Dealing With the Stress of Talking About Money


"A peculiar thing often happens in conflict situations: people just stop listening to each other."

-William Miller

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You and your partner are having a conversation and then, out of nowhere, you're voices are raised and you are saying things you don't mean. When we're in this kind of state we end up saying and doing things that hurt others, often when we don't mean to and wish we didn't. I call these mistakes, and too much stress makes it more likely we'll make these kinds of mistakes.


There is a name for this. It's called emotional flooding. Overcoming and preventing it can save us from ourselves and strengthen our relationships.



Characters of Your Brain


To understand why we tend to make mistakes when we are stressed out when talking about money, we have to learn some technical neuroscience. Below, you'll see a very detailed scan of a human brain that shows the animals that live inside our heads (okay, a little sarcasm may be detected).


The first part of your brain to develop is the lower brain and it came online at about six months. This is often referred to as the reptilian brain. The lizard is, among other things, responsible for your instants, including the all-important instinct of surviving. This is a dark place because everything is seen as a potential threat.


The next part of your brain to develop is the middle brain, or limbic system. This comes online at about seven years and is responsible primarily for feelings and emotions. This part of the brain is sometimes called the mammalian brain, or the monkey brain. The monkey tries to come up with strategies to get out of the threatening situations that lizard discovers. You may have heard these strategies called a stress-response or a fight-flight-freeze response.


The last part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which includes the prefrontal cortex. This is unique to humans and is the part of the brain that makes you feel like "you." This is the rational part of the brain that is responsible for planning, logic, and reasoning. The rational brain acts as a "parent" to the animal parts of the brain ("the animal brain").


Because the rational part of the brain is the part of the brain that we associate with our sense of self, we tend to believe that "we" make most of our decisions. That's actually backward, though. The animals make about 95% of our decisions. Since the rational brain is monitoring, though, most of the time this is okay...most of the time.



Emotional Flooding


In normal times, that is, when we are calm and not feeling stressed, all three parts of the brain work together. Even though our emotional brain (aka the animal brain) makes decisions much quicker than the rational brain, usually it doesn't matter because we're not in a hurry. There's no rush and the rational brain can override any inappropriate strategies the emotional brain tries to implement.


My favorite analogy for this involves an elephant and a person riding that elephant. The rider represents our rational brain and the elephant represents our emotional brain. Most of the time the rider can control the elephant.



What happens if the elephant gets scared by something, though? If something happens to spook the elephant, the elephant no longer cares that the rider is there. The elephant's main focus is going to be getting out of what it perceives as danger. When this happens, the rider has no control and in some cases falls off the elephant and isn't even along for the ride anymore.


To close this analogy, when we find ourselves in stressful situations, the lizard and the monkey don't care that there's a rational brain hooked up. They deem the situation to be so important that they can't wait around to see if the rational brain agrees with them. They will implement a fight, flight, or freeze strategy and run with it. At this point, our rational brain is no longer functioning.


We call this emotional flooding because it's like a flood of emotions rushing in and the rational brain can't swim, so the animals send it away until the flood goes away.


You can probably think of times you've been emotionally flooded. Think about a fight you had with a partner, child, parent, or coworker. When things get really heated we end up saying and doing things we later regret. Remember, the monkey comes online at about seven years old, so when we're emotionally flooded we're quite literally acting like children. Later, when the flood goes away and the rational brain comes back we have the uncomfortable task of wondering what just happened and how we're going to fix it.


Money Easily Triggers Emotional Flooding


You might be wondering what this has to do with money. Money is the top source of stress for Americans and a top source of conflict in relationships. Money touches every area of our lives. Almost all of our life decisions have a financial component, and most of our financial decisions will impact our lives somehow.


Money causes stress because talking about it opens us up to get judged, and we don't like being judged. This is often but not always about shame - being judged for "not being good enough." We feel guilt when others have less than us. We feel angry when someone else gets treated differently from us. We feel sad when we make a mistake or regret if we think we could have done something different with our money.


The bottom line is that money equals stress, and stress triggers emotional flooding.



Recognizing Emotional Flooding


If you haven't experienced emotional flooding before, then congrats to you. For the rest of us, it's likely you know what it feels like when you are about to become emotionally flooded. With practice, you can learn to observe what you're feeling in such a way that you don't judge yourself for the feelings you feel. Paying close attention without criticism, shame, or blame, will help you see the flood coming.


Practicing mindfulness is a great way to accomplish this. Mindfulness is simply the act of paying close attention to the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions you experience. There are many apps and programs that can help you accomplish this, as well as free guided meditations on places like YouTube and Vimeo.



Take a Break

So you've learned to recognize when the flood is coming - what's next?


Remember that when we become emotionally flooded we are likely to say and do things that hurt others and we will regret it. The trick, then, after you've noticed the flood coming, is to stop it in its tracks.


Putting space in between the stimulus and response slows the flood until it eventually recedes. You do this by taking a break. Call a time-out on yourself. Go outside. Count to 100 by fives. Take 15 deep breaths through your belly.


Increasing the gap between the stimulus and your action, slowing things down, and taking a break helps keep your rational mind online. You don't want to have an important money conversation without a functioning prefrontal cortex. In other words, you want your whole brain to be invited to the conversation.



Preventing is Easier Than Fixing


You've heard it before, but it's worth hearing again. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The worst thing to have happen when we talk about money is to get emotionally flooded and end up with terrible outcomes. A better course of action is to prevent the flood from coming when you notice it.


But we can do better. We can back up and try to figure out why an emotional flood happens in the first place. Commonly, this is because we haven't learned how to listen with the intent to understand. Most of us listen with the intent to reply. We listen and immediately judge, label, or assign teams. Instead of listening, we evaluate.


Seek to understand those you interact with. Assume they know something that you don't. Be curious. Having conversations with more empathy and compassion will go a long way toward preventing a flood from even starting.



Money conversations can be stressful and if we're not careful we can say and do things we'll later regret. Learning to listen with a focus on understanding helps prevent emotional flooding. Mindfulness practice helps us become aware when we are about to be flooded so we can take a break. Simply knowing that emotional flooding is something that can impact our relationships is a good first step.


You only have one life. Live intentionally.



Dealing With the Stress of Talking About
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

DK: How the Brain Works

Derek Hagen: Healthy Money Conversations

Rick Hanson: Buddha's Brain

Sam Harris: Waking Up

Sam Harris: Waking Up App

Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow

Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Klontz Consulting: Exquisite Listening Workshop

William Miller: Listening Well

Jordan Peterson: 12 Rules for Life

Psychology Today: How The Brain Evolved

Behavior Gap: Talking About Money Workshop

Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication


Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at or thought about while writing this article. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced my thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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