If you have money problems, there may be a number of clear-cut reasons. You don't earn enough. Your divorce put you through the financial wringer. You really shouldn't have taken up high-stakes gambling.
But sometimes there's another explanation that's hard to put your finger on until you suddenly realize it. Maybe you're afraid.
Fear and money intersect a lot. You could be afraid of conflict, so you never tell your spouse that the household budget needs to be pared back -- then suddenly, because you put off paying a few bills, your electricity is turned off.
Or maybe you're afraid of conflict and rejection, so you never ask for a raise or promotion. Perhaps you're afraid of running out of money -- so afraid that you never enjoy life by, say, taking a vacation. You could be so afraid of running out of money that you chase get-rich-quick schemes, causing you to -- you guessed it -- run out of money.
Who knows? Everyone's personality and quirks are different. But if you think fear clouds your judgment when it comes to money, here are some suggestions from experts.
Identify the source of your fear. You may not recognize you have a fear that's hurting your finances. "Fear becomes ingrained and automatic, arising from the subconscious mind, which operates much like a hard drive. Once programmed, it will play its programs endlessly unless the 'software' is changed," says John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist in Los Angeles and author of the book, "The Synthesis Effect: Your Direct Path to Personal Power and Transformation."
If you know fear is driving your behavior, McGrail says your first step should be to identify the source. "Where and how did one learn to fear money and not just treat it as the very useful and handy commodity or tool that it is? For example, if someone is afraid to ask for a raise, it could be based upon a feeling of low self-esteem or self-worth, or the misplaced feeling that it's wrong to ask for what you feel you deserve and that it's better to wait to be recognized by the boss," he says.
But until you learn what is driving a fear, you can't possibly hope to steer it into submission.
Unlearn that fear. It isn't always easy to unlearn a fear or behavior, but that's what it comes down to, McGrail says. Once you relearn a new way of thinking, "with reinforcement, it can become as automatic or ingrained as the old misplaced fear was," McGrail says.
One of the most effective treatments for conquering fear is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, says Ash Nadkarni, a psychiatrist with a special interest in treating anxiety disorders. Nadkarni works in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and is also a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School.
She says CBT is "based on the idea that the interrelationship between people's thoughts, feelings and behaviors tends to produce a vicious cycle that is self-perpetuating. For instance, a person might think that they don't have what it takes to ask for a raise, might have anxiety underlying this thought, and then might behave in such a manner as to compensate for their anxiety by spending more than they should."
Or the employee may stop asking their boss for anything, Nadkarni adds. "These behaviors, in turn, perpetuate the anxiety and underlying issues with self-esteem, creating an endless, self-fulfilling prophecy," she says.
[Read: 5 Money Myths You Shouldn't Fall For.]
What does all this mean? Unfortunately, according to Nadkarni, this means you need to be "exposed to the stimulus."
She adds that if you're continually exposed to the stimulus, you will hopefully start questioning and rejecting the thought patterns and behaviors fueling your fear.
Develop a plan. Nadkarni doesn't dispute what you're likely thinking: My boss is not a stimulus. My boss is a hotheaded jerk. And if I keep asking for a raise and getting turned down, I can't keep asking.
"There are always some uncontrollable pieces to the puzzle," Nadkarni agrees. "No matter how much a person might have prepared themselves ... one can't control how the boss might react."
But as she also points out, "people have a tendency to disqualify the positive." She says if you're worried about asking for a raise, remind yourself that you got this job. You're still in this job. Chances are, whatever brought you to this moment hasn't changed, she says. You're probably still valuable to the company.
"And maybe the boss isn't quite as hotheaded as [you] might recall," Nadkarni adds.
One thing's for sure: If you want to conquer your fear and get the outcome you want, you'll need a plan. Seeking a raise? "Ahead of talking to your employer, write out the times you've either made or saved the company money. That will get you into the mindset of knowing the company and your worth to it," suggests Jonathan Alpert, a New York City psychotherapist and author of "Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days."
He also suggests spending a few minutes every week reviewing and writing down positive accomplishments, so you always have this information at your fingertips for future raise and promotion requests.
And if you do get turned down, Alpert says you can ask if your employer will agree to raise in, say, four to six months if you accomplish certain goals. But mostly, assume you're going to get a yes. "It's important to think positively," Alpert says.
If your stimulus doesn't involve a person -- for instance, you lie awake at night because you're afraid of being retired and utterly broke -- you need to face that head on as well. Get out a calculator and budget as well as you can. Maybe you'll realize things aren't as bad as you feared, and you'll feel better for taking some small steps toward fixing your future dilemma. If you have some money put away, find a financial advisor if you don't have one. He or she may come up with plan that does allow you to sleep at night.
[Read: How to Choose a Financial Advisor.]
"If my clients express a fear of running out of money, we work together to create a retirement income plan, plugging in all income streams and making a determination of how much money they will need their assets to produce," says Ric Runestad, a retirement income planning specialist at Runestad Financial Services in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Runestad adds that a tactic he sometimes suggests is "to include an income rider with a product such as a fixed annuity, which may also have increasing income. This can reasonably guarantee growing income for the rest of their life, keeping up with cost of living."
Whatever your fear, there likely isn't a mental health expert out there who believes you can't overcome it. McGrail asserts that there are only two things we're born being afraid of -- fear of falling and loud noise. Every other fear, whether money-related or not, he says, "they're learned, often very early in life."
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