What’s it really worth, anyway…?

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

While conversing with a colleague recently, discussing the progress and vagaries of her doctoral dissertation and the general trends of the day, I began to think about the financial triage that has come to redefine daily life for so many people impacted negatively by the dismal economic environment in which we all find ourselves bobbing like corks.  Essentially, almost everyone.

Red boat with blue sails
Red boat with blue sails

I considered the nascent adjustments that began so calmly, benign tactical maneuvers designed to permit the fiscal boat to sail gently over the approaching swell.  As months passed, it was clear that slight sea rise had lurched upward to the heights of a rogue tidal wave, and the boat in which we were sailing was no more substantial than a rubber dinghy.  Subtle, voluntary adjustments became mandatory, and as the situation worsened, so did the constraints.

Some shopping.  No shopping.  Only necessities.  No dining out.  Only on weekends.  Only coffee. No coffee.  Definitely movies.  Only good movies.  Only rentals.  Absolutely no gifts. Only for the kids.  Cancel the trip.  Sell the house.

As the economy continued to flounder, the surface of its sea strewn with capsized vessels, urgency increased as wordless anxiety mounted.  If titanic Wall Street companies and banks are sinking, what’s going to happen to us, we whispered to each other late at night.  Survival seemed to hang precariously over a cavernous maw like a teetering tightrope walker.

Gas and medicine.  Gas or medicine.  Food or medicine.  Only food.  Only medicine.   Only if you’re bleeding…  Lose the house.

Changing currency, changing values

Shocked to have witnessed carefully tended bursaries shrivel and deflate like yesterday’s party balloons, even the most carefully tended portfolios are diminished.  A patient, concerned about the reliability of his investments, remarked that his proverbial glass, no longer half full or half empty, had shattered completely.

Carefully designed protocols reflecting prescribed cultural and familial beliefs about money are followed with almost magical precision in an effort to avoid deadly missteps that might trip any of the financial landmines scattered along the rutted economic highway.  What is curious is just how these choices reveal underlying individual and cultural attitudes about money.  As financial exigencies strip away pretence, ambivalence and the distorted tendency to equate money with human worth has been exposed.

Formerly valued (perhaps overvalued) objects and diversions have been jettisoned like unwanted ballast.

The Hummer, symbol of ghastly excess, has been revealed as the automotive buffoon it always was.  You can’t give them away.

Perhaps the lovely antique passed down in the family became more cherished.  The other day, when one of my cats missed the litter box, instead of reprimanding her as she scampered under the bed, I said, “Thank you.  I’m glad you’re alive.”

As an analyst, I use the psychological currency of random current events as opportunities to examine the mental life of individuals along with the cultural mores that define our collective communal mind.  Each impacts and shapes the other.  The individual mind is formed by the cultural context in which it develops and in turn, it shapes its cultural surround.  Conscious exploration facilitates critical thinking and productive problem solving.

Emotions in the unconscious mind

Floating beneath the liquid, reflective surface of the mind, just out of conscious awareness and hidden from view, our idiosyncratic emotional topography waits to be mapped like the sea floor.


The pylons of emotional life are embedded deep within the silt of early experiences, buried long before language skills were acquired, when feelings and bodily sensations were fused.  To understand how we think and feel, we must dredge the soft sand.  Surely within each of us is buried a chest filled with both jewels and bones.  Language becomes our drill bit.

We each have strong personal feelings about money and what it symbolizes.  These ideas and emotions inform how we relate to wealth, poverty, riches, investments, spending and saving.  For the emotionally empty, money is used to compensate for insecurity, signifying (false) stature and personal value.  See my pretty label?  Don’t you think I’m important now? Conspicuousness masquerades as distinction.

Distorted financial values

Our culture has its face so deeply submerged in the celebrity slag heap that crisp journalism has all but disappeared.

The historical significance of Robert McNamara’s death was effaced by the pervasive pop culture noise about Michael Jackson’s ignominious death.  As a result of amassing great wealth, celebrities are facilely imbued with superlative attributes they couldn’t possibly possess.

For the emotionally healthy, money is a tool, a means to an end, a useful commodity, a basic necessity that is intrinsically distinguished from personal identity.  A woman who could afford to drive a Jag may prefer a Prius, because her inner identity is not linked to her possessions.  She needn’t convince others that she’s worthwhile.

The salient point is less about what she drives (that’s a personal choice, and Jags are very pretty) and more about how she defines herself.  I’ve always thought that if I couldn’t drive an old Bentley, a Toyota would do nicely, and I’ve never regretted my choice.

