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Financial Fitness Did More for My Mental Health Than Therapy

First Published on HealthyRich

A week before I turned 30, I went to a new counselor. I’d been to therapy before — when I was in high school and for a brief time after undergrad. I wasn’t sure I’d truly resolved what was holding me back from the life I’d wanted, but I’d at least been able to identify it. And knowledge is half the battle, right?

The problem is that more knowledge does not equate to more than half the battle. And, if the battle here is for the life I am excited to wake up to rather than escape by living above my means, accumulating more knowledge to get it is like doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

That’s how I found myself on the hamster wheel of insanity, even after five years of at-least-weekly therapy.

Over that half decade, I’d bonded with the therapist I’d chosen, an extremely well-trained clinical psychologist with a BA from Harvard and a doctorate from Emery. I liked this therapist and they’d found a way to penetrate the fortress of self-loathing, inferiority complex and limiting beliefs I would deploy at a moment’s notice against anything that might improve my well-being or quality of life.

I remained worse than stagnant on my financial goals, had no plan for reaching them and had even less clarity about a good career path.

After five years, I could be “monstrously articulate,” in my therapist’s words, about my emotional landscape. I could name my trigger buttons, happy places and shadow zones, where my fight-or-fawn response originated, and exactly where my mother failed me each step of the way. But I remained worse than stagnant on my financial goals, had no plan for reaching them and had even less clarity about a good career path.

I’d spent more than $6,000 in co-pays — what could have been a solid start to an emergency fund — and had become dependent on my therapist to regulate my anxiety.

Not having an emergency fund or much financial stability to speak of was one of the main roots of the nearly constant anxiety I experienced. It spiked each time I Venmo-ed the co-pay for my session on cerebralizing how to manage anxiety.

Even after nearly a decade of therapy in total, I was unable to see this most basic problem. Perhaps that’s because we’ve created a culture where our knee-jerk response to any sign of mental health trouble is to encourage someone to get professional help.

Dating coaches repeat “therapy is sexy” at dating conferences, professors mention the student counseling center at the beginning of each semester and even employers periodically remind their employees of the availability of therapy.

It’s not my place to discern whether another person should be in therapy. But the over-reliance on experts whose main indicator of success is whether or not the client likes them is watering down friendships. It outsources emotional care and intimacy to professionals who can profit off of what one might otherwise expect in the course of normal friendships. That sounds a bit like paying for friendship just because our culture has trained us so well to refer people to professional help at the mention of difficult feelings.

Indeed, it was a friend’s casual remark over a dinner, not the suggestion of a well-credentialed psychotherapist during an evaluation, that shone the light I had been seeking for five years.

“Sounds to me like the fee you’re paying to talk to someone about your anxiety is the source of your anxiety,” my friend said.

We spent the rest of the evening talking about money, and the word budget didn’t even come up.

Maybe it’s just my experience that tells me everyone everywhere is ready to foist you off onto a professional if you so much as say anxious or sad. I’m Autistic and that may put people on high alert around me.

A therapist would have called these “symptoms.”

What my friend did that a therapist never did was magnify the parts of who I am for how they could help me with money. A therapist would have called these “symptoms.”

One of my fixations is detailed organization. My sock drawer is organized by fit from duck head to knee-high and by color from light to dark. My books sit on my shelf in alphabetical order and then by height.

My friend helped me see how I could use something I found to be natural, enjoyable and stress-relieving to benefit my financial situation, starting with firing my therapist. I’d been struggling for months with that therapist, anyway, and I could streamline that $25 per session into an emergency fund.

While $25 per week may not seem like a lot, that $100 a month has snowballed in my emergency fund. Just knowing I’m doing something for myself in case there’s a rainy day has brought me so much more stability than waiting a week to talk to someone for 50 minutes about everything I was stressed out about — except money.

Until the last few months of therapy, I’d been able to talk to my therapist about anything that was making me anxious, except money. The therapy-client dyad only exists because money flows from the latter to the former, and I didn’t want to bring up my money woes and risk being seen as manipulative or malingering, or being diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Money woes are deeply shaming to many people, including me. The thing that was entrenching shame, which served to reinforce my inferiority complex, was the one thing I couldn’t bring up.

My friend, who knows of my repertoire of self-soothing stimming behaviors, suggested I employ one or some of them the next time shame or worry about money came up.

Sometimes, you don’t need someone to ask you how you feel about every damn thing; you just need someone to state the obvious.

The first Wednesday I didn’t have a therapy appointment in five years, I celebrated saving that $25, but I panicked at the lack of support. I let my body naturally discharge the fear by shaking, rocking, stomping and flapping my hands, and didn’t even need 50 minutes or a boatload of brain power to calm down.

I’m not saying stimming will work for everyone. But the reason it worked for me is relevant to everyone: radical self-acceptance. I went to therapy out of the belief that I was feeling anxious, depressed and generally bad about myself because something was wrong with me. I believed the therapist could fix it.

That’s, of course, not the intention of therapy (most of the time), but for me, going to therapy every week or more reinforced that there was something about me that needed to be fixed. It also perpetuated a behavior that was keeping me anxious: spending money on something that wasn’t giving me much of a return.

I learned to use my superpower of fixation on detailed organization to get those dollars where they really needed to go.

Instead I learned to use my superpower of fixation on detailed organization to get those dollars where they really needed to go. I let my body naturally deal with the extra anxiety that wasn’t related to money, which required me to totally embrace who I am in a way therapy had never gotten me to do. And I freed myself from the guilt of those “little indulgences” many financial gurus tell you to forego if you want to be rich.

I don’t buy a treat every day or even every week, but I have the financial stability now to feel free to do so whenever I want. Now that my money isn’t funding my anxiety but is instead building up, among other things, to back me up, I find myself wanting a treat less often.

It turns out, when you like who you are and use the very parts of you that have been stigmatized as embarrassing, inconvenient or useless, you can get your money act together fast. And when you have all that going for you, you don’t need to use money you don’t have to escape a life you don’t like in part because you don’t have money.

I haven’t been to therapy in well over a year. I’ve got a solid emergency fund, a clear financial plan that’s automated (except what I’ve found to be really fun — go-go gadget superpower!), and, most importantly, a growing bank of self-love I rarely need to draw on.


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