Suicide rates have risen sharply in recent years in the United States and personal finance coach Tammy Lally of Washington is convinced that the shame associated with financial problems is one of the factors that affect this.
Lally’s brother committed suicide in 2007 after receiving a foreclosure notice. Soon after, Lally’s mortgage business collapsed amid the 2008 recession.
She says she went from driving a Mercedes and living by the ocean to filing for bankruptcy.
“I was devastated by the pain and sadness I was experiencing,” says Lally. “I didn’t tell anyone. I pretended nothing was wrong. “
At one point she realized that she was ashamed, that she was a failure because of her financial problems. When she changed careers and became an economic consultant, she realized how damaging those perceptions are.
Some clients were embarrassed by their debts and even their wealth. Others lived beyond their means or “pretended to be important,” taking care of the bill at restaurants and coming to the aid of everyone.
“I see that all my clients are embarrassed by the financial issue,” says Lally. “We live in a culture where money dictates what we are worth.”
The origin of financial shame
We are born without knowing how to handle our money and everyone makes mistakes with their finances, according to Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Additionally, there are many factors beyond our control, such as the economy, current trends, and unemployment rates.
Often, however, people think there is something wrong with them if they face financial problems. They may feel stupid, immoral, lazy, or that they don’t know how to handle money. They also torture themselves thinking about what they should have done and did not do.
“When we make money mistakes or something happens to us, we tend to think of it as a personal flaw,” says Bryan-Podvin, author of “The Financial Anxiety Solution”. “If you do it on yourself, it is a good sign that you are embarrassed about financial matters.”
Financial embarrassment can drive us to overspend “to keep up appearances,” not to think about our finances or to criticize others who are also struggling, according to financial planner Edward Coambs of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Shame makes us judge others,” says Coambs. “Because when we see that people have difficulties, it makes us feel bad.”
Many therapists and researchers say that shame is not the same as guilt: We feel guilty when we did something wrong and we feel ashamed when we think we are weak or flawed.
There are people who believe they are so flawed that they don’t deserve to be loved or related to others, according to Coambs. In extreme cases, suicide may be considered.
“Shame is associated with the loss of relationships,” says Coambs. “It is a way of saying that you are worth nothing and do not deserve to have a relationship with you or with others.”
Shame and suicide
Suicides rarely have a single cause, and researchers can only speculate about why suicide rates are going up or down.
Some studies indicate that they tend to rise if unemployment rates rise, and a 2020 American Journal of Epidemiology study indicated that financial problems play a major role in suicide attempts.
But in the past two decades, suicides have risen even in good economic times. The suicide rate rose 35% from 1999 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2019 they fell from 14.2 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants to 13.9. Figures for 2020 are not yet available.
Lindsay speculates that stagnant income and growing economic insecurity may be contributing factors.
Coambs notes that the suicide rates of men in the United States are three times those of women, which could partly respond to their feeling the need to be the main breadwinner in the house.
“Men suffer the most (from financial setbacks) because they tend to associate their worth with their income or their wealth,” Coambs said.
What to do about financial embarrassment
This is all worrisome. But suicides are preventable and financial shame can be controlled, according to financial therapists. The first step is to recognize what you feel.
“The first thing to do, and the most pragmatic, is to call things by name,” Coambs said. “Being able to describe your feelings in words helps start the process of relieving distress.”
You also have to get support. Being able to discuss financial embarrassment with someone you trust helps keep the person from feeling so lonely, Lindsay says.
“A lot of people think they are the only person in the world or the only person in their community who is financially embarrassed,” Lindsay said.
You have to be compassionate with yourself and learn from your experiences. Ask yourself what you can get out of all this and what you should correct next time.
Lally talks about her experience on the TED Talk series and her presentation was viewed more than 2 million times. It’s called “Let’s Be Honest About Our Financial Troubles” and it accompanies a book called “Money Detox.”
“My mission is to get people talking about their financial problems,” Lally said.