It is never too late to be what you might have been.
I am affected only by my thoughts.
—A COURSE IN MIRACLES
When you’re young, your brain is constantly rewiring as you continue to learn. But until recently, science believed the brain became permanently fixed by age 30. Now, neuroscientists agree that neuroplasticity, defined as the brain’s ability to rewire itself, continues throughout your life.
Ask those same neuroscientists, however, to define the difference between the mind and the brain, and you’ll hear lots of disagreement.
Some will tell you the mind and the brain are one and the same. Others contend the intangible mind resides in the physical organ called the brain. Still others argue that the mind, being impossible to measure or objectively study, doesn’t exist at all.
The camp that I found most compelling are those who claim the brain—a tangible organ in your body—and the mind—a nonphysical source of thought and feelings—are two separate entities that operate in tandem.
I was first introduced to this school of thought by one of its earliest proponents, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a neuropsychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. Schwartz is well known for his landmark study successfully treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) without using drugs.
In his groundbreaking book The Mind and the Brain, he explains how “directed mental force” (which he later called “self-directed neuroplasticity”) can “clearly and systematically” alter the faulty brain chemistry of those suffering from OCD.1
“OCD,” Dr. Schwartz explained in his book, “is a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by distressing intrusive, unwanted thoughts (the obsessive part) that trigger intense urges to perform ritualistic behaviors (the compulsive part).”
After 25 years of research and clinical practice, he became convinced that “the nonphysical entity we call the mind has the power to change the brain.”
I was gobsmacked when I read this. If OCD patients could learn how to resist their intense urges by changing their thoughts and replacing compulsive actions with new beneficial behaviors, imagine what those of us without obsessive-compulsive disorders can accomplish.
Initially, Schwartz was shunned by his peers. However, a growing cadre of experts are now enthusiastically embracing his position that “the mind is the software that activates the brain’s hardware.” Or as others put it: “The mind is the master. The brain is the servant.”
One of those, neuropsychologist John Arden, wrote in his book, Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life, “You cannot change how you think and feel without changing your brain.”2
Another, psychologist Rick Hanson, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, put it more succinctly in his excellent book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom: “What flows through the mind sculpts the brain.”3
I resonated with this stance straightaway. It clarified why I, a rebellious teen and an ambitious adult, so easily caved in to my parents’ admonitions, so readily turned a blind eye to money, and never said a word to anyone about my husband frittering away my inheritance. I’d been wired that way from a very young age.
The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.
I think back to my first memory of money. According to the esteemed psychologist Alfred Adler, founder of Individual Psychology, “Our earliest recollections become a guiding fiction by which the psyche orients itself.” Of all the incomprehensible number of incidents from my past, the fact that I vividly remember one particular episode explains why financial avoidance became my “guiding fiction,” the compass point by which I oriented my life. Picture this:
I’m about four years old, standing on a step stool in front of the sink, brushing my teeth, my mother beside me. Holding my toothbrush aside, I turn to her and ask a random question, as toddlers often do: “Mommy, how much money do you have?”
Without saying a word, she shoots me a look dripping with disapproval. Her eyes narrow, her lips tighten, her unspoken message is unmistakable: “Don’t ever talk about money! It’s bad, and you’re bad if you do.”
As psychologist John Bowlby, the father of childhood attachment theory, explained, “We determine who we are through the eyes of those we love.” In that moment, sensing the threat of impending danger (Mom’s anger), I knew one thing for sure: It’s not safe to talk about money. I’m a bad girl if I do.
That decision sent my brain into high alert, releasing a cascade of chemicals and currents of electricity leaping over synapses, transferring that thought to brain cells (neurons), which linked together to form a new neuropathway.
From that moment on, every time I’d think that thought (even unconsciously)—It’s not safe to talk about money—and reflexively act on it, I’d keep digging an ever-deepening cognitive ditch until ignorance and inertia around money turned into my automatic responses.
In her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, science writer Sharon Begley compares this neuroplastic process to “traveling the same dirt road over and over leaves ruts that make it easier to stay in the track on subsequent trips.”4
Indeed, financial avoidance became my default mode and my comfort zone. I’d robotically repeat the same bad choices believing these choices would keep me safe.
Unfortunately, what keeps us safe as children will suffocate us as adults. My secrecy and silence on the topic of money was, in truth, an act of self-sabotage with serious repercussions. But, then again, aren’t all acts of self-sabotage merely misguided attempts at self-protection?
