#33: The six financial stress responses: what's yours?
3rd May, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that faces its fears.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that given money can be stressful, and we respond to stress in individual ways, it pays to personalise your preparation.
Roy de Maistre, Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor, 1919
Money is stressful. We respond to this stress with predictable, mostly unhelpful, patterns. Our responses get no better when we stay blind to their brain-pattern nature. But we can train our brains, improve our responses, and make stress instructive, not destructive.
My life got better when I learned that there were not two instinctive stress responses (‘fight’ or ‘flight’) or even three (‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’), but six. Felicitations, ‘fawn’, ‘fatigue’, and ‘flood’; welcome to the club.
I am a fatiguer.
Understanding this upped my productivity, and even improved my squash game.
When faced with work that required the brain to be on, my body’s typical response was to tell me I needed a nap. Something inside me tried to pass this off as self-care, but given that without the work I was usually ready to run around like a child on Christmas morning, this always felt like a con.
A similar thing happened when being outsmarted on the squash court. Why, when others could summon up so much fight they smashed racquets and sometimes heads into walls, did I tell myself that it just wasn’t my day, and start looking forward to the post-game stretch, often after only a handful of points? The con this time was to call it stoic, when all along it was actually stress.
I’d spotted the correlations, but the stress-response label made the connection.
Now, when my body suggests a nap, I can double-check: ‘am I tired, or terrified?’ I can then override the instincts that, like an overprotective mother, believe they’re nurturing growth, when really they’re stopping it. Before too long, they stop being so instinctual.
In the intro to the book, I note that whatever we’re doing with money, we reliably do it not only worse than we could, but in a way that compounds stressful thoughts, rather than eases them.
And in this bit, I explain how our self-deceptive belief that money is a cold, detached number rather than an integral and deeply emotion-laden part of our life’s narrative, leads us irresponsibly astray.
We forget how emotional money is, so we don't change. As French philosopher-monk Matthieu Ricard explains, ‘When we emerge from that moment of blindness during which we are completely in the grip of a strong emotion, and our mind has been freed from its disruptive emotional burden, it is hard to believe that an emotion had dominated us to such an extent.’
We do dumb shit when stressed. But when we reflect on our mistakes – and see only the expression, not the underlying wiring – we simply don’t believe we could be that silly. So we end up doing the same dumb shit again, and again, and again. We don’t learn from our mistakes, because we’ve made a further mistake in mis-identifying the actual mistake.
Seeing your personal financial stress response more clearly is the first step to getting unstuck from repetitive and debilitating dumbassery.
(For the benefit of those who’d otherwise stop scrolling here, the second step, for which the first is a prerequisite, is dramatically more important. Keep going!)
Because money is so darn emotional, wherever money is thought about, one of these responses tends to be on show. It’s worth noting that your financial stress response needn’t be the same as your ‘typical’ stress response in other domains.
1. Fight – You aggressively make money the ends, not a means. Everything to do with money is about ‘winning’. Money, even if you’ve got millions, is a constant fight that you choose anew every day, despite the fact you can’t win a battle that never ends. Your money-based model of success is a straight-line down which you gallop as quickly as possible (with blinkers firmly in place. Make more first, ask questions later.
2. Flight – You denounce money as evil. You want nothing to do with it, even though unless you decide to go live as a hermit, or a Smurf, this isn’t something you can control. Flight does not indicate a lack of energy: you’re still running, just in the opposite direction. Mental suppression is subconscious superglue. The only people that get as energised about money than those that denounce it are those that worship it.
3. Freeze – When faced with a money decision, you spin in mental circles, but take no physical action. For example, you know you should invest, but you stay in cash. Where the flight person refuses to even engage with the concept of investing, you’ve engaged to the point of acknowledging its potential, but are paralysed. You continually think about it, but do nothing.
4. Fawn – You submit to an adviser. In a testimonial for their website, you even praise them for taking all the decision-making stress away from you (and lo! how much more common this is than testimonials praising an adviser for being so good they make themselves redundant!). Sometimes this is wise. But it’s highly context-dependent. As I covered here, one study on financial decision-making showed that taking advice made people turn off the bit of their brains that thinks for themselves. In an industry still awash with cowboys and conmen, this is basically asking to be ripped off. ‘Trust, but verify’ requires being able to trust yourself to do the verification.
5. Fatigue – You put financial stuff off. You congratulate yourself for not ruminating – however much money ‘stuff’ you have going on, it never affects your sleep; in fact, it sends you to sleep. You don’t see this as a problem because naps are always good. Unlike the freeze people, you’re not paralysed. You do the bare minimum, but don’t engage. You don’t delay setting up a pension, for example, but you put working out what it’s actually all about on the ‘pretend I’ll do this later’ list. If you examine your spending, you use your credit-card company’s or your adviser’s cash-flow categorisations, rather than ones that are at all meaningful.
6. Flood – Finances trigger an emotional overwhelm. You try to engage, but every time end up deciding that you ‘can’t deal with this now’. This turns off your saner faculties and leaves you prone to manipulation, spending too much, and gambling it all on anything that looks like ‘the answer’. Perhaps the commonest manifestation of this is in money-based discussions between spouses.
All these responses are ways in which we crave certainty. This is part of why I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about how we can leverage the framework of Buddhist philosophy to get better at not doing this.
More directly, I think there are two main options for working with your stress response rather than simply succumbing to it and subsequently being beset by whatever silly things it leads you to do.
The first is that because a stress response is a response, we can choose it. Are you a freezer, but you’d rather be a fighter? In the same way the Maxims section of the book is designed to rewire your money worldview by helping you catch yourself doing one thing, and then choosing a better option, so you can catch yourself freezing, and remind yourself to fight (perhaps helped by some earlier environment control). Each time you do this, the next time gets easier until it happens automatically.
However, there’s another – much better – way. Because you don’t have to choose any of those six. There’s a heavenly seventh option.
Recognise what the reactive response is trying to do for you, thank it for its input, weigh it up, but follow it only when it feels wise to do so.
As I wrote here, emotions aren’t to be ignored. Rationality isn’t about not feeling. It’s about a more refined appraisal of inputs into our predictive model of our place in the world – and feelings are very much part of these inputs.
Give your stress a hug.
Embracing uncertainty is one thing, but embracing the demon that represents your attachment to it – perhaps even literally if you encounter it in a lucid dream or psychedelic journey – is quite another.
As with anything that involves cultivating clarity within your brain, this isn’t as difficult nor as daunting as it may first appear.
As I wrote in relation to the stressy couple in Idiot Money #4 whose substituting of money for meaning was leading them to spunk almost half a mill a year (and all sorts of emotional energy besides) on being worse parents, we should aim not for lower stress and lower shoulders, but for the sort of environment that ensures such things as side-effects.
And finally, be careful not to use being aware that you need to be aware with actually being aware. You do not become de-stressed by declaring you are, or even knowing how to become so.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh (and me in square brackets):
Mindfulness can only help reduce our stress and tension if it provides us with insight. Meditation isn’t just a temporary place of refuge to help you stop suffering for a while. It’s much more than that. Your spiritual practice has the power to transform the roots of your suffering [i.e. your self-deceptive wiring] and transform the way you live your daily life. It is insight that helps us calm our restlessness, stress, and craving.