Be Courageous Enough to Examine Your Feelings about Money. And Then Set Positive Goals

woman taking charge of her finances illustration

Photo credit: (treety)

Mollie West Duffy is an expert in organizational development, learning and development, and leadership development and coaching. She previously was an organizational design lead at global innovation firm IDEO and has helped advise and coach leaders and founders at companies including Casper, Google, LinkedIn, Bungalow, and Slack.

She is the co-author of the Wall Street Journal best-selling book about emotions at work: No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, and Big Feelings: How To Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay.

She spoke with us recently about applying her insights into big feelings to the big topic of money. 

Q: You’ve written the book on Big Feelings. And there are a lot of big feelings women have about money – especially in times of as much uncertainty as we are in. How can what you have learned about navigating uncertainty help women manage their finances during layoffs, bank collapse, and the looming threat of a recession? 

One of the things we often do when facing uncertainty – which is such a difficult emotion to sit with – is anxious fixing. We try to distract ourselves from how bad it feels to feel uncertainty and anxiety. And so we try to do things like clean our house or go through the mail, which feels like at least I’m being productive.’ But they prevent us from sitting with the emotion, and we need to sit with the emotion to learn from and move through it. 

So one thing to figure out is the specific ways you fix anxiety. Many people during the pandemic kept their houses clean because they feared what was happening outside. Just recognize those behaviors. 

Then, it’s cliché but try to figure out what is within your control and what is out. We call it the “withins and beyonds.” There is something helpful about making plans when in times of uncertainty. You may not be able to follow them. You may have to change them. But the act of making a plan can be helpful. 

Q: A recent survey has shown that 50 percent of women are fearful or avoidant regarding their finances. What do you think we’re afraid of – and how can we overcome that fear to better control our finances? 

I think it’s important to distinguish between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a general unease about an uncertain outcome. Fear is when we believe something specific is going to happen. In a personal finance context, there is fear about not having enough to retire or move out of the house. In some ways, those can be easier to deal with than generalized anxiety because, with generalized anxiety, you are thinking about 100 potential fears. So one of the strategies for coping with anxiety is to make it into specific concerns because those are easier to do everything I just talked about.

Q: Do you think perfectionism – which we know many women struggle with – also affects how we approach our finances? And if so, what can we do about that? 

Sure. Perfectionism can be paralyzing because we obsess so much about getting it right that we don’t take steps to move forward. If you are a perfectionist about where you invest your money or how you should be better at saving money, imagine how paralyzing that might be. 

So, first, understand that doesn’t serve you. Recognize, ‘I’m doing this thing, and it’s preventing me from moving forward.’ Understand where you learned perfectionism from. A lot of this goes deep emotionally. 

You can also replace avoidance goals with approach goals. Focus on achieving something positive instead of avoiding or preventing something negative. For example, rather than ‘I want to avoid running out of money,’ try ‘I want to save X amount of money.”

Q: Some women feel shame about carrying debt or not earning what they think they should be making, or not being knowledgeable enough about investments. Any suggestions? 

There’s a difference between shame and guilt that people often get confused about. Shame is when you attribute a flaw to who you are as a person rather than a behavior. Guilt is about a specific behavior. It’s about feeling like a bad person rather than having done a bad thing. Shame is harder. 

So it’s better not to think, ‘I’m a bad saver’ but ‘I just didn’t save last month.’ 

Q: Finally, let’s talk about how women can feel more empowered to take charge of their finances and feel more confident. What’s the secret to that? 

I’m thinking of a friend who has struggled with personal finances. She did an online course, and what was helpful for her was being in a structured program about taking specific steps. She built confidence in a safe environment in a structured way and got to practice over time with a group of supportive people who gave her feedback as went on. 

If I put my learning development hat on: As adults, one of the ways we build confidence is by practicing in a safe environment and getting feedback that we did well. Then we  internalize it. It’s hard for most adults to say objectively, ‘I’m good at this.’ We need feedback. 

Mollie West Duffy

Mollie West Duffy spoke at the 2022 Massachusetts Conference for Women