Rewire in Action
EARLIEST MONEY MEMORY
Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself: “What is my earliest memory of money?” If you prefer, go back even further and try your earliest memory of all. And see what comes to mind. You made a decision in that moment, a decision which became your guiding fiction. What was it? And how has it affected your life choices?
If life is a struggle, not making ends meet, living hand to mouth, then your reptilian brain is in the driver’s seat.
Recalling that memory while studying neuroscience, my financial passivity made perfect sense. After all, the human brain originated for one purpose—self-preservation.
To our prehistoric ancestors, survival meant avoiding all the lethal dangers that could be lurking behind every bush. To a 4-year-old child, survival meant avoiding anything that could possibly trigger parental disapproval. Belonging to a tribe was as essential to our predecessors’ safety as it was to me as a little girl.
The human brain has evolved, over millions of years, in essentially three layers . . .
1. The reptilian brain, tucked in the brainstem, is the oldest part, working entirely on instinct. It controls our basic automatic functions like breathing, eating, heart beating, as well the fight/flight/freeze response.
2. Just above the reptilian brain lies the limbic system, which evolved a bit later, adding emotions and memory to instincts. This system interprets all stimuli as either good or bad, scary or safe.
3. The third part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, the largest and most recent part to develop, is the wrinkly surface you see in pictures. The cerebral cortex controls what’s called “the executive functions” or rational thought, allowing us to think through options and use language to express emotions rather than acting on impulse.
All stimulus goes immediately to the limbic brain, eventually reaching the cerebral cortex, enabling us to respond to threat at lightning speed and resort to reason later.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Our limbic system can’t tell the past from the future, the real from the imagined. Whenever a situation is remotely similar to a stressful or frightening past event, our rational brain becomes incapacitated by a flood of stress hormones as we spiral into flight, fight, or freeze.
Attempting to confront my husband about finances was akin to my ancient forbearers facing a hungry lion. I either fled the room or stood frozen in fear.
You cannot make your thoughts or urges disappear by willpower alone. If you try, you’ll be disappointed.
—DR. JEFFREY SCHWARTZ
Thinking back on my situation with my ex, I remember how much I tried to push through my avoidance. “This is not rocket science.” I’d chide myself. “Speak up, for God’s sake!”
But every time I’d approach my husband, I’d lose my nerve. I didn’t dare discuss my situation with my parents. And I was too ashamed to tell the psychoanalyst I saw twice a week, let alone the banker who managed my trust at that time.
Once, however, I found the courage to visit a financial psychologist after I heard her speak. I had this strong sense she could help me. Indeed, she was gentle, caring, and reassuring. I left her office feeling, for the very first time, hopeful, even excited about what was possible when it came to my finances. But the minute I touched the door handle of my car, I felt a distinct slap on my hand and a voice in my head sternly warn: Bad girl. Do not go back. I never saw her again.
The feeble pull of my fleeting desire to become financially literate and confront my husband didn’t stand a chance against the mighty force of a deep-rooted neuropathway. Fighting the fierce gravitational pull of an established neuronal connection is an uphill battle for everyone. For one thing, you’re experiencing an actual withdrawal from the chemicals (neurotransmitters) that the old thoughts released in your brain. And despite your best efforts to think or act differently, when under stress, fatigue, or threat, you’ll instinctively revert to the neuropathway that offers the least resistance, helplessly repeating the same dysfunctional behavior you’ve been futilely trying to change.
A fascinating study at the University of South Wales explains why willpower alone doesn’t work. Students were shown an image, like an apple or a cloud, and told not to think about a red apple or a white cloud.5
As you’d expect, most couldn’t get that picture out of their head, which is quite normal. But what about those who swore they’d successfully obliterated the image from their mind?
According to brain scans, “Even those people who are good at suppressing certain thoughts still harbor traces of the thought in [their brain’s] cortex,” noted Professor Joel Pearson of the University of South Wales.
The fact is, any implanted thought—whether it’s a picture of an apple or words of warning, such as “Don’t talk about money” or “Life’s a struggle”—tends to linger longer than you realize, regardless of your efforts to resist.
“Using brute force to not think about something simply won’t work,” the study concluded, “because the thought is actually there in our brains.” Of course, the more neutral the thought, the quicker it fades.
Clearly, willpower alone won’t work. But mind training will. To understand how to train your mind, we turn to Spirituality, specifically A Course in Miracles.
Thought creates the world and then says, “I didn’t do it.”
A Course in Miracles calls itself “a course in mind training,” and declares its sole purpose is “to restore awareness of the power of the mind.”
