Money, Gremlins, and the Voices in My Head


Recently I did something I never thought I would do. I walked into the bank and made an appointment to see a financial planner.

For some people this is a very routine thing to do, but not for me. Simply put: I do not have a lot of money. I worked in non-profits for most of my career. I’ve made good decisions with money, and some not-so-good decisions with it. I spent three years with a non-traditional job where the money was inconsistent. I learned that I am not cut out for entrepreneurship. I am risk-averse, and during that time I developed a lot of fear around the ideas of money and finances. The taste of that fear lingers and even now, money is one of my least favourite subjects.

The idea of talking to someone about money—my money—on purpose was terrifying, but I finally got to the point were doing nothing felt worse. I gathered all of my courage and marched myself through the door. I went right after work on a day when I was wearing my favourite dress and felt as confident as possible. I walked up to the counter and asked for an appointment. I gave a brief description of the sorts of questions I had. The teller confirmed that I was a client and went ahead and made the booking.

Just like that.

About a week later I walked back into the bank with a folder full of numbers, a stomach full of butterflies and a mouth full of explanations. I went into the office, the agent pulled up my account and I started to pour out my story. This is where I was. This is where I am. This is what I’m worried about. These are my current payments and bills. Is there anything I can do?

I expected her to take one look at the numbers, laugh and throw me out. I tried not to flinch as the advisor took a closer look at my accounts and braced myself for the judgment I was sure was coming. I couldn’t stop trying to explain myself. She quickly turned to me with a smile.

“There are options,” she said, simply and without a single note of accusation. “We could move this. You could try this over here.”

She didn’t tell me that I was a screw up or chide me for not handling things better. She was really nice and really helpful. She said it was good that I came in and that there were definitely things we could do.

I walked out of her office stunned, but smiling.

Looking back, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world that a professional financial planner would act, well, professionally. Of course she wasn’t going to chide me. But I walked into her office expecting to be chastised and I wish I could figure out where that fear comes from.

As an adult I tend to take negative results as personal failures, whether there was anything I could have done to prevent it or not. It’s how I feel when the dentist finds a cavity or when the mechanic finds an issue with my car. I feel like I failed. I feel like I am a failure.

I don’t know why I am so willing to take the blame for things that are out of my control. I was raised with a certain amount of perfectionism, and some of this thinking is rooted in that. As for the rest of it? I do not have a history of being yelled at, but if I’m being honest, I do have a history of yelling at myself. Perhaps I expected the financial planner to be harsh because it’s exactly what I would have (and have) said to myself.

I’ve been listening to Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and she talks a lot about the tapes that play in our heads. Specifically she asks, “What are the gremlins saying?” It turns out, my gremlins yell. But the things they yell are not very original. They tell me I am less than and not enough. They say that anything bad that happens is my fault, but anything good is just a happy coincidence. They talk a lot of crap. They make it hard to take steps toward healing in all sorts of arenas and I am trying to learn to tune them out.

Here’s what I know: it’s hard to draw attention to the thing that isn’t going well. It’s much easier to push it to the back and hope that no one ever notices. But very few things improve with neglect. We don’t get better in the dark. When there’s guilt and shame in any circumstance it takes a great deal of courage to take a step toward a solution. But sometimes, that first step takes us most of the way to the finish line.