Guilt When Receiving Money
June 20, 2011 2:47 AM   Subscribe

What can I do about my hangups about receiving money?

I have weird feelings about money that is given to me as a gift, or sudden windfalls of money I receive. I guess I was somehow raised to believe all money should be deserved by working for it. If it comes through an alternative means, then I feel a mixture of guilt and disappointment in myself, as well as a modicum of shame.

This has led me to turning down money given to me more than once. I wouldn't think it's such a big deal, but others have seen this and pointed out I have "emotional hangups" about money (which I guess I do, since the feeling associated with such gifts are often unpleasant.)

1) Is this a healthy way to feel? (I guess that's pretty subjective, but I'd like to know your thoughts.)

2) Is there a way to be like one of those people who gladly accept money happily, gratefully, and easily? Is this a healthier way to be?

I do notice that any guilt I have about taking money is alleviated, somewhat, by giving to charities.

Financially, I'm better off than much of the world, though I'm by no means rich (for one thing, I don't have things like health insurance.)

Any insight you have on this is appreciated. Thanks.
posted by The ____ of Justice to Human Relations (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I used to have hangups about receiving money. In fact, I still experience discomfort about receiving money that I "haven't earned or worked for." What I've taught myself to do, following conversations with trusted mentors, is to look carefully at the source of the money, and figure out whether there is anything actually ethically wrong with accepting the money. If not, then I swallow my discomfort, enjoy the windfall, and do things like give part of it to charity.

Two examples:

1) My college roommate was getting married. I had just started a teaching job in Pakistan, and would not have been able to go. Her very wealthy parents offered to buy my ticket. I was tortured about it, and this is when I had those conversations with mentors. We worked through the fact that they could easily afford it, that it was important to my roommate and her parents that I be there for the wedding, and that my refusal and absence would be more hurtful to them than accepting the money would be to me. I got them and her nicer presents than I normally would have spent money on, and I have never regretted accepting their kind offer.

2) I came into some inheritance money recently, from an uncle I never met, because he passed away when I was still a child. He didn't have any children. When his widow died, the estate was divided up amongst her relatives and his, by some state-determined percentage. My siblings and I were feeling a bit weird about the whole thing. Then we thought through the fact that he was long gone, that his widow was also gone, and that the proceeds were going to both families, and would otherwise simply revert to the state. So, even though we didn't do anything to earn it, it's ok. My other uncle, another of the heirs, has decided to donate his whole share to charity in my late uncle's name, and told us that we should consider that done on behalf of all of us. So I am now going to use that money on things that I would not have been able to do otherwise.

Moral of the story: As long as you don't expect this kind of good fortune, it's ok to accept it. It's also a kind of ingratitude to refuse it.
posted by bardophile at 3:27 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

1] I can't think of any situation where it's healthy to feel shame. It's a reasonably common emotion, I guess, but I don't think there is a single benefit to it. It can prevent one from engaging in a certain behaviour, like it's doing to you, but there are far better ways to not do something than to emotionally bludgeon yourself into not doing it.

2] Start by saying "thank you" to the person giving you the money. People don't give what they can't afford, and some of the time, they don't give what they can afford. So, it's a safe bet that if someone is giving you something then they can afford it. Regarding giving to charities, ask yourself if those charities are entitled to money from you? Have they worked for it by helping you in some way? If they haven't, then think about why you're giving it to them. It might help you grasp the mindset of those people giving you money and help you realise that it's not always all about what someone deserves.

You've created a rule that says that you should give a value equal to what you get. That sounds fair and logical until your rule meets the real world, where it just doesn't work like that. "Good" and "bad" things happen to "good" and "bad" people. Life isn't a binary.

An example: someone pays for you to go on a trip with them. They're doing that because they want you to go with them. You'll be disappointing them if you turn the money down. You benefit from having a holiday, and they benefit from your company. You don't have to do anything other than be there. According to your rule, you're benefiting, but you aren't giving equal measure because you aren't working for it in some way. But you are giving equal value in the sense that someone else gets to spend some time with you.

Money isn't just a symbol of how hard you work. Plenty of hard working people have little, and there are quite a few people who don't do much who have a lot more than others.

What does money represent to you?
posted by Solomon at 4:24 AM on June 20, 2011

It depends on the context of the gift. Is it from a friend helping you make rent? A family member buying you a car so you can get to work? Or a random birthday check?

If you're inheriting or receiving money indiscriminately, it is completely normal and valid to feel undeserving. You can either refuse the gift or accept it somewhat unhappily (and feel like you're compromising your integrity). I actually think your viewpoint is quite noble.

