How Trauma Sabotages Our Finances

I consider myself lucky for having financial education growing up.  My dad owned several businesses and money & business topics were openly talked about.  I have been working professionally since I was 13 years old and by the time I moved out at the age of 19, I had $13,000 in my account, got a decent admin job, bought my first car in cash and got an apartment with my partner. 

Then… everything went downhill from there.  

You see, I grew up in a cult environment with conservative Christian roots where I was taught that my place was “barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen”. I received messaging during my childhood that I was not enough, could be easily replaced, and essentially had to earn love, salvation, and good standing in the church. 

On top of that, abuse in my childhood home wired me that conflict equaled danger and I learned quickly how to read people and became attuned to facial expressions and body language that signaled someone was upset. I became very good at “fawning” (aka. people pleasing) as a trauma response to keep myself and those around me safe.  

Although I left that culture as an adult, those deeply ingrained beliefs and responses followed me.

I took on the wifely role I was taught growing up despite my non-traditional relationship with my partner.  Growing up I was taught it was my job to put other people first, to be quiet, graceful, and agreeable; so that’s what I did.

I emotionally and financially supported my partner from one career change, to another, to another and yet another. I pulled money out of my 401(k) to get them thousands of dollars of tests with a nutritionist that they didn’t follow through with. I bought a house before we had an emergency fund and cars I knew we couldn’t really afford…All because I deep down felt like if I didn’t live up to a certain standard my partner would leave me and no one would ever love me again.

It wasn’t until I started studying trauma that I realized why I did what I did, despite knowing better.

According to The National Council for Mental Wellbeing, “70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives”, although I would not be surprised if this number was much higher. 

Trauma and adverse experiences come in many forms, and it can have a huge impact on various aspects of our lives, including our money. 

The Wide Spectrum of Trauma: Trauma can be difficult to define but is generally considered to be an emotional response to an event, or repeated events, that threatens, or causes you to feel that your safety is threatened. Trauma can be a single traumatic event, years of neglect, or ongoing verbal abuse.

I will tell you what trauma is not…It’s not a contest. Just because someone else’s experience may seem more severe, it doesn’t diminish the effects your experiences have had on you. Trying to push these experiences away can lead to a buildup of pressure that eventually explodes or causes you to collapse in on yourself. That is why it is important to respect your journey, recognize it’s effects, and ask for help when you need it. 

Some of the areas that I have seen trauma affect finances the most are: 

Boundaries: I was always worried that my fiancé would leave me if I couldn’t bring in enough money to support us and give them the things they wanted. Honestly, I didn’t have healthy boundaries in any part of my life, but especially with my money. For years, I enabled my partner’s overspending and periods of unemployment. I bent over backwards to provide whatever they wanted, even if it meant stretching myself financially.

What to watch for: 

  • You often feel taken advantage of or mistreated.
  • You say “no” and find yourself giving in anyways.
  • You feel resentful of a bill, expense, or person.
  • Repeated requests for, or to borrow, money.

Self-esteem and Worthiness: Whether it is years of being told things like “you’re stupid” “worthless” or “will never amount to anything”; or an attack that leaves you feeling violated, abuse can erode self-esteem and whisper lies that you are damaged.  These lies that can seep into your subconscious and into your beliefs about yourself can make it more difficult to stand up for yourself and your needs.

What to watch for: 

  • You are procrastinating finding a higher-paying job or negotiating for better pay.
  • You buy cars, bags, shoes, etc. because of what others think (aka. try to prove your value to others) *
  • You buy things for other people so they will like you (coffee, donuts, lunches, clothes, etc.) *

*There is a difference in buying things for people out of love and care vs. spending money trying to fit in or buy approval.  Are the things you’re doing one sided or is that love and care being returned to you?  For example, maybe you cover lunch for your bestie but she does the same for you too. 

There’s nothing wrong with buying a nice outfit because you feel great in it when it aligns with what is important to you and you have the money for it.  Are you asking if you like the outfit when you try it on, or are your thoughts on what other people think?

Healing and Recovery: Trauma leaves behind a trail of disconnection, feelings of unworthiness, and shame. These feelings are lies keeping you from becoming the healed, best versions of yourself that will enjoy life to the fullest.  

But this chapter of your life is not the end of your book.  Healing from trauma is possible. Seeking professional therapy and support is crucial on this journey to help psychological healing. A good diet and time outside can help heal your body, and a healthy connection to the higher power you believe in, nature, and to others helps heal your soul.  

Trauma can profoundly affect our finances, but it doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. By acknowledging our trauma and being aware of its impacts on us we can start making positive changes by asking for professional help, working on healing, and rebuilding your financial well-being. You’re not alone in this journey and it is well worth taking!

If you find yourself currently in an abusive situation, please get help right away. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline  800-799-7233 or text “Start” to 88788.