Most of us embody a combination of healthy and not so healthy ideas about money.  Each of us has a mental boundary that distinguishes fundamental financial subsistence from more comfortable circumstances.  Within our minds we hold symbolic commodities or financial templates that represent success and security or prosperity and failure.  For some, success is a starter-castle, for others a cozy cottage.  For some, success may mean not being burdened with property ownership at all.


From an analytic perspective, actual buildings are external placeholders for our beliefs and ideas; they have no emotional value beyond what we give them.  A dream about a house is often a dream about the mind and its contents, as it provides a home for our ideas, beliefs and personalities.  These elements, the raw materials of our very selves, deserve our active attention.

A realtor once remarked that a house is “only worth what you can get for it when you sell it.  The loss of a home represents the loss of safety and permanence and memories and hopes.  That is unquantifiable.  The yurt destroyed during an earthquake in a remote third world country is mourned as grievously as the beach-front shack in Malibu.  Its emotional value is incalculable.

Money can’t provide emotional safety

Though everyone harbors fantasies about the specific objects and goods or services that signify absolute refuge – economic ground-zero – financial amplitude boasts a measure of security that far exceeds what it can actually purchase.  Beyond the necessary basics and some pleasurable flourishes, it just cannot deliver emotional impermeability.  It cannot protect us from emotional incursions.

For example, while money can buy an image, it cannot purchase an authentic identity.  Neither can it purchase love, though it can certainly purchase sex.  It’s also true that only a person who is in possession of abundant funds can be cavalier about it.  Penury is not virtuous; it’s horrendous, and I am not advocating the life of a renunciate.  I am exploring the emotional origins of our ideas and beliefs about money.

Mental health is negatively impacted

Our culture values bold profitability at the expense of almost everything else.

Mental health is so undervalued that insurance companies reimburse very little for life-changing treatment.  They are more willing to pay for pharmaceutical interventions, because in the long run, drugs are cheaper.  While they often produce beneficial symptom relief, they do not alter the interior emotional landscape that gave rise to the symptom in the first place.  Frequently, symptoms continue to pull like a strong undertow or simply return.

Drugs without therapy foreclose on the difficult but rewarding reflection that can lead to real change.  While they diminish discrete symptoms, they do not produce insight or confer enlightenment.  I’m sure you’ve seen the commercial for a drug that suggests that if you’re on antidepressant medication and still feeling depressed, you need more medication.  You need their medication.  What do we value? Do you want to swallow a pill in isolation, or do you want to sit with someone who will listen to you, who will care about your feelings?  I am asking you to consider what matters to you.

For baby boomers whose parents were traumatized children during the Depression, financial anxiety was unconsciously transmitted to them at great emotional cost.  The psychological damage they sustained is very tenacious and potent.  In essence, their unconscious beliefs about money were formed during a financial crisis that occurred decades before their birth.   They are retraumatized to find themselves confronting similar circumstances.

Exploring the life of the mind

For too many, money and love are strange and agitated bedfellows, making it difficult to differentiate wants from needs.  The near global bankruptcy we are both witnessing and enduring seems far more about diminished ethical substance than financial largesse or liquidity.

Ethical decisions are derived from mental organization; behavior is always the enactment of a belief or an idea.  Distorted judgment produces distorted behavior.

The medieval Persian poet and mystic, Rumi, observed that the where the mind wanders, behavior and, ultimately, destiny follow.  As a psychoanalyst, I would add that where the unexamined unconscious mind goes, destiny falters.

Jacques Lacan, the P.T. Barnum of psychoanalysis, proposed that we are defined by language before we are born.


He meant that, among other things, we are infused with the values of others before we have the capacity to decide for ourselves.  Without consciously examining our beliefs and values, we simply reenact the values of others, assuming automatically that they are intrinsically correct.

Family origins and psychological DNA

The lines that sketch the map of our unconscious lives delineate protuberances that probably resemble the faces of our ancestors.  We carry their psychological profiles as assuredly as we transport their DNA.  We are sculpted by them long before we realize we’ve been molded.  Psychoanalysis helps us distinguish the genuine “I” in “I am.”

Psychological maturity requires that we regularly assess our beliefs and ideas in an effort to selectively integrate, replace, adapt or discard them.

My computer occasionally asks me if I want to archive old documents.  Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.  We may decide that we like our parents’ political, financial and religious views, but if we automatically subscribe to them without thinking, we’re nothing more than automatons.  We are enslaved.

Have you defined your own value system or have you simply accepted what has been imposed on you by your culture or family?  Have you identified your emotional needs?  Have you willingly accepted substitutes?  How did you learn to accept replacements for what you really wanted?  For what you really needed?

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify and reevaluate your values and beliefs.

Please contact Dr.  Heller at www.mlheller.net


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