Shame Over Money Lost and Found

by Susan B. Miller

I have defined shame in the past as a word that “designate(s) a family of related emotions. Each member of the family is characterized by an experience of the self as inadequate, or at least in disarray, thus not comfortably exposable to others; also present is the urge to hide, silence, vacate, or instantly reform the disturbed self.” Money lost and money gained are both fertile ground for shame.

Jesse Sugarmann, Production still, "We Build Excitement"

Money that is lacking or lost comes to mind readily when we think of shame’s links to currency.  Since shame is an emotion of comparison that speaks of inferiority, of being less than, once we define the acquisition of money as the attainment of personal value, to be short on money or moneyless can be shameful. If amassing money is seen as a sign of intelligence, efficacy, or power, its absence signifies the absence of these qualities. When moneylessness translates into specific incapacities — the inability to have possessions others have, to engage in experiences others do, to supply one’s children as others might — shame attaches to money-absence by way of those inabilities. We encounter people who are ashamed of poverty itself, of the raw fact of having little money, and those who are ashamed of specific effects of being poor or having insufficient money to do a particular thing, such as join a golf club, buy fashionable clothing, or send a child to private school.

Shame about moneylessness can be intensified by fear that others will resent having to cover her costs and will see her with hostility and contempt. She becomes an adult ‘dependent,’ generally felt to be a shameful status that evokes associations with freeloaders and deadbeats. Even when moneylessness and its associated dependency are not the individual’s fault, the need for an adult to depend financially on others evokes feelings of being childlike, not in fact an adult, and subtly or substantially deficient. Keeping large populations of people in a state of financial dependency, whether as housebound women, indentured servants, or slaves, serves to degrade them and shrinks self-esteem and self-confidence. The diminished group has difficulty acting to challenge its infantilized position. Financially dependent groups sometimes are high status, for example Orthodox Jewish scholars whose work is to study Torah, or royalty who depend on servants. High status and the associated pride are conferred by the surrounding society, which elevates the person and states that they are above work rather than being incapable of productive work. Without the society’s willingness to provide financial and emotional support, the arrangement would collapse.

Shame linked to the presence of ample money is less obvious and seemingly more complex than shame when money is lacking. As with the absence of money, the presence of money is emblematic in a variety of ways, some of which are shameful.

At times, shame attaches to the determination to amass money rather than invest in something with higher intrinsic value. The person is seen, and may see himself, as having inferior values or wrong-headed priorities. The person ashamed of what he perceives as an ‘indecent’ love of money might change the television channel if a roommate comes in while he is watching a show detailing a five-point-plan for getting fabulously rich. The wish is seen as gluttonous. As with food-related gluttony, one is amassing or consuming much more than one needs.

Any time money is detached from work, there is potential for shame. For example, the person who inherits a great deal of money may feel superior, but he or she is just as likely to feel ashamed of the childlike status of having riches handed over, without personal effort or merit. Stolen money is similarly detached from work and, in addition, carries the taint, often shameful, of a moral breach.

Holding tight to one’s money, and feeling the strength of one’s grip, can bring about shame. Taking a tight hold is an act of clinging or desperation, thus it can connote a weak and needy person. One holds on when one cannot do without, so the stingy person lacks independence, confidence, and flexibility. One holds on because, even in wealth, one feels too close to the state of having too little.  One foresees a state of poverty or relative lack.

To what is one clinging when one clutches one’s money? A variety of possibilities exist since money gained can signify many situations. Money retained can signify protection against literal or figurative poverty, both of which frighten. Or it can signify personal worth, at times in the form of a simple equation that argues that the greater the net worth, the greater the personal worth. Holding money also can be about the act of holding, not the money held. In this case, the person who experiences self-discipline by virtue of holding her money may also try to hold her figure by restraining her appetite, or she may hold her laughter. Many acts of holding tight will give form to her personality.

A woman vacationing in Cuzco, Peru spotted a particularly beautiful textile in the open-air market. She had spent more money than felt right to her, but she wanted the textile. She therefore offered the elderly woman seller a paltry sum, thus trying to hold tight to her money while also acquiring the textile. The seller tried to substitute lower-quality textiles she would sell for the modest sum, but the shopper did not want those. She wanted the fine textile, but did not want to spend more money, not because she could not afford it but because her self-regard was at risk over such weak self-control. She held to her low offer until the seller, apparently needing to bring home some money from the day’s market, agreed to sell the fine fabric for the insufficient sum. Later, the woman purchaser felt shame over her actions and she never fully enjoyed the fabric. She knew the fabric was worth more than she paid, and she had sensed the seller’s desperation, but her own need to discipline her spending had been too great to override. She now felt ashamed that she had cheated and deprived the seller out of her own desperation for self-control. She had traded the (potential) shame over letting loose her appetite for the fabric, for the shame of sacrificing human decency.

Arrogant use of money to convey power and special status is likely driven by pride felt during the behavior. Others witnessing the behavior may perceive such use of money as flaunting and find it shameful or disgusting, because it conveys feeling entitled to a superior status vis-a-vis others, and thus conveys poor character, but the person engaged in the behavior will likely not feel shame at all. The prideful behavior, of course, may be a defense against a great vulnerability to shame.

Susan Miller, "Untitled"
Susan Miller, “Untitled”

Another interface between shame and money involves the partnering of shame and disgust as emotions that are often responses to the same situation. William Ian Miller (1997) says of disgust, “The generator of disgust is generation itself, surfeit, excess of ripeness.” The word ‘surfeit’ has relevance to the world of money; we think of some people as “dripping with” money, or “oozing” money in that any time they present themselves, they present their money, so that money is like a garish garment, or an overly perfumed state in which one shows oneself to the world. Others may view such a person, in his excess, as disgusting or shameful, depending on the observer’s point of view. If the person is seen as distant and his actions as alien to the observer, disgust will be the emotion, and disgust will reinforce alienation. If the person is seen as proximate to the self and living within the sphere of identification (a colleague perhaps, or a neighbor), he — or his behavior — is more likely to be seen as shameful. If shame prevails, the emotion suggests that the person is making a choice to cover himself in money and parade it, and that choice is a shameful one. The person “oozing money” will likely not feel shame unless his behavior is fueled by alcohol, stress, or some other basis for an altered state. If that is the case, returning to his normal state may bring a view of the drunken excess as shameful.

The repulsively wealthy are at the opposite end of the continuum from the impoverished. The latter is bare, stripped, naked, empty, lightweight. The one dripping with wealth makes sure he is never bare or lightweight. However, he runs the risk of being excessive, unrestrained, tasteless.

Shame means feeling small in comparison to others and in the eyes of others. It can occur in a great many circumstances, and lacking money is one such circumstance. The possession of money can also bring shame or elicit in others the view that one’s behavior is shameful.

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