In many of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts comic strips, Linus’ security blanket is prominently featured. Linus loves his blanket, carries it everywhere, often while sucking his thumb, and is not embarrassed by it. He cannot survive without it and really suffers when it is being washed. However, in strips from the later years, Linus seems to want to get rid of it, even though he knows he is a mess without it and the illusory comfort it has come to represent.
Several times a week I hear a client say some variation of this:
For me, money represents security. Having money means being secure; not having money means that at any given moment my whole life could come crashing down.
I talk clients off the ledge weekly about their (typically unfounded) fear of impending financial ruin, no matter whether the amount in their bank account is in the hundreds, thousands or millions of dollars.
A small child tucked in their bed at night doesn’t feel safe if they believe there is a monster hiding in the closet. But, the consistent, reliable, warm embrace of a mother’s hug may make a child feel safe. We all know that a mother’s (and father’s) love alone is not enough to protect her child from the world which surrounds them, but it does go a long way toward creating that sense of safety that they will carry into the world with them.
Only when we are certain of our emotional and physical protection are we – in effect – SAFE. So where does security come into play?
Think of SECURITY as if it were the overarching umbrella protecting our SAFETY.
Let’s take a look at how money and security became tied together in one of my client’s brains and see if it mirrors how you feel.
Like many people who begin to equate money with security, Mark formed an association between security and money early in life.
When Mark was a child, his father was consumed by financial worries. His father put in long hours, often traveling for his work. When he wasn’t working, Mark’s father was depressed and irritable, worrying about not having enough money.
When his father was earning what he thought was “enough” money, there was a sharp reduction in tension and the subtle but palpable sense of impending doom that permeated family life. Not only were there new toys, but sometimes Mark’s father would actually relax, smiling and laughing with the children, take them to a movie or tell them stories. That’s when Mark felt most secure.
Over a period of years, Mark absorbed the fearful energy that emanated from his father about never having enough money. It had undermined his sense of security and evolved into his own dream of someday having a lot of money.
Mark tells me that when he has enough money he won’t have to worry any more. He thinks then he will be free of this insecurity and fear that plagues him.
In attempting to cope with the anxieties of life and never having developed the solid sense of inner security that comes from feelings of trust and dependency gratification from people, Mark narrowed his view of the world. He has focused his entire attention and energy on one aspect of it – money. Like Linus’ security blanked, Mark retreats from the anticipation of impending disaster (real or imagined) and relies upon the illusory protective power of more money to make himself feel safe.
The sad reality for Mark, and other “security collectors”, is that once money becomes the perceived source of your security, no amount of money is sufficient to allay the fears and provide enough security to stop pursuing the money. It matters little if the numbers are in the hundreds, thousands or millions. There is always the recurrent fear that tragedy could come along and wipe it all away which only adds to the person’s anxiety and distrust.
Not only does the money NOT reduce the feelings of emotional insecurity, but my clients like Mark admit that knowing others look up to them, providing them with respect and admiration, makes them LESS willing to allow themselves to seek avenues to satisfy their needs for emotional security. Instead, they discover that using money as the measure of security fuels their fear and suspicion of others. The more money they acquire, the more they worry about losing it. And the fear of losing it makes them even less able to enjoy it, setting up a cycle of becoming ever more defensive rather than relaxed, thinking that when they have “enough” THEN they will relax.
Instead, they become further deprived of social pleasure and connection, ignore their physical symptoms, often sacrificing their physical needs to their financial compulsion. The preoccupation with money leads them to work longer hours, even when it means enduring intense fatigue. Happiness, relationships and health all suffer as they become secondary to the illusory security of money which they continue to pursue.
Many of these talented, well-resourced professionals suffer from a persistent poverty complex – I consistently hear a panicky distorted fear that they will end up eating cat food while living in a van down by the river.
Where Does This Fear Come From?
If the dependency upon parents or others in authority does not provide a feeling of protection and safety, the child learns to distrust people and seeks something else to rely upon. While Linus turned to his blanket, frequently, that something else is money. If having money reduces anxiety by making the person feel less dependent upon others, money may replace people as the preferred source of security.
Without basic trust, safety and security is impossible and responsible adulthood is impossible. Children who grow up with inadequate emotional and relational security become anxious and insecure and feel incapable of dealing with a world that feels overwhelming, overpowering and threatening. Which leads them to seek an alternate form of security; like Linus’ blanket, money becomes the thing they use to soothe themselves.
