Few people would argue that we all deserve the support money can give us to have nutritious food, safe and adequate shelter, and access to safe and reliable transportation. Saying “I don’t deserve money” is saying “I don’t deserve to live.”
Yet millions of people have this money script. They tend to have low self-esteem, to earn less, and to make ill-advised financial decisions. Believing that you don’t deserve money can hinder both your emotional and financial wellbeing. As pointed out in my co-authored book Wired For Wealth, “It keeps people emotionally and spiritually poor, despite any wealth they might have.”
At its core, this belief is rooted in deep shame. Guilt and shame are often conflated, but they are different. Guilt comes from the awareness of having done something wrong. For example, you might feel guilty over making an ill-advised financial decision or mistake. We all make wrong decisions. While they can evoke guilt and regret, that doesn’t mean we are fatally flawed or our very being is defective. It means we made a mistake. We accept the consequences, adjust our behavior, learn to do better, and go on.
Shame, however, is not about what we may have done, but who we believe we are. The type of shame that says, “I don’t deserve money,” has underlying thoughts and feelings of being inadequate, stupid, dirty, or unworthy. You don’t have to have done anything wrong to feel shame.
Guilt can be lessened by acknowledging and feeling our regret and remorse over a decision and modifying our behavior going forward. Shame requires much more. Changing shame is not about modifying a behavior. It takes modifying our self-image, which is far more challenging. Learning and practicing better financial behavior will not result in learning to believe we deserve money. Like so many money scripts, modifying this one is an inside job.
Start with becoming aware of what triggers your shame around not deserving money. It can be harder to recognize than guilt, which often comes from a specific action, while shame can be systemic and vague. When you can identify a triggering event, you can begin to get curious about where that feeling of unworthiness first started. It may stem from childhood experiences that are not specifically about money.
Feeling the feelings is key to building self-esteem. Many sources will tell you to not ruminate on these thoughts and feelings, which typically means getting caught up in the thoughts and avoiding feeling the feelings. This is nuanced but extremely important. Talking about feelings is not feeling them.
Almost any method of reducing shame will involve practicing self-compassion. Doing this is far more difficult than it sounds. I only started to understand self-compassion when I began to see that the goal was not to get rid of my shaming critical part, but to understand its initial good intention of keeping me safe from outside attack and criticism. Over time, the outside attacks that first triggered the shame often disappear, leaving the critical part fighting imaginary enemies and doing internal harm in the process.
One final item to consider is getting support. The entire counseling profession is trained in helping people recover from systemic shame. With intention and some new tools, almost anyone can modify a money script of “I don’t deserve money.” It is both possible and important to come to understand that you do deserve the increased financial, physical, and emotional wellbeing that money can help provide.