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A Taxing Time- Overcoming Financial Shame


The first time I went to a CPA to get my income taxes prepared, it was before my divorce was final. I was married filing separately and was in extreme emotional distress. For the past few years, X had handled most of the money matters in our home. I walked in to the CPA’s office with my little shoebox full of papers, 1,000 apologies for being so financially disorganized and literally cried all the way through the meeting because I felt like a fish out of water.

The man was very kind and said I was not even close to the most disorganized client he’d ever had.

It isn’t like me to be disorganized. I can pull off a holiday dinner with military precision, redesign your house and knit hats for five homeless babies all on the same day. When I take Right Brain/Left Brain assessment tests, I consistently score right down the middle; I use both sides equally. My IQ is just south of genius for what that’s worth. But I don’t pay attention to my check register beyond knowing the general balance that I keep in my head. It is a fact that surprises even me.

When X and I first moved in together, I took great pride in saving money. I could stretch our grocery dollar like a boss. Once, I was even applauded in the checkout line for using coupons and getting a cartload of food for $6. I would prepare a bunch of meals in advance and label them in the freezer. I saw myself as the perfect, proactive and organized homemaker- a Martha Stewart before there even was one.

Despite all this, I was shocked one day to overhear X telling someone how disorganized I was. What could he be talking about? I began to feel self-conscious. I began to see myself in a new way. I became less than. Then, we got married.

Eventually, like many of you, most of the stress in my marriage seemed centered around money. Besides my rarely bothering to balance the checkbook, we had major disagreements around credit cards. I maintained that I had to use them because the household allowance I was on was unrealistic. X maintained that I was irresponsible and not to be trusted. The Visa card balance came to be the ever present elephant in the room. I wanted to plan and vision for our future, but was often rebuffed with, “With the way you spend money, there won’t be a future.”

When I look back, I know in my head that my current feelings are somewhat unfounded. I was far from a total disaster. In earlier years, before X started his own business, I even used to prepare our taxes myself. I was the one who suggested buying Microsoft stock early on (not early enough.) I was the one who bought savings bonds weekly for our kids and insisted on going to Charles Schwab and opening UGMA accounts for them too.

I know these things, but when you are living with shame around money issues and then your husband runs off with an accountant, it doesn’t feel very good.

Life has been very busy lately, and the state of my finances has not been a prime concern. I know there’s money in there. However, Uncle Sam apparently, needs to know exactly how much. After lots of anxiety driven procrastination, last night I set out to get everything together.

Not too much of a problem. I throw everything into a file throughout the year, so it was all there. About midnight, I decided to look at the checklist that the CPA sends every year. It had been in the file, unopened, for over a month.

Only it wasn’t the checklist. It was a letter saying that he had sold his practice along with a second letter from the new CPA welcoming us new clients with a warning that we’d better get our paperwork in by March 16th or be ready to file an extension.

New waves of shame swept over me. “I’m not even organized enough to open a damn envelope?” “Now I have to parade my financial sideshow in front of another one?” And the clincher, “X was right.” I hate that one. Midnight tears are the loneliest, most painful kind.

Finally, it hit me- why not hire a bookkeeper? It just so happened I was scheduled to interview one today for an organization that I’m part of. She seemed friendly and when we were finished, I followed her out of the room.

“I need to hire a bookkeeper for a few hours to get myself organized,” I blurted out. Then, with my voice cracking and tears in my eyes, I admitted, “I’m a very financially disorganized person. My husband divorced me because he didn’t like the way I handled money.” She assured me that she could help and patted my arm kindly.

Later it hit me, despite having moved on to a full and beautiful life and finding success in many different ways, I still have a sad story around money, because it is the one that X wrote. My money story hadn’t changed because I still saw that part of myself through his eyes. I failed so many times that he didn’t want to be married anymore. It is really all my fault.

When I closed on my condo a couple years ago, I caught a mistake in the closing papers that netted me a nearly $300 savings. Nothing huge, but you would have thought I found a million dollars. I was so proud, I made a copy of the check they sent me for the difference. It represented something so much more to me than the money. It meant that I wasn’t a complete disaster and I was on the road to being able to take care of myself. Did you ever have a victory like that but then backslide into defeat? Uh, hello? Anyone ever lost five pounds and then gained ten?

Indeed, forming new ways of thinking about ourselves isn’t that easy. I soon forgot all about my $300 triumph and was back to the cluttered shoebox full of receipts. Our minds want to keep our “normal" and we usually revert back to our old self talk. The effort not to must be a conscious one on our part and we have to recognize whether what we are saying to ourselves is based on guilt or shame.

This morning I fully realized the difference between the two. Guilt can be a healthy reaction to an action. You may have done something to hurt another and you feel some remorse.

It is very very different from shame. With guilt, you “did something bad.” With shame, you “are bad.”

I realized that during my the last years of marriage I’d constantly felt inferior, untrustworthy, undeserving and unlovable. I counted myself lucky every time X changed his mind about getting a divorce; deep down I knew I couldn’t take care of myself. Three years later, and even though I’ve done a pretty fine job with that, my self-image around money hadn’t changed. I was still a disaster on the inside.

As we think, so we are. (Proverbs 23:7) This morning it became clear that changing my self-talk is a crucial final step for me to keep moving forward towards healing after the divorce.

Maybe the issue isn’t money for you. Maybe your ex belittled you for your weight, or your child raising skills or your religion. Whatever it is that you don’t like to think about- that is probably it. Try to separate the guilt from the shame. Shame will bring with it feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness and insecurity. If it is shame, ask yourself who told you that story?

Don’t live your life with somebody else’s limits. As Brene Brown so clearly puts it, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Once you see yourself as the fat lady or the lady who screams at her kids, or the lady who is too religious, that is who you are and you resign yourself to it.

“Hi, nice to meet you! I’m the lady with the unreconciled bank account.” (Who would scream at my kids on the way home from Krispy Kreme after Bible study…)

No more!

Here are a few things to remember when dealing with shame:

1) Besides determining what the shame around an issue is- also ask yourself why you are hanging on to it. Obviously, the shame I felt around money was long held and not serving me, but I needed to examine why I was still living out those feelings.

2) Accept that we all have strengths and weaknesses. We often judge ourselves by our perceived shortcomings. Be gentle with yourself and avoid comparing yourself to others. We can’t all be rocket scientists. Who would make the pocket protectors and the lab coats? Remember: unconditional love for who you are right now.

3) Speak to your new vision, avoid bemoaning your shortcomings. “I am the woman who is blessed to be a blessing and who feels confident in handling money. I am the woman who decides what I am capable of. I am good enough.”

4) Seek support. I need a bookkeeper to show me the best way to organize my financial life. You might hire a personal trainer or a tutor, but once you do remember that every day is new. You’re what you decide you are.

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