More Than Money
Issue #29

Money Changes Everything

Table of Contents

“Healing the Wounds of Wealth”

I'm from "old money" in California--fifth generation. In my experience, the main thing money changes is relationships. It does this by distorting true perception of oneself and others. This makes satisfying emotional connections elusive, and at times, impossible.

I grew up in a prominent family that was frequently in the public eye. As a child, I was keenly aware that others thought we "had it all"--an assumption that came with certain social expectations. For example, my mother's behavior was closely monitored in the newspaper gossip columns. One day an article in the San Francisco Chronicle made nasty remarks about how "cheap" the wealthy are, based on the fact that my mother was seen buying baby clothes at Sears and Roebuck. We curried even more unwanted attention when kidnapping threats were made against us children. To protect us, my mother built up a psychological and social fortress--an "Us against Them" mentality that money only helped to reinforce. We created an isolated, lonely, and protected world into which very few were admitted, because we had so much fear that we would be taken advantage of. I was taught to be vigilant and suspecting of others and their motives.

My father was socially prominent and "to the manner born," but financially poor. He married my mother for her name and inheritance, a confession he made to her on their honeymoon. This tragic beginning to the marriage fueled the family psychology that we were valuable only for the cash and social connections we could afford others. Even though I never fully believed this and, as a young girl, could discriminate some measure of truth from paranoia, this fear influenced many of my relationships. When I dated a guy "from the wrong side of the tracks" my mother would try to sabotage the relationship by telling me I was wanted only for my money. I felt socially secure with friends and dates from a similar background. However, when my work in the nonprofit sector engaged me with people from different socioeconomic classes, my fears of rejection we re so great that I often pretended I didn't have money. I created two separate lives: my private school friends who were always welcome at home, and my poorer friends whom my family rarely knew about. The fear of being negatively stereotyped as an insensitive, snobby, rich person, who couldn't possibly understand how regular people live, meant that I had few, if any, relationships in which I could share my whole self in trust and intimacy. It didn't matter that there was enormous suffering in my family--schizophrenia, alcoholism, suicide, and clinical depression, to name a few. When others knew my background, I was often met with, "Don't complain to me, I should be so lucky to have your problems!" I was constantly editing what I thought others could handle, always shaping the data to elicit the best response, all the while feeling that who I was, in total, was not okay.

When I was studying to become a psychologist, I learned that this profound sense of unworthiness is referred to as the narcissistic wound. It starts when parents don't love themselves enough, so it is impossible for them to foster healthy self-love and a sense of core identity in their children. Instead, they unconsciously pass on their "hole in the soul"--a deep belief that there is "nobody home." It feels like no self at the bottom of all the glitter, all the stuff, all the parties, all the "impression management," which the wealthy are so good at. One's whole life is organized around trying to avoid experiencing or having others discover this shameful secret. The combination of wealth and the narcissistic wound is especially pernicious, as money offers the false comfort of quelling the enormous pain experienced through this great emptiness of self. For many years, I couldn't find people with whom I felt safe enough to share my deepest suffering--so I looked to material substitutes to "mother" those howling parts of me that could find no comfort elsewhere. I used money not only to escape my pain and to feel better, but also to present a convincing image of myself as powerful, assured, and in control of my life--a grandiose compensation for what was, in fact, the opposite reality. I became addicted to this "false self," which money magnified, because of the admiration it inspired in others. Since I believed I had nothing positive to give, and the culture says what's positive and valuable is money, I constructed a reality that said, "I have this very powerful thing that everyone wants." It never occurred to me that not everyone wants it. That was my grandiose fantasy. It is quite common among the very wealthy. The money feeds that sense of inflation. Over time, I learned that this kind of praise, however, was empty, and left me feeling strangely outside of the human family--outside of real love.

I have spent most of my personal and professional life working with the narcissistic wound and its ramifications with regard to money, intimate relationships, spiritual development, and vocation. Oddly, my dark initiation with money launched me on an intensive healing journey that I wouldn't trade for anything, despite the pain. The fruit of this difficult passage is that I can now offer insight and encouragement to others, particularly those who have lived the tragically bizarre and loveless world of the narcissistically wounded wealthy. In many ways, I feel as though I've taken the shaman's journey through the pit of hell, but not without enormous grace and help. At eighteen I became a Christian because in Christ I sensed the possibility of God resurrecting the old, fear-ridden family attitudes into something totally new and grace-filled. I sensed real hope for change when in meditation one day I saw the wounds of Christ shot through with intense, white light--harbinger that healing comes through facing into our most intolerable wounds. I have found enormous hope and consolation in my spiritual path.

For me, transformation has come in slow, incremental changes, through psychological work and spiritual experience. These have allowed me to change enough so that I can reconnect with my family in small doses, with a different heart and a different being. Years of rage, pain, and disappointment have given way to a sense of possibility, grace, and forgiveness. One of my great lessons is that not everybody has to change in a family system. Similar to tilting a mobile, if just one critical piece moves, the whole system can rearrange itself on conscious and unconscious levels. Such is the case in my family. My relationship with my mother has gradually transformed into a positive exchange in which we are less focused than before on family pain and rehearsing the past. Twelve years ago we started a family foundation, through which we collaborate on spending generations of family money for non-narcissistic purposes--a venture that speaks to me of at least one small way in which our family system is being transformed. We have a long way to go, but much joy and increasing hope come with each new step.

- From a conversation with Pamela Gerloff


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