If, on the other hand, it's from a friend or relative helping you out of a bad situation, consider this: you say you feel like all money should be deserved by working for it, but in a million ways, you need money to earn money (because money is food, time, energy, and, above all, freedom). If you're feeling disappointed for not earning enough, realize that your income is likely due to your environment and lack of money in the first place rather than laziness or some personality flaw that you ought to feel guilty about. Focus instead on investing in yourself! When you are on your feet, you can always
posted by jgscott at 4:35 AM on June 20, 2011 them back (as a "thank you gift").
posted by jgscott at 4:39 AM on June 20, 2011

And you receivers -- and you are all
receivers -- assume no weight of gratitude,
lest you lay a yoke upon
yourself and upon he who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings:
For to be overmindful of your debt, is
to doubt his generosity who has the
free-hearted earth for mother, and God for father

- Kahlil Gibran
posted by salvia at 8:44 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I know someone who has money, through inheritance, and believe me, it's just as weird from the other end. This person is a little too old to spend much time performing the acts of service and kindness they wish they could, so they're more than happy to hand over cash. The polite thing to do is to say thank you, and consider yourself lucky. If you want to give it to charity, go ahead and do so, but get over the idea that you are somehow betraying a moral code: that sort of comes with the territory.
posted by Gilbert at 10:04 AM on June 20, 2011

Best answer: I guess I was somehow raised to believe all money should be deserved by working for it.

You're not alone. This kind of ideological conditioning runs very deep, and serious questioning of it is rare. According to the Puritan work ethic - which, I might add, is heavily promoted by those who have the most to gain from it - hard work is noble and virtuous and morally right, and your worth as a person depends on your willingness to work for money. In this view, if you have money you earned, it's because you deserve it; if it's unearned, you don't deserve it. Individual financial status is attributed mostly or entirely to personal qualities or lack thereof, and the role of larger systemic forces (environmental, social, cultural, economic) is minimized. Anything that smacks of "entitlement" or "laziness" - such as accepting money that you did not earn - is cause for guilt and shame.

You were raised to feel guilty when you accept unearned money, as many of us are, but it doesn't sound like you really believe, deep down, that such guilt is appropriate or healthy. It sounds like you would prefer to be "one of those people who gladly accept money happily, gratefully, and easily."

That's a worthy goal, if you ask me. I think it is perfectly appropriate to accept money happily and gratefully in the contexts you describe, as a gift or unexpected windfall. Why refuse it? You can ensure that the money you receive is used mindfully, as a means to a positive end, rather than squandered.

If you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy of this, I recommend learning more about gift economies, and how the values expressed in gift economies differ from those promoted by commodity or exchange culture and the "deserving/undeserving" ideology of the Puritan work ethic.

I do notice that any guilt I have about taking money is alleviated, somewhat, by giving to charities.

That makes sense according to philosophy of gift culture, because gifts create community ties and social bonds that recognize our fundamental interdependence as human beings. To accept a gift is to accept an obligation to continue the flow of gift giving, as we see in the 'pay it forward' school of thought.

Ask MetaFilter, at its best, is an online gift culture. One person has a question or problem to be solved, they post it, and people in the community respond to the best of their ability. The poster (ideally) receives the responses gratefully and in good faith, and also helps others who may later search for a similar question by doing things like marking best answers, providing follow-up info and feedback to let the responders know what was helpful and what wasn't, and marking the thread resolved. Then, when other questions are posted, that person has opportunities to pass along some of the benefits of what they have received - insight, useful tips, commiseration, camaraderie, or whatever may be most helpful. As this process continues over time, the whole community that uses AskMe becomes enriched by this treasure trove of wisdom.

We, as a culture and as individuals, seem deeply conflicted about giving and receiving, especially when it involves money. But here's something you can take to heart: to fully receive is a kind of gift in itself. It is actually a form of generosity. If we have a pattern of not allowing ourselves to fully receive, eventually we will become unable to give to others in turn.

Charles Eisenstein, whose work I highly recommend, has some fascinating things to say about gift culture. (The second link goes to a video that is the first part of fourteen. All are well worth watching, but I won't link to them all directly.)

Thanks for posting this question. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't have conflicted feelings about money. I don't know that I would call these feelings "hangups," though - I see them more as "understandable results of living in a society and culture with a toxic work ethic and money systems which create artificial scarcity." Your honesty about an emotionally loaded (and still somewhat taboo) topic is refreshing. Hope this is helpful...good luck!
posted by velvet winter at 1:55 PM on June 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you all for your very thoughtful answers. Each one is an thought-provoking essay in and of itself.

Velvet winter, that's an amazing analysis and collection of links looking into cultural aspects of my question. Blew me away. Thank you. (And you're right, now that you've bestowed me with your answer, I feel committed to making my next answer on askme a super one!)
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:28 PM on June 20, 2011

Thanks for the follow-up words of appreciation!

I love the way that participating in AskMe seems to blur the lines between giving and receiving. Your emotionally honest and thought-provoking question - on a topic that interests me greatly - inspired me to take the time to organize my own thoughts and commit them to writing, with the intention of being helpful. That process brings me am I giving or receiving when I do it? Both. By striving for excellence in offering my thoughts to the AskMe community, I also enrich myself.

Then you posted words of appreciation for the responses you received here, and expressed an intention to carry on the striving for excellence as you participate in future AskMe questions. Are you giving or receiving in that process? Both!

This can be done with monetary gifts or sudden windfalls, too. Next time such money comes into your life, you can treat it as an opportunity to participate in the flow of gifts, unlearn your guilt feelings, and receive with gratitude. Accepting it can be a way of enhancing your ability to offer your own gifts (whether monetary or otherwise) to others. Giving-and-receiving - they are two sides of the same coin, and neither side could exist without the other.

May you be blessed with many such opportunities. :)
posted by velvet winter at 10:36 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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