The holiday season is not just a time of festivities, it’s also a time of tradition. No doubt you pulled out some for Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, maybe tomato aspic! You probably gathered with the same family or friends that you’ve celebrated with for years. And you gathered in a favorite home and created a familiar emotional space.
Our national celebration on December 25th will have similar echoes – whether you are Christian or not! Our cultural norm is to erect a Christmas tree, to give and receive excessive and extravagant gifts, and to eat too much food. There are parties and celebrations, office lunches that have been going on for weeks, and piped Christmas music fills the red-white-and-green retail outlets and coffee shops who do a vast proportion of their annual business in just a few weeks. Each of us has our traditions: for example, if you are Jewish, you may be anticipating your annual Chinese Christmas Day dinner!
Over these few weeks your Holiday stories shape your life: the expectations and excitement of your kids; the old habits you follow putting up the Christmas tree and pulling out your favorite ornaments; gathering with family and friends. And let’s be honest, for many of us, there is familiarity, too, in a the artificiality of the joie-de-vivre that we wear as a culturally appropriate mask.
Our Holiday stories are just that: stories. Every year we pull them off the shelf and relive them. Had you been born in a different family, a different time, a different faith, you would have learned different traditions, developed different habits, created a different life story. Your life would have been different, your story different.
What Is Your Story About Money?
Stories pervade our lives: they are everywhere. I was recently with a group discussing the schemas we use in our relationship with money. It was fascinating to listen to people talk about how they relate to money and, through digging into their family history, exploring where their patterns came from. Take a look at the following schemas and as you do so, see whether you relate to any…and think about why:
- Everything will be better when you have money: did you grow up in a family that had a lot of conflicts about money and spending? If so, it would be easy for you to come to believe that if there was more money, the conflicts would end;
- It’s not nice to talk about money: if you grew up with a family who respected the normal US cultural taboo about talking of money, it’s quite likely you will also feel this way…but if you grew up in another country, or in a family culture in which money and spending decisions were discussed, probably not so!
- Money really isn’t that important: if you are a caregiver, see yourself as religious, or are a creative, you may have learned that money isn’t what matters and so might have adopted this schema;
- Money determines who you are in life: this schema represents a cultural norm in a materialistic culture, so is a common one;
- You have to work really hard and you will have money: this is a natural outgrowth of a strong work drive, of a belief that “winners never quit and quitters never win”. These are common beliefs in our society, and accordingly this is a common schema.
Here are a few more money schemas:
- Somehow money just takes care of itself;
- I deserve to spend money ;
- I don’t deserve this.
So what did you think of the schemas? Are you are drawn to one or two in particular? Do some seem silly or irrelevant? And when you look closely at the one(s) to which you most relate, can you see that they draw naturally from your family history? Can you see that a story was created n your formative years, and that this schema is a way in which you are carrying that story forward and reliving it every day?
Your Own Personal Story
With money schemas as an example, let’s look more broadly and start to see how you built up the story of the rest of your life.
We were each born into a body with genitalia which, from the earliest age, identified us as a boy or a girl. For most of us our gender defined certain expectations of social roles and sexual relationships (within the cultural norm of heterosexual attraction). We were presented a cultural story of gender and what it means, and we generally lived into it. Some of us rebelled, but in doing so we often just stepped into another story.
You were born with skin coloration and into a certain socio-economic group; you were born with certain access to technology, and with your particular health profile. These attributes, too, bring with them culturally normalized and normalizing stories in which, by default, you were trained as a young child and continued to live into as you grew up.
In a real sense, as you live into these stories – or rebel against them and live into a different story – you define yourself by the storyline you hold for yourself. This is good, for we each need a story for our lives. But what is not healthy is to identify too much with the story.
By way of example, I was born white, male, and healthy into a comfortable middle class family. I was over-educated and taught that hard work was a virtue. That was my story and I lived into it: I married someone whose story was similar to mine; I led a successful business career; I had two healthy children who, like their Dad, are in the process of being expensively over-educated. For much of my life I over-identified with this story and as a result my vision of others was at best blurred, at worst occluded.
A decade ago I started to realize the extent to which I had allowed myself to become a prisoner of my story and I started to look up. I saw the extent to which I had harmed myself by allowing myself to stay within the confines of my story. It is not so much that I did not allow myself to live beyond the confines of the story: I was unable to see the world outside it.
Revisiting Holidays And Reading The Stories
It’s like watching a movie over and over again. Or reading a series of novels and mentally living in that world. Our default setting is to keep our heads down and just follow the grooves of the story laid out for us as a kid. We come to believe what our story tells us about the world, and in doing so, we actually shape the world into the world of that story. I’m sure you’ve heard that, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, and in an important sense, we are all hammers.
Look back at the holidays from the standpoint of the financial schemas, from the standpoint of seeing the way your childhood stories shaped how you view them, how you live them. Can you see the extent to which your experience of Thanksgiving, of Christmas, of the New Year, has been shaped by the expectations of your family of birth, and by your subconscious response to those expectations? Can you see that your habits – both the physical habits of space and behavior, as well as the emotional habits of how you respond – have been formed and each year you just go along with them? Can you begin to see that you have, with those in your life, co-created a story of the Holidays that you and they relive every year?
You Can Gain Control of Your Story
If you can begin to see your life as a story doesn’t mean you have to change anything. But it does change how you feel about it: on the one hand it gives you choices, and on the other hand it makes you take yourself less seriously.
Going back, for a minute to the money schemas: if you develop a healthy relationship with money that you can transcend these schema. You can move beyond this story, see money in a different way, and live a life no longer trapped by an emotional paradigm. That is not to say you can wish money and its consequences away, but you need no longer be constrained by the way you have been trained – and have trained yourself. You do not need to be bound by the story you have built up around money.
And so it is with all your stories. When a story comes from difficulties – a story developed around family fights when you were a child, or around poverty, bullying, or simply the misery of middle school – it likely has a dark shadow. Many of us have money or Holiday stories like this. It is a familiar story, and the familiarity brings a certain warmth, but if you look closely you can likely see melancholy, maybe suppressed sadness…and maybe even downright misery! Even if the story is a happy one, if you live it out of blind habit then in an important respect you are not fully living your life, but rather just following a story line written out for you. Your life is a kind-of Groundhog Day in which every Christmas looks the same.
This is not to say that you should change for the sake of changing. Not at all. But if you know that you can do things differently, if you see that the story is just a story and that you can choose to follow it or not, then it can have a completely different and altogether richer meaning.
Taking Steps To Gain Control Of Your Story
My ex-wife used to tell me that “realization is instantaneous; change takes time”.
Recognizing that our life is a story, and that we get to write the story, not just be a passive actor in it, can be instantaneous. But taking that deeper and seeing the details, the subtle plot lines and sophisticated subliminal messaging built into the story, takes time.
More, it takes work…and work over time.
The most important aspect of this work of seeing your story and loosening its control over you is cultivating a mindfulness or a meditation practice. I’ve written about this extensively, and you can read more, for example, in “Five Minutes” or by subscribing to my ten-week e-course. It’s easy to see meditation and mindfulness as scary words and to see them in a realm distant from you, but they don’t require you to wear strange clothes, to listen to Yani, or to fill your home with incense and Eastern idols. It’s easy and safe to learn a little more and to begin to experiment.
Meditation and mindfulness – the work required to help you see deeper into, and to gain control over your story – requires you starting to exercise muscles that you may have never used – or only rarely used – before. As such it might appear to be hard work. But like all exercise, the trick is to start off small and simple and to build. Over time the exercise becomes a reward in itself, and the power and control it gives you over your life will be both liberating and exhilarating.