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First published:
20/03/2023

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Why debt can happen to anyone, and how shame can shape our relationship with money

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Many of those who are referred to our Mental Health and Money Advice service often tell us about their overwhelming sense of shame when they are facing financial difficulties.  

For Debt Awareness Week, we wanted to explore two aspects that are very much interlinked.  

Firstly, how debt can happen to anyone, and secondly, how shame can shape how we perceive and behave when facing debt issues. 

Debt Can Happen to Anyone

We rarely talk openly about the debt we owe, perhaps precisely because of the shame we feel and the anxiety that we may be judged for our debts. However, debt may be more common than we think. 

25 million people, half of all adults, are now in debt or worried about falling into debt. Nearly ten million people are heavily in debt. Credit card borrowing has increased at record rates and energy debts have topped £1 billion. (Source: https://debtjustice.org.uk/) 

There are many different kinds of debt. Depending on your financial situation, these may be manageable with payment plans and savings. However, as the cost-of-living crisis continues, we may find ourselves in debt as a means of living payday to payday. Overdrafts, student loans, hire purchase agreements, “buy now pay later” agreements and credit cards all offer tantalising ways to ignore the immediate purchase cost, but they can introduce debts that soon stack. 

This means that, especially with the cost-of-living crisis, debt may be more common than ever and, while we don’t talk about it, it may be that the people you know are likewise struggling to pay off their debts. 

While debt might be common, it doesn’t have to control us. Take this free debt health check questionnaire, brought to you by MoneyHelper, for advice to help deal with debt. 

Even so, our financial situations can make us feel ashamed and afraid of seeking help. Even knowing that debt can happen to anyone, our shame may feel unavoidable.

How Shame Shapes Our Relationship With Money

Shame by its definition is "an uncomfortable feeling of guilt; of being ashamed because of your or someone else’s behaviour or situation." (Cambridge Dictionary)

Shame can be felt with different levels of intensity and is at the very core of someone’s identity and self-worth. All of us would have experienced shame from a young age, perhaps the first time we were teased by a sibling, or the first time we were reprimanded in front of others. 

The experience of shame can make people avoidant and withdraw into themselves, as talking about it often intensifies the associated negative feelings. People might also be reminded of other experiences of shame, bringing other painful memories and emotions to the surface. 

Money is so closely connected to our identity that we can feel shame about many aspects, such as our income levels, size of savings, number of outgoings, accessing benefits and various payment schemes, overspending, not paying your way, and where you can afford to shop.  

Your relationship with money is firmly rooted in the beliefs you formed during childhood – where you first began to appreciate the significance of money. Right from childhood we learnt the amount of money at our disposal wasn’t within our control and we had to negotiate and balance what we wanted with what was available.  

Shame can feel inescapable, but it doesn’t have to be. Through talking to others, seeking therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and self-care focused on reversing our feelings of shame, we can begin to lead a life free from shame. 

Check out the following self-care tips for ways you can begin to challenge shame around money. If you think you need extra help, though, you can talk to your doctor about counselling centred around shame and self-belief. 

Self-Care Ideas for Debt and Shame

  • Reflect on your relationship with money when you were growing up.

    Understanding how money was talked about at home and managed as a family could help you to appreciate your approach to money and help you to modify unhelpful behaviours.

  • Is shame helping you move to a better place with money?

    Very often, shame can create a vicious cycle of avoidance which only serves to make matters worse. If you can identify what shame is keeping you from, you may feel more prepared and confident to change the way you manage money.

  • Be kind to yourself.

    No matter what has led you to be in debt, don’t forget that you are not alone. Half of all adults are either in debt or worried about falling into debt. As the cost-of-living crisis has shown, we cannot control certain aspects that cause us to be in debt, such as rising household bills. Plus, we all make mistakes with money. Any mistakes we have made are learning experiences for the future.

  • What is within your control?

    We are all subject to events that are beyond our control such as increased taxation, redundancies, separation from a partner, etc. There are many factors influencing the flow of our income and outgoings. Focusing on what is within your control will help motivate and empower you further to make the changes within your power.
     
  • Try to feel comfortable talking about money.

    Although keeping money matters to yourself might feel more comfortable, it can often compound the negative feelings you have towards it. Taking that first step to reach out to a trusted partner, family member, colleague or even a helpline can be daunting, but you may experience a great sense of relief once you have shared what you are going through. 

The Mental Health and Money Advice service contains tips and advice for managing money, seeking welfare benefits, and general mental health care, so, no matter what, remember that you are not alone and there is no need to be ashamed.  

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