by Colin Ryan

How to Tell Yourself a Different Financial Story

The stories we tell ourselves about our self-worth (and net worth) tend to stick. Fueled by imposter syndrome and self-doubt, we tell ourselves that we’re “not enough” or “not worth it.” Here’s how to turn those stories around, and give yourself hope for the future.
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Have you ever worried what someone would think if they found out how much money you make?

Have you ever had to explain an embarrassing money decision you made to someone else?

Have you ever stared at your savings and debts and felt way behind others who seem to be living the good life?

I’ve felt this way too. While money has no inherent meaning (it’s simply a measurement of our progress toward our goals), sometimes talking about our net worth feels like we’re talking about our actual worth.

Author, a speaker, and a shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown has done a lot to spark a global conversation about self-worth, shame, and vulnerability. Her TED Talks “Listening to Shame” and “The Power of Vulnerability” have been viewed millions of times. In her latest book, Rising Strong, she draws on the work of neurologist Robert Burton to show that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Brown writes:

“Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain. Burton writes: ‘Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.’ He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, we earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”

Isn’t that amazing? Our thoughts are stories we tell ourselves, and we don’t have to be right to believe them. Just certain.

Brown goes on to explain that two of the most common (and inaccurate) stories we tell ourselves that trigger feelings of unworthiness are “You’re not enough” and “Who do you think you are?’”

For instance, when I speak I meet so many people who say things like, “I’m horrible with my money.” The problem is, the more you tell yourself that story, the more you believe it.

Here are some other typical financial versions of these stories:

“You’re not enough”

This thought tends to come up when we compare ourselves against some real or imagined standard for ourselves:

  • When you see a job posting, but you don’t have every single one of the qualifications listed unfairly, women have been socialized to struggle more with this one than men, when in reality either may be equally suitable candidates)

  • When a friend buys a beautiful car or home, and you think, “I could never afford that”

  • When it feels like you’ll never get your head above water

  • When you hear a confusing financial term, stare at a tax form, or read something about the stock market and feel like you should have understood this by now

  • When you set a Goal to save money for something but spend it impulsively before you get there

  • When you are discouraged, down, unhappy, or unresolved, and you head to the store for some “retail therapy”

  • Also…every time you see a social media update from a perfect person in paradise…

Hashtag ugh.

“Who do you think you are?”

This one tends to come up when we question our position in relation to others:

  • When you’re trying to summon the courage to negotiate a salary, a raise, or a better position

  • When you’re asked to give career or financial advice, and you see someone older and more accomplished than you in the audience

  • When you apply for a job even though you know you’re not the most qualified applicant

  • When you’re the youngest person in the meeting

  • When you’re the oldest person in the meeting

  • When you attribute your financial success to an area of privilege, be it race, gender, class, orientation, or country of origin

  • When you receive a windfall of money (tax refund, inheritance, lottery, you found it) and you spend it impulsively

  • When you realize you want to do different work or be in a different work environment, even though it seems good enough for others

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While there may be some degree of truth to some of these thoughts, they mostly sound right because we tell them to ourselves over and over.

A few months after I read Rising Strong, I was listening to author Elizabeth Gilbert on comedian Pete Holmes’ podcast “You Made It Weird”. Gilbert attributes her ability to keep writing books to this: “I always have an answer in the chamber whenever the dark evil demon in my head says, ‘Who do you think you are?’ It’s such a hostile question, but if you take the tone away from it, maybe he’s just curious. Because you’re insecure, you’re hearing it as an assault… . So now I just answer it earnestly: ‘Thank you so much for asking. I’ll tell you who I am: I’m a constituent of creation, just like everyone else, and I have every right to participate in its unfolding.’ And the demon goes, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Developing the awareness to respond to our discouraging stories is an amazing skill we can absolutely build. And it’s the same with money: Learning to think differently about your money will lead you to healthier actions and, in time, a healthier relationship with your money.

Here are a few examples of financial “I’m enough/This is who I am” stories:

  • I know what I’m doing, and I deserve to be in this room

  • I’m already at “No,” so applying for this position will only improve my chances of getting it

  • I am the kind of person who only spends money I already have

  • My family deserves/I deserve a debt-free life

  • I no longer borrow money to pay for things; I rely on hard work and resourcefulness instead

  • I will be debt-free by [date] or sooner (set a Goal)

  • I prepare for emergencies and save until I have the money for the things I want and need

  • I am/will be debt-free because ________

Most people find it’s all too easy to let our worth get tied up in our money decisions. Because we forget that we get to respond to the stories we tell ourselves. Just as we are able to tell ourselves the wrong stories with certainty, we are also able to tell ourselves healthy ones until they feel true as well.

So what will your next story be?

Featured everywhere from NPR to “The Moth” and Reader’s Digest, Colin Ryan is an award-winning comedic financial speaker (seriously). Listen to his winning “Moth” story on National Public Radio here. He is based in Burlington, Vermont.

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