Having studied the Course for over 30 years, I was fascinated to hear Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz explain in his book The Mind and the Brain how he successfully treated OCD patients “by harnessing the transformational power of the mind to reshape the brain.”6
As the Course asserts and Dr. Schwartz echoes: “An untrained mind can accomplish nothing.”
The first step in mind training begins with understanding what the Course calls “the most important concept that exists in the universe”: the law of cause and effect. The Course (as well as neuroscience, quantum physics, and many spiritual teachings like Buddhism) explains this law very differently from the world’s more generally accepted Newtonian explanation.
To the world, a cause is an external incident that produces an internal effect. Someone does this (cause) and you feel that (effect). But this view is very disempowering. Blaming something or someone else for “making” you unhappy turns you into a victim.
According to the Course, nothing “out there” has anything to do with you feeling happy or upset. Your thoughts are always the cause. If you want to change the effect (your experience)—more money, greater happiness, increased success, better relationships—you must first change the cause (your thoughts). Who you are, what you do, and the life you have comes from what you think.
Even Einstein agreed, “The world we have created is a product of our way of thinking.” I suspect some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking this is way too “woo-woo” or “out there.” I understand. But before you dismiss this theory, let me show you what a game changer it can be. While writing this book, I had an opportunity to apply this law, and it dramatically shifted the whole experience, not just mine but my husband’s too. (Just to let you know, in 2012 I married a really wonderful man named Lee.)
One evening, I was telling Lee about something important that had happened earlier that day. Lee listened attentively, until his cell phone beeped, signaling a text had come in. He grabbed the phone, read the text, wrote a response, turned back to me, and immediately changed the subject.
I got upset, hurt, and angry. What am I? Chopped liver? Just as I was about to lash out, I heard the Course reminding me of the Law of Cause and Effect: “The world you see merely represents your thoughts. And it will change entirely as you elect to change your mind.”
As Lee continued talking, I asked myself, “Do I want to make him the bad guy, or do I want to calm down and figure out what’s really going on in me emotionally?” Trying to control or change Lee would be useless. Because, in truth, he was not the cause of my reaction. I was.
Then I flashed back to another memory, the earliest one I can remember. I’m three years old, standing outside my house, looking up at my parents’ bedroom window, awash in pain. They’d just brought my newborn sister home from the hospital. As I stood there alone, I knew for a “fact,” I’m not important. That arbitrary decision grew into a staunch belief that’s haunted me my whole life.
I realized Lee’s reaction was igniting that ancient neuropathway. I knew, in that moment, I had a choice. Do I hang onto my old story like a heavy satchel filled with lies? Or do I change my thinking to create a new narrative and a new neuropathway? I chose the latter.
What if I interpreted Lee’s switching the subject differently? What if he wasn’t implying that I’m not important? What if he simply regarded his friend’s text as more interesting than my story? A more interesting text is a world away from “I don’t matter.” In that moment, I was using the Rewire formula you’ll learn in Part II. I turned what could’ve been a big blowout with Lee into a loving, intimate conversation.
Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.
As you can see, mind training is about far more than positive thinking. It requires you to take away the cause of your feelings and experience from the world out there and put it back where it belongs, in your own mind. Or as the Course puts it: “Seek not to change the world but change your mind about the world.”7
When you understand the law of cause and effect, you understand how much power you have to create the life you desire. And when you understand that the cause of your pain or misery is your own thoughts, you give yourself the power to change those thoughts, and therefore, the outcome.
The fact is, the law of cause and effect, like gravity, is working all the time whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s how you’ve created everything in your life thus far, good or bad.
Rewire in Action
DISSECTING A CHALLENGE
First, list any challenges or problems that are causing you some degree of distress.
Pick one, your biggest challenge or problem that’s got you tied in knots:
Ask yourself: What thoughts would I have to have to cause this?
Do you see where you could change any thoughts to eliminate or solve the challenge?
You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Just as science explains our brain evolved in three parts—the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex—A Course in Miracles reveals our mind has two “thought systems” or two distinct voices—the voice of fear, Ego, and the voice of love, Soul. The two voices offer wildly conflicting advice.
Your Ego is the spokesperson for the primitive brain. Its only job is to keep you safe by instilling fear—a job it’s been doing since the day you were born, when your survival depended on getting love, approval, and attention.
Your Soul, which gets its marching orders directly from the Divine, knows you’re safe. Its sole purpose is to make sure you soar, and it will continually nudge you to do what you’re here to do, even if what you’re here to do is scary.
