringing might dissuade you from it.

“Community college is frowned upon in certain social circles, but that’s what your environment told you,” Cherry says, adding that making choices based on how they’ll be perceived socially can lead you to start “overlooking your own wellbeing, your own goals and your own practicality.”

Ultimately, Coambs says, a deeply held belief that you’re capable of a limited amount can lead to plenty of self-sabotage.

“People will raise their level of success, financially or social status-wise, but it will feel unfamiliar to them to such a great extent that they will unconsciously start to bring themselves back down to a level that feels more psychologically familiar,” he says.

3 symptoms to watch out for

Cherry says there are three primary symptoms associated with this kind of financial or career self-sabotage:

  • Holding onto excess money due to fear
  • Not seeking new money-making opportunities because you don’t feel capable of handling them
  • Being less likely to take financial risks than those around you

“If you grew up in a home with scarcity of money, then you may carry that into adulthood. You may not pursue money abundance because you may not think that you’re worthy of money,” Cherry says.

If you’re unable to see your true value and self-worth, you’ll struggle to even believe that you can negotiate a raise or wrangle yourself a promotion, Cherry says. And if you don’t think you’re capable of that, he adds, you almost assuredly won’t believe in your own ability to launch a successful side hustle or entrepreneurial venture.

So, what can you do about it?

How to solve the problem: ‘It takes a community’

The first step, as cliché as it sounds, is acceptance.

Coambs says you have to acknowledge that this phenomenon is actually affecting you, and grieve the opportunities you’ve missed over the years. Then, through conversations with a trusted, empathic individual like a therapist, you can pinpoint how exactly these types of thoughts affect you, and start to work toward changing them, he says.

“One of those big shifts that the lens of therapy brings is that it’s less about telling people how they should feel, and more about inviting people into a self-reflective process,” Coambs says. “That way, they’re starting to come to their own conclusions, and that change comes from within them.”

Supportive friends can help, too: Surround yourself with people who encourage you to believe in yourself.

“Having those external validations become an internal reality,” Coambs says. “So if you don’t have people in your life that are telling you that you’re capable of doing more, then you have to develop that within you, and despite what some people would think, that’s much harder to do.”

Cherry also recommends investing time into financial literacy: The more you learn about how money works, the less likely you are to excessively stress about it. He notes that personal finance education in schools could be a particularly helpful way to nip this phenomenon in the bud for today’s kids, giving them a potentially more positive relationship with money from an early age.

“You can’t do it on your own. Bootstrapping is a myth, as far as raising one’s self. It takes a community,” Cherry says.

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