People who develop a sense of distrust are constantly on guard to protect themselves from getting hurt – physically, psychologically, or financially. Originally the fear is most likely physical – the fear of physical pain and suffering, possibly even the fear of death. Very real for a child who is dependent upon adults. Next the fear my be psychological – the fear of rejection, loss of love, humiliation and the like. Eventually, however, as the person depends more and more on money for ego satisfaction and security, the fear of FINANCIAL loss becomes paramount and mimics those same physical symptoms of fear. Preoccupation with the threat of losing one’s means of security does not create an environment conducive to pleasure, instead they end up substituting a psychological payoff to ease the anxiety and end up creating a cost to the self in unhappiness and emotional damage.
In one series of strips, Lucy uses Linus and his blanket as a science fair project. She shows how Linus gets dizzy, nauseous, and eventually passes out when he is deprived of his blanket. Have you ever felt like that when you got anxious about money?
People like Mark who are security obsessed are consistently turning a distrust of people into the trust of money and trying to find a feeling of safety in money to offset a feeling of emotional insecurity.
The most sinister aspect of using money as your source of security is what you’re unwittingly doing to your kids. When you convince yourself that there’s no harm in allowing money as your substitute for emotional security/relational connection, never forget that they are watching and learning about the world from you.
What parent hasn’t responded to a child’s complaint about how much the parent is working … “Yeah, well where do you think the money comes from for this roof over your head, the food in your belly (or fill in the blank)?”
The message your child receives as they watch you is “If I didn’t have to provide for you/your future, I wouldn’t have to work so hard.” It is unintentionally shaming and leaves their plea for connection with you unmet, showing them that the true source of security they can rely upon is what you provide through money and things, not affection, time, attachment. Even when you think you are indulging them, they receive the underlying message that money is what matters and on what they can depend most. Your children learn to deny themselves the security of connection in favor of money as their substitute sense of security.
When the amount of affection is in short supply because of time, family conflict or detachment, kids turn away from people as the source of affection and security, and seek gratification in the collecting of things/money. They learn early on that they cannot depend upon their parents for consistent, reliable relational security as they are given things instead of love/time and so their sense of identity begins to come from attachment to possessions. Dozens and dozens of my clients admit to attaining their sense of purpose and warding off the feelings of isolation and loneliness by pursuing money. Money has become safer than people because it can’t abandon you, make you angry or make demands upon you.
They admit that their primary goal is not to become happy or successful (although that’s what they tell the world) – it’s to be safe. The answer to all their problems is to get more money which will make them impervious to any potential catastrophe. When they feel anxious or threatened in any area, they seek security by increasing their money supply.
The problem can’t be solved with money, it’s about trust. And it’s not about trusting someone with their money, it’s about trusting someone with their emotional safety. But, repeatedly they withdraw from people, putting their trust in money. They resist becoming dependent upon people, hiding their craving for dependency and connection. They view people as being unreliable and undependable, insisting instead that money can always be relied upon. People can reject or abandon, but they can hang onto money.
These same brilliant professionals tend to continue to lodge themselves in the trap, so it becomes increasingly difficult to get out of it. Despite any pretense to the contrary, money is more important to the security collector than people. Money becomes an aspect of almost every decision they make. Not only is it a consideration, it becomes the primary consideration.
How to Find Real and Lasting Security
It’s not hopeless, but to be certain it is difficult to break out of this trap because it’s long rooted and socially sanctioned. Having learned to reduce anxiety and vulnerability by relying on money, not people, means shifting the dynamic around trust – and choosing trustworthy people who value relational and emotional connection and safety.
Since relying on money seems to work, and is in its way reassuring, it becomes self-reinforcing – although it is an illusion. Having learned how to relate to people in ways that ensure they will appear as untrustworthy as you believe them to be, you must watch for the unconscious motive to justify and perpetuate the distrust.
My client, Richard, is a prime example. After 40 years of instilling in his children the idea that money is the only thing in the world that can be trusted, and therefore should be accumulated at all costs, Richard learned that he was dying. He bitterly bemoaned the fact that his children’s only interest in him seemed to be related to their inheritance. He took no pride in the fact that they had learned so well the lesson he sought to teach them.
It takes time to learn to trust others, to return the focus on relational safety. Trusting, becoming involved, loving, being dependent, needing – these all involve risk. The person who devotes every waking moment to being safe essentially avoids living. One of the unexpected benefits of developing trust in others is an increased trust in yourself and your abilities to cope effectively with the problems of everyday living.
Reclaiming intimacy with others after one has been hiding behind the illusory security fortress of money is not simple or comfortable. The alternative, however, is the annihilation of one’s humanness and its replacement with the empty, dehumanized despair that comes from trying to find emotional nourishment and satisfaction in things.
Of course, you could always just buy a nicer blanket.