Money as a Trigger for Shame


woman hangs her head in shame


Recently, I attended a professional women networking event focused on finances and what I found broke my heart. Just talking about money triggered feelings of shame all around the room. Here are successful, ambitious, dynamic women, but when the topic of money opened up, I saw them shrink from the overwhelming feeling of shame.  

In the past couple of years, there have been great initiatives to encourage women to take more financial ownership and shift the financial conversation.  The event I attended was one in a series to provide professional women with tools, such as negotiating or mentor-ship that they might not have easy access to.

The event was hosted by a not-for-profit women’s group and invited 4 female financial authorities as panel speakers.  Each speaker started with an introduction on how they learned about finances; some were lucky to have parents that spoke of it, others the hard-luck of being raised in single income families and learned on their own; some, from the painful lessons of youthful indulgence.

Over the next hour, the discussion of the panel revolved around 3 major themes regarding women and finances. The existing barriers to entry for women in financial discussions that lead to greater literacy: including gender stereotypes of “women don’t like risk” or biases such as “women are not interested in investing” The importance of having a financial strategy: women tend to live longer but on average earn less than male counterparts. If women are not investing, that gap is compounded. Demographic shifts: due to various factors, it is estimated that by 2026, 50% of the financial assets will be in women’s hands. By 2030, that number increases to 65%.  Are there enough financial resources for women to help them manage their wealth?

All throughout the panel discussion the room was dead quiet: each woman in rapt attention; soaking in the advice, pens scribbling down notes, heads nodding relating to each point the panellists brought up.


Seeing the signs of Shame

Hands flew up as soon as the floor was open to questions, but each woman started with a blush and a disclaimer: “maybe this is a simple/basic/dumb question”.  As they proceeded to ask their question, I saw heads nod all around the room, their eyes flew from the audience member back to the experts. Other women wondered the same and wanted to know too. Many were too embarrassed to ask because they thought others knew something they didn’t. They felt shame in their lack of financial knowledge: Each woman thought they were the only one.

As the Q&A session went on, it started encompassing wider financial topics like budgeting and spending.  With each question, the elephant in the room grew.  The underlying sense of shame in each question: “Am I bad with money?”  One woman asked if the panel thought it was ok for her to hire a cleaner once a month to help her with housework.  We then find out that she’s a lawyer at a large firm. She has to work into the night to meet those billable hours. She felt shame for spending her hard earned money on services that would set her up for future success.


So what is this shame?

Prominent shame researcher, Brene Brown defines shame as the fear of disconnection.  That feeling of “I’m not [blank] enough” or “I’m not worthy of [blank]”.  We’ve all had those thoughts: I’m not smart enough, I’m not pretty enough, I don’t earn enough (money), I’m not doing enough (at home), I don’t deserve *something*.

Dr. Brown also found that shame is gender-specific; she says in her 2012 TED Talk, “shame for women is a web of conflicting and unattainable expectations of who we are supposed to be” whereas shame for men is to “not be perceived as weak”.

Sadly, I think in the realm of money, women identify with both sides.  We feel shame for not being able to do it all: of perfectly managing our house, our family, our career and our finances.  But on top of that, women are more likely to be vulnerable and admit what we don’t know about finances.  Vulnerability in our western culture is perceived to be weak and when we admit we don’t know, we think ourselves weak.  Adding another layer of shame.


Money Is Breeding Grounds for shame

In that room, money was a trigger for the feelings of shame for these women. They felt shame for not knowing enough about finances.  They felt shame for not doing enough housework.  They felt unworthy of spending money on themselves.  I don’t think the feeling is limited to these 500 women.

In Dr. Brown’s research, she finds that shame needs just 3 things to grow and money is the perfect breeding grounds for these three factors.  The factors are secrecy, silence, and judgment.  We don’t talk about salaries.  We keep silent our money habits.  We keep our debts a secret and then we layer on judgment of ourselves and others.  Oh, you buy $5 lattes? Hmmm.  Or no wonder I’m in debt; I have no willpower.  In this environment, shame thrives and leads to more destructive patterns.


So how do we combat this?

To break this negative cycle, we must first recognize what we are doing and acknowledge what we are feeling. The interesting nuance is that shame is not guilt.  Guilt is associated with behaviours:  I did something bad.  Shame is associated with the self: I am something bad.  If I had an exam and flunked because I didn’t study, is it a result of behaviour or character flaw?  Most would agree that neglecting to study is a behaviour.

So now in the money context; if I didn’t study up on finance and investing, it is a behaviour. Not knowing more about finances is the result of a behaviour.  It is not a reflection of me as a person.  If I had credit card debt because I overspent, it is a result of behaviour, not because I’m a bad person.  So first, we must accept that our financial situation is a result of our behaviours, not of our worthiness.

In Dr. Brown’s Shame Resilience theory, the thing that shame cannot survive is a dose of empathy.  So our next step is we must have empathy for ourselves. There are just some things we don’t know or haven’t learned yet and that’s ok. Finances and money are not taught at school nor are there many resources.  We wouldn’t feel ashamed of ourselves if we didn’t know how to play chess or pilot a plane; we would say that we had never been taught.  So we can let go of the guilt of not knowing enough about finances.  With chess and with personal finance, we can still learn.

Once we have empathy for ourselves, this opens the way for the next step, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To have the courage to let other people know that we don’t have all the answers and we are not perfect.  I think we would be surprised by the response.  We think that we will be judged and we will be criticized.  But more often than not, those are the moments we find connection, the “I hear you”s, the “yeah, me too”s. So I applaud the women who called upon their courage to stand up in front of 500 women and say they didn’t know but asked anyway.

Now that you can let go of your shame; what is the next step you want to take in your finances?

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6 thoughts on “Money as a Trigger for Shame”

  1. Pingback: The Truth About Bestselling Book Girl, Stop Apologizing - SundayBrunchCafe

    1. Thanks, Ana! I am also uncomfortable talking about money. Though it seems easier to write about it, so I’ll start here.
      I’m very excited that Refinery29’s Money Diaries have come to Canada as well. It really gets women to open up!

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  3. Pingback: Why Aren’t Women Investing? The Gender Investment Gap | Sunday Brunch Cafe

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