When Wealth and Greed are Out of Control

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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We can all appreciate the complexity of the legal tender. Technically a form of exchange for goods and services, money assists with establishing a comfortable quality of life. It signifies security, connotes one’s place in the world, renders status and even enhances one’s sense of power.

On the downside however, wealth can fuel ruthless avarice and an insatiable need for hedonistic pursuits. If out of control ones attachment to currency can morph into a reckless, compulsive pursuit devoid of consequential thinking or restraint, despite evidence of obvious harm.

On a global scale the expansion of consumption and environmental degradation is exemplary of this unfortunate trend. Schools are resorting to debt financing of public education based on district credit scores to finance operations due to budget cuts. Meanwhile Biden administration’s Fiscal Year 2022 Pentagon budget proposal allocates over $750 billion to the D.O.D. Moreover, the United States national debt is at an inconceivable $29 trillion, signaling inevitable stagflation, in other words a period of slower economic growth, rising taxes and creeping cost-push inflation.

Indeed, the rapacious pursuit of material gratification and indulgence is a colossal problem within global and individual domains.

As Gregory Frantz conveyed in his article, Consumerism, Conformity, and Uncritical Thinking in America,

“Americans now average six hours per week shopping, as opposed to only forty minutes playing with their children. We now have more shopping malls in America than high schools. Prescription drugs are freely dispensed to suppress the urge to rush to the mall for a shopping spree. Such compulsive forays are in part the byproduct of corporate conditioning teaching us to seek salvation in the material.”

The seeking of salvation in the material Frantz alludes to is laid bare when irrational desires surpass the capacity to exercise logical restraint, and adverse repercussions fail to catalyze containment or change. This scenario strongly suggests the likelihood of a behavioral addiction.

Addiction, irrespective of whether it is to a chemical or a person, falls within the diagnostic realm of an attachment disorder. It is a complex mental illness in which the craving for and progressive dependence on a stimuli so as to experience a euphoric state, supersedes all other attachments in spite of harmful consequences. A behavioral (aka process) addiction involves habitual, obsessive compulsive engagement with a specific behavioral stimulus.

When money is the designated ‘drug of choice’ materialism becomes a driving force replacing all relationships and endeavors as one’s primary source of gratification.

This addiction can take the form of compulsive gambling, uncontrollable shopping, incurring excessive debt, hoarding money, workaholism and theft.

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When Marco came to see me for a therapy consultation he was on the verge of losing his marriage due to an intractable craving for monetary compensation from a dead-end startup. Holding on into perpetuity for the big win that never came, did not dissuade Marco from believing that this new business venture would eventually be his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In the meantime his wife and son were agonizing over putting food on the table and keeping the lights on.

The abnormal amount of time Marco spent thinking about a monumental turnaround, in spite of little to no actual reward and there not even being sufficient funding to cover basic operations, signified that Marco was pathologically enslaved to a fantasy of wealth. Not surprisingly, alcoholism accompanied his tenacious fixation. Hence, despite mounting bills and pleas from his wife to accept a stable position offering a humble but sustainable salary, Marco insisted on staying put.

Although he acknowledged the adverse effect this obsession had on his mental and physical health, relationships, and other responsibilities, Marco compulsively sought the “high” derived from high stakes and high risk choices. Memories of short-lived affluence when he benefited from the lucrative slippery slope of a commission based job in finance kept Marco chasing the dragon. Unfortunately the wealth he accrued from that position was quickly squandered on living the high life and enabling friends and family seeking handouts.

Psychologically, Marco’s disordered relationship with money emanated from the absence of security and love throughout his childhood. Abandoned by his narcissistic father and parentified by his character disordered mother, escaping into adrenaline driven activities provided Marco with immediate relief from debilitating anger and trapped grief. When flaunting expensive designer toys attained through financial accomplishments garnered admiration and positive attention, the lure of this quick ‘fix’ became irresistible.

In order for Marco or any individual plagued by materialism to even approach core traumatic wounds, sustained remission from alcohol abuse and all process addictions is essential. The willingness to commit to sobriety necessitates recognizing and accepting that one’s relationship to money is indeed unhealthy and may even evidence addictive properties. This admission is a pre-requisite for sobriety and overall recovery.

