Enough! No longer fooled by the money monster

“How much money do you need to feel safe?” is one of the questions in a game called “Confessions.” In today’s world, we equate safety with having money. This is understandable: money buys us a roof over our head, food to eat and the means to buy things and experiences we enjoy. And yet money has become so much more than just a means to an end. It has become an end in and of itself. Money has become a core driver, if not the primary driver of our lives today.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, I played a bunch of board games with family and friends. I noticed how much I got into these games – scoring the next win became my sole objective. Being totally absorbed, all else became virtually non-existent for a few moments. A few moms and dads who were playing the game with us seemed to be more balanced in their approach to the game – they were talking with and taking care of their children at the same time.

How do you play the money game? Do you play like I played the board game, obsessed with winning and accumulating, possibly seeing your bank balance as proof of your self-worth or lack thereof, staying in a job you don’t love to make money, and/or obsessing about what you will buy next on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, or Cyber Monday? Or, do you play the game more like the moms and dads I was playing with, giving attention to money as needed and taking care of other needs as well, such as relationships, self-discovery and contributing to others? Or maybe you go back and forth between these extremes, depending on the day and situation.

Obsession with money is nothing new. This is what I read in the book “Change Everything” by Christian Felber: In ancient Greece ‘Aristotle distinguished between the healthy Oikonomia, in which money serves as a means for the ‘good life,’ and the unnatural Chrematistike, in which multiplication of money becomes a means in itself.’ Even the ancient Greeks share our obsession with more.

We can feel bad about our obsession with money, or we can develop compassion for ourselves and our attitudes, understanding that we learned them somehow, which means we can also unlearn them and develop a healthier attitude towards our finances – more in the spirit of Oikonomia.

How did we learn to obsess about money? One clue lies in the nervous system. The primary function of our nervous system is survival, both physical and emotional (ego). The emotionally primitive part of our nervous system, which I call our ‘crocodile,’ is very crafty in using everything it can to help us emotionally survive. The crocodile is fear-based and develops countless strategies to make sure we don’t get hurt or die emotionally. Reacting fast is part of these crocodilian strategies. The crocodile doesn’t have time for wise, compassionate contemplation and action. Instead, it’s reacting instantaneously to any perceived threat to our emotional identity, pushing us into fight/flight/freeze reactions. Daniel Goleman has called this crocodile takeover process the ‘amygdala hijack.’ When we sense a threat, the reactive crocodile tends to take over our nervous system, including our reasoning and loving parts, and forces us into a narrow-minded battle-state.

From that crocodilian battle state, money can be perceived as an all-powerful rescuer that will solve all our emotional survival issues, including not feeling good enough, feeling lonely, or feeling out of control. We buy more to feel better, we try to make more money to feel safe, we think more money will get us status and friends in important places, and we think money will buy us a happy retirement.

Paradoxically, the more we rely on money for our emotional survival, the more emotionally unstable we become. Those who have accrued large amounts of greenbacks and made it their identity tend to be emotionally unstable – witness people who lose their fortune in a financial crisis and then commit suicide, because they feel they have lost it all, including themselves.

Our fearful crocodile makes up stories about money that come back to bite us. The more we buy these stories, the weaker we become on the inside. Here are a few commonly accepted crocodilian money stories I have noticed. You’ll see they are all rooted in some kind of fear. I have also jotted down their potential implications for our lives.

Crocodilian Beliefs about Money

(underlying fear)

Potential Implications
Time is money.

(fears of not having and not being enough)

  • We’re in a hurry toward more, feeling restless and burning out at a rapid clip.
  • We don’t spend time on things we can’t count, like silence, family time, being in nature, being kind to someone in the street, or doing nothing.
My net worth equals my self-worth.

(fears of not having and not being enough)

  • We dedicate a lot of our life’s energy to accumulating financial assets, yet never quite feeling satisfied, as our need to feel worthy cannot be addressed by external validation. Self-worth is an inside job.
People that have less are less.

(fear of not being enough, so I need someone to be less than me to feel better about myself)

  • We measure ourselves and others based on financial assets and separate ourselves from people who have less.
People that own more own me.

(fears of not having enough and not being resourceful enough, so I need someone else to rescue me)

  • We will do almost anything for someone as long as they pay us, including staying in jobs we don’t love, and not speaking our truth when we fear it may cost us our livelihood.
I don’t have enough yet.

(fears of not having and not being enough)

  • While this is true for an increasing number of people who live below the poverty line, many of us do have enough. Thinking we don’t, we try to fill an inner sense of lack by buying more, then needing more money, going into debt and having to spend more and more time working to afford our mushrooming consumerist lifestyles.
When I have enough money, I will start living my authentic life.