The Ego urges you to hide and craves the comfort of the familiar.
The Soul pushes you to shine, favoring the uncertainty of the unknown, where all success lies.
The Ego makes excuses.
The Soul takes action.
The Ego focuses on your flaws, constantly comparing yourself to others, insisting you’re either better than or less than.
The Soul, filled with compassion for self and others, reminds you of your gifts.
Here’s what you need to keep firmly in mind: the Ego always speaks first and loudest. Just like it did during that conversation I had with Lee: What am I? Chopped liver? The Soul, whose voice is much calmer and quieter, requires stillness to be heard. In that discussion, my Soul was gently reminding me that I was hurt and angry, not because of Lee’s words, but my misinterpretation of them.
“You cannot follow two masters,” the Course warns. “There is no compromise between the two.”
The voice you repeatedly listen to will determine how your brain is wired. Rewiring for healthier habits is simply a matter of unplugging from your Ego and plugging into your Soul.
Rewire in Action
WHICH VOICE ARE YOU LISTENING TO?
At the end of the Introduction, you wrote down your intention for reading this book. Flip to page xxvii and look at it again. Write it here.
Now, close your eyes and ask your Ego what it thinks about your intention. Write down what your Ego says:
Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and relax because your Soul, which is subtle but tenacious, needs you to be still to hear its hushed whispers, its muted wisdom, and its loving guidance.
Now, what does your Soul say about your intention?
Write the answer here: ______________
What did you discover from doing this exercise?
The only people who don’t have insane relationships with money are those who were willing to examine their insane relationship with money.
We can’t talk about women and money without mentioning shame. Shame is a highly toxic, excruciatingly painful belief that you are so awful, so flawed, so worthless, that you’re completely unlovable. Shame is usually associated with some form of trauma, stemming from something as violent as physical beatings or as seemingly innocuous as my experience looking up at my parents’ window. Trauma occurs when a deeply disturbing or stressful event overwhelms our ability to cope and integrate the emotional effects. Trauma literally changes our brain.
“Traumatic experiences do leave traces,” wrote Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his marvelous book The Body Keeps the Score. “Which helps us explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat. And why traumatized people often keep repeating the same problems and have such trouble learning from experience.”8
I’m convinced that unhealed trauma and repressed pain are the major reasons smart, capable women struggle financially. When shame is triggered, our Ego, like a barking guard dog warning of impending danger, sends our primitive brain into a full-on fear response.
“It’s like our IQ drops 30 points,” Bret Lyon, founder of The Center for Healing Shame, explained during a workshop I attended. “We can’t think. We freeze. We feel stupid. We’re at a loss for words.”9
Of course, our instinctive reaction is to bury those feelings under a thick bundle of distractions. I call it the Secret Shame of Successful Women. And I see it all the time. Bright, sophisticated professionals, making ample incomes, who have little (if anything) in the bank to show for it.
The problem isn’t lack of money. That’s merely a symptom. The real problem is all the bottled-up emotions we have spent a lifetime avoiding. And what better way to keep from feeling pain than to unwittingly create financial turmoil by forgetting to pay bills, splurging on gifts, or maxing out credit cards, anything to distract ourselves from the insufferable sting of deep-seated shame. These behaviors are similar to how others numb themselves with constant busyness, overeating, or other addictions. Unfortunately, research has proven that submerging emotions actually intensifies anxiety.
“Not only is suppression ineffective at handling fear, but it’s counterproductive,” explains James Dillard, distinguished professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State. “It creates a cycle of fear—and it’s a vicious cycle.”10
Or as Sigmund Freud graphically stated: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth in uglier ways.” Buried emotions lock us into habitual patterns.
Years ago, I had a client who had struggled her whole life with chronic debt. The day she paid it off completely, she was suddenly flooded with scenes of early abuse. Financial tension had conveniently masked those terrible memories. I assured her these memories were coming up to be healed and she didn’t have to slip back into debt, as most people tend to do. I urged her to find a specialist in trauma therapy, which she did right away.
As she later told me: “Facing my pain has literally led to financial gain.”
But here’s what I’ve come to understand, after decades of working with thousands of women. Money shame is ubiquitous regardless of one’s economic status. I got my first glimpse of this many years ago, during a conversation with a friend. We began sharing how, growing up, we both felt a lot of shame around our family’s finances.
I, raised in wealth, hated feeling different from my friends, never knowing if they liked me for myself or for my rich parents. She, raised in poverty, loathed feeling inferior to her classmates, always suspecting they pitied or looked down on her.