The use of an empirically-based instrument such as the Klontz Money Script Inventory can assist with breaking through denial.
Any assessment tool that identifies attitudes and beliefs that drive financial behaviors can help clinicians and therapy clients determine how their disordered relationship to money has been causing significant clinical distress.

Naturally, removing the influence of mood altering stimuli will initially exacerbate mental and physical distress as symptoms of withdrawal kick in. This process of detoxification can be particularly destabilizing when multiple addictions are active. In Marcos case, to offset urges we incorporated the use of naltrexone. The need for additional support especially during the initial stage of sobriety, also prompted the inclusion of Debtors Anonymous meetings.

The willingness to shift addictive patterns and utilize recovery tools, allows for fundamental life skills to be cultivated such as delaying gratification, identifying feeling states, learning to compromise, developing frustration tolerance, and forming internal cues of motivation and discipline. Having a formidable foundation of life skills makes it possible to explore the psychological underpinnings that underscore and fuel an unhealthy reliance on money and materialistic pursuits.

In Marco’s case, achieving financial sobriety along with emotional healing and growth required addressing the underlying issues and emotions he avoided by latching onto money as a locus of control. It meant coming to accept that money became substitutionary fulfillment, a way to compensate for deep-seated beliefs that he was unworthy and undeserving.

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Clearly the psychological costs of material wealth do not just pertain to those deemed economically disadvantaged. In fact children raised in privileged, affluent families are at risk for criminal behavior, eating disorders, and addictive disorders. Studies also indicate that levels of depression and anxiety are considerably higher in affluent youth as compared to low-income teens. (Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-Being ,Suniya S. Luthar, Shawn J. Latendresse Curr Dir Psychol Sci.).

Children raised in highly affluent homes are often cared for by nannies or housekeepers, or left alone to fend for themselves. While they typically are under extreme pressure to succeed, they often experience isolation from workaholic, troubled parents.

Alternatively, trust-fund children aren’t required to support themselves. They just need to fulfill an assigned role of status. Being denied the opportunity to fulfill developmental tasks and experience the ebb and flow of triumph and mistakes breeds the narcissistic expectation that all things should be simply handed over on a silver platter.

Those who were born into humble beginnings and came into wealth through their successful endeavors can also succumb to the seductive lure of procuring material gratification and indulgence. The pull towards feeding insatiable emptiness and transcending unassimilated pain makes the culturally sanctioned pursuit of wealth a ubiquitous compulsion, that can easily become an addiction for those who are psychologically and genetically predisposed.

Needless to say, as with anything in life affluence has its dark side. We are all prone to the temptations of avarice.

Father of analytical psychology Carl Jung referred to the quest for wholeness as the base drive which fuels addiction. When wealth, status and image offer an illusion of wholeness a mystified idealized false self manifests and shields the addict from toxic shame and affords a pretense of power and security. In an effort to latch onto this deceptively euphoric condition an addictive cycle may ensue.

For the addict who views money and materialism as their source of transcendence, values which focus on generosity and personal growth become obsolete. The capacity to think beyond the self is obliterated by egocentric agendas and the capacity for humility is replaced with one-upmanship. Indeed, when greed predominates, amoral decision-making and power-driven motives and inclinations take hold.

While attaining financial wellness and a balanced sense of materialism certainly entails spending money based on solid values, having minimal debt and maintaining a viable safety net of savings, it also means developing a transpersonal awareness of life-affirming attachments that are beyond the ego. Accordingly, knowing our money scripts or even knowing oneself is not the ultimate panacea. Recovery calls for a reframing of one’s place in the circular larger scheme of life and interconnection.

This means that in this day and age of rampant elitism and narcissistic ambitions, defining intrinsic worth and value beyond the almighty dollar is crucial to discerning our highest human qualities and capabilities. Here we glean purpose not so much in what we procure or accumulate, but what we are meant to contribute. Paradoxically it is at this point of self-realization we can come to realize the true meaning of abundance.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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