The Dynamics of Carrying Debt and the Shame it Creates

As I point out in Build Your Money Muscles, we create our life stories to act out habitual emotions that range from constable to uncomfortable. If you often find yourself experiencing uncomfortable situations, not that these can often be reversed when you  come to understand why you need them.

Because of my history of compulsive debting, I have had plenty of opportunities to examine the whys of debting. My father was a compulsive debtor and I  learned to use debting as a way of expressing many feelings that included shame, embarrassment, fear of abandonment, unworthiness and more.

First, let’s look at the dynamic of debting. In every debting relationship there is  obviously a debtor and a lender. Institutions, such as banks, make money when  they lend money, and so do individuals — sometimes. However, many individual  lenders have the same kind of emotional needs as debtors.

Here’s how it works: If I owe you money, then I know you aren’t going to forget  about me. If I have a strong fear of abandonment and feel alone, debting can help  me feel connected. Lending does the same thing.

However, debtors often feel ashamed and burdened by their debt, especially if  they have trouble with repayment, while lenders get a feeling of power and  control by giving the money and holding someone in debt. If the debt is not  repaid, then lenders get to act out abandonment, betrayal, mistrust, and a feeling  of being used.

I have a friend, who I’ll call Jim, who receives a comfortable income from a  trust fund. I’ve known Jim for many years and have heard story after story  about his lending money to “friends” who don’t repay the debt. Invariably, Jim  has to struggle to get repaid, sending series of angry letters that threaten legal  action. Occasionally, Jim does get his money back. More often, he doesn’t. After each episode, Jim swears that he’ll never do it again. The experiences leave him  feeling betrayed, used and abandoned — feelings that were familiar to him as a  child in an alcoholic household.

Now, back to the debtor: The people Jim lends money to mean well when they  borrow the money. Each promises to repay the debt within a certain period of  time. What happens when they don’t?  I can only guess — or perhaps project my own feeling from debting experiences I have had. I know that one of the most  prominent feelings that I felt as a result of debting was shame.

If you have serious debt, even if you are paying it back, there’s a chance that you feel shame about the debt. This shame is often the result of feelings that developed in early childhood that are now being acted out through finances.

You can eliminate the shame – and the debt – by doing the following:

  • Developing financial management skills and eliminating financial vagueness so that you feel in control of your finances. Invariably, when people develop these skills they feel empowered.
  • Getting in touch with the source of your habitual shame so you no longer need to act it out through your money.
  • Understanding that the debt you have incurred was because of something you did, not because there’s something wrong with you. No one is asking you to feel ashamed. Successful people often use debt to finance their projects, but don’t use debt as a focus of shame.
  • Talking about your debt was a trusted friend or credit counselor, in order to express your feelings and to develop a rational repayment plan.

For more information about dealing with financial shame, read about our audio Healing Your Financial Shame.