Essentially, money itself (or lack of it) is never the true source of our shame. Money is simply a magnifier, amplifying the shame we already carry, the traumatic memories indelibly inked in our psyche.
The secret to financial security, for many, lies in transforming toxic shame (self-loathing) into healthy shame (self-compassion), which Dr. Lyon, of the Center for Healing Shame, describes as “Yeah, I’m a flawed human being like everyone else and I have strengths.”
When I witness a client continually repeating self-sabotaging behaviors, despite her genuine desire to change, I often urge her to seek therapy. I know from personal experience that the neuropathways carved out of painful memories can become set in cement.
According to a growing number of psychologists and psychiatrists, talk therapy is not always the most effective approach for trauma. As trauma expert Dr. van der Kolk points out, “The rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.”11
I sometimes send clients who are weighed down by early trauma to an EMDR therapist. EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a therapeutic approach developed specifically for trauma victims.
I first experienced EMDR in 2003 when I was desperately trying to save my unhappy second marriage. After only a few sessions, I realized the marriage wasn’t worth saving.
I recently returned to EMDR while working on the proposal for this book. Writing has always been a torturous experience. My Ego screams bloody hell: “You’re a horrible writer. No one will read this. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Forcing myself to keep at it—which for some crazy reason I’m compelled to do—becomes an agonizing battle. When my Ego started up again with this, my eighth book, I made an appointment with Laura Rose, the EMDR therapist to whom I refer clients.
She asked me to recall past memories that aroused similar feelings of crushing self-doubt.
During the third session, I saw my young self looking up at her parents’ window, certain she was no longer important. Laura asked me to get in touch with how that child must have felt. I had tremendous empathy for that little girl. But a split second later, a thought hit me. She was wrong! It wasn’t true! I saw everything so clearly. My rational brain knew, without any doubt, that my parents genuinely loved me, that I was and always will be important to them. I felt a rush of gratitude for finally realizing I’d been living a lie my whole life.
After that session, my Ego’s voice noticeably quieted down, no longer sending me into fits of panic. For the first time I actually enjoyed the writing, start to finish. And I’m slowly discovering who I truly am now without being defined by an erroneous belief that I came to under my parents’ window when I was three years old.
Of course, not everyone has the time, money, or interest in going to a professional therapist. There are a number of other methods for treating trauma and shame, such as mindfulness training, neurofeedback, and EFT (emotional freedom technique or tapping). There is a lot of information about these modalities available on the Internet, and they can often be done on your own.
If I have the belief I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning.
Let’s conclude this chapter by discussing self-efficacy. This is a word that’s rarely used in a financial context, but it is, without question, essential for wealth and well-being.
Self-efficacy—a psychological concept developed by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura—is the belief that I can do whatever I decide to do, trusting I’ll succeed no matter what.
Researchers Adele Atkinson and Flore Anne Messy, reporting on an international study of financial literacy, beautifully describe the importance of self-efficacy: “An individual needs to have the motivation to seek out financial information, the ability to control emotions that can affect their decision-making, and assurance in their own decision-making and financial management capabilities.”12
In other words, you may know that investing is necessary to build wealth and retire comfortably. You may even be quite knowledgeable about the subject, having attended a gazillion classes and read countless books. But if you don’t believe you can invest wisely without screwing up irreparably, you likely won’t even try. Or you’ll stop at the first stumbling block. Or worse, you’ll unconsciously make bad choices that reaffirm your limiting belief, just as I did for 40 years.
Strengthening the neuropathways for self-efficacy is the secret sauce for both financial success and personal well-being. It’s the difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it, between being highly competent and feeling truly confident, between traditional financial education and The Rewire Response.
A 2013 study of 1,542 Australian women, reported in the Journal of Economic Psychology, found “Women with higher financial self-efficacy are more likely to hold investment and savings products, and less likely to hold debt-related products.”13
The research discovered that financial self-efficacy, far more than financial literacy, is the most powerful predictor of financial well-being for women.
For years, studies have been telling us that women are far less confident in their ability to invest than men are. I’m convinced that enhancing self-efficacy is the missing link for leveling that playing field. Yet, how many classes have you attended, professional advisors have you visited, or books have your read that gave you the tools to shore up self-efficacy?
Unfortunately, traditional education tends to focus on facts and ignore the inner work. This is one of the things that inspired me to write this book. I want to teach you how to increase self-efficacy by training your mind to rewire your brain to confidently create wealth, well-being, and whatever else you want.