This piece originally appeared on Forbes
You’re in a meeting, and a client offers feedback on a project. It’s generally positive, with a few logical criticisms. You agree to implement the changes — and then you retreat to your office, feeling uneasy. Instead of working, you sit at your desk wondering whether you’ll lose your job and how long your savings will hold out before you need to sell your house.
Sound familiar? Fear and anxiety caused by financial stress negatively impacts the workplace in record numbers. In fact, recent research from Willis Towers Watson shows that 59 percent of employees feel disengaged at work due to money worries.
Financial stress is indeed real and can have a serious impact on your ability to focus, perform at your job, and frankly, on your health. In fact, financial stress holds its grip on us, even when we know how to manage money, because we’re not getting at the root of the issue. Most financial advice involves planning and managing. We’ll be calmer if only we invest smarter, save more, or budget better. Right? But this just isn’t true. Even the wealthiest people suffer from financial stress. It doesn’t matter how much you have in the bank; what matters is how you think about money.
The truth is, many of us approach it with terror. I call this “Bag Lady Syndrome,” and it comes from a real place. Our stress response dates from primal times, when we were either hunted or hunters. We’re hardwired to crave safety, which in modern terms means money.
In order to enjoy financial freedom and security, we need to examine our inner relationship with money—our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.
Step One: Confront Your Thoughts
We have around 6,000 thoughts per day, most of which we repeat. For many of us, those thoughts revolve around worst-case financial scenarios: My client gave me criticism—what if I lose my job? What if I drain my savings account, tap out my retirement funds, and end up on the street?
Emotion-driven “thinking traps” fuel these thoughts, instead of logic. We jump to pessimistic but improbable scenarios, like ending up homeless. Or we overgeneralize, taking one piece of information (a tidbit of criticism) and turning it into an overarching statement—that we’ll get fired.
The solution: Break the thinking chain. Next time you spiral into a trap, ask, “Do I have evidence to support this theory? What’s the probability that this awful result will actually happen based on this single event?”
Step Two: Understand Your Emotions Around Money
Now think, really think, about your relationship with money. Does checking your bank balance fill you with panic? Do you often feel jealous of other people’s perceived wealth? Do you avoid thinking about budgeting because it makes you insecure? The goal is to become aware of your feelings so that you, not your emotions, dictate your reactions. Otherwise, even an unrelated event—like a stressful meeting—becomes tied to your financial fear.
The solution: Think about how changing your feelings around money would improve your life. Why do you want to change? What specific emotion do you want to squelch? Pinpointing your “why” makes implementing the change that much easier.
Step Three: Change Your Belief Patterns
Now that you’ve defined your thoughts and emotions, it’s time to confront your beliefs. All of us hold long-term “iceberg beliefs” around money. These are the core stories we’ve told ourselves about money from a young age, and they directly but unconsciously affect our adult behavior. Examples of financial iceberg beliefs are “Money is the mark of success” or “We’re not good with money in our family.” It’s these beliefs that drive us to give all our money away, spend until we’re in debt, or save every penny and still not feel as though there’s enough. Only when we uncover our deepest beliefs about money can we dislodge destructive patterns.
The solution: Recognize when a belief serves you and when it undermines you. If your financial icebergs are undermining you, begin to challenge them when they rear their head. Is it really true that we’re not good with money in our family. Just because my parents weren’t, doesn’t mean I have to be that way, as well.
Retirement planning and budgeting is important. But only when we understand our money mindset, uncover our personal financial values, and confront the beliefs that drive our stress will we achieve lasting peace of mind. These skills, more than any other, drive our financial freedom. It’s not just about budgeting or investing. It’s about resilience.