(fears of not having enough and not being enough now)

  • We can wait to live authentically our whole lives, deceiving ourselves from being ourselves, telling ourselves that we can’t be our authentic selves – loving, kind, generous, compassionate – until we have reached some kind of imaginary threshold. When we reach this, we’ll just keep going with our inauthentic lives as we have trained ourselves in being authentic. Being inauthentic has made our life work so far, so now suddenly becoming authentic seems too drastic a change – ‘I have too much at stake,’ so the crocodile thinks.

When we examine these crocodilian beliefs consciously, we may notice that they have an inner sense of lack in common, which we believe we can make go away with money. And we may notice that we weren’t born with these beliefs about lack and not being and not having enough. We were born into them and steeped ourselves in them throughout our lives – maybe learning from our primary caregivers, in our schools, in our places of work, from our friends and/or from the media. We’re being inundated with crocodilian stories about not enough and needing money and stuff to fix that. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we can step out of our fear-based money trance, by using what may be one of our greatest human assets – our capacity to discern Truth. When we notice crocodilian beliefs hijacking us, we can choose to pause and put our crocodilian self-talk to the test of our own discernment. By asking ourselves a few simple questions about these stories, we can free ourselves from them and we can widen our perspective to a wiser and more compassionate vantage point. Here are four questions to help tame our crocodilian stories that were developed by a renowned wisdom teacher, Byron Katie:

  • Is this absolutely true?
  • How do I live my life under the influence of this belief?
  • Who would I be without it?
  • What is a more truthful turn-around of this belief?

Let’s practice this with one commonly shared money belief, “Time is Money.” Is it absolutely true that time is money? No, we just made that up. How do I live under influence of that belief? I am always in a rush, never take time for the things that really count and can never really rest, because that costs money. Even sleep costs money if time is money. Who would I be without it? Free, relaxed, available to myself and to others, probably kinder, wiser and a whole lot gentler. What is a more truthful turn-around of this belief? “Time is time” is one, and “time is mine” is another. How does my experience shift when I live from this turnaround? Life seems a whole lot more exciting and peaceful to me.

Try these questions out on a belief that you may be holding about money. You may discover a sense of relief when you contemplate these four questions – maybe you even are able to laugh at your crocodile a bit. You may discover a sense of freedom. No longer believing these authentic-self-denying money stories, you may start to see life, including money, from a wider aperture, from which you are able to discern wiser, more self-respecting and more compassionate choices – for example, to work with money, as opposed to working for money.

I have listed below a few possible turnarounds for common, authentic-self-denying money stories that may help inform a fresh perspective on money. If you like, play with them, use what you find useful, and discard the rest.

Crocodilian Beliefs about Money Possible More Truthful Turnarounds
Time is money Time is time.

Time is mine.

My net-worth equals my self-worth My net-worth has no relationship to my identity.

My self-worth has always been and will always be and is not dependent on outside circumstances. I simply am.

People that have less are less I hurt myself when I see others as less because I am not seeing from Truth.

Less and more is part of a game that has no bearing on reality. A small tree is no less than a big tree and vice versa.

People that own more own me I am my own steward.

Nobody owns anyone else.

I am free to be myself as long as I give myself and others permission to be themselves.

When I have enough money, I will start living my authentic life. Living inauthentically is real poverty.

I always have been and always will be enough, regardless of time and money.

My true self can work with money but cannot be fed or starved by it.

Living inauthentically is real poverty.

I always have been and always will be enough, regardless of time and money.

My true self can work with money but cannot be fed or starved by it.

Living truthfully may be what true abundance is about. Committed to living truthfully, we may discover a sense of self-respect and fullness inside of us that have always been there. We can learn to live from this wholesome place and make choices from it, by questioning and letting go of beliefs that may have fooled us into feeling poor and insufficient on the inside.

With the inner sense of lack and insufficiency fading into the background we may feel less drawn to and therefore less controlled by money, the commonly accepted validator of our time. We no longer play our life away for money. We deeply respect our truthful selves and take really good care of ourselves and each other, no longer being fooled by the money monster.

Hylke Faber serves as a leadership coach and facilitator and leads the coaching organizations, Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His first book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear & Become a True Leader, was released in May 2018 and was soon selected as one of Bloomberg’s 10 Best Books on Leadership in 2018. Through his ongoing collaboration between Constancee and Columbia Business School Executive Education, Taming Your Crocodiles has become the curriculum cornerstone for Hylke’s sought-after online learning series, Leader as Coach.