Hi End Deprivation: Treating the Wealthy Client

It is no social secret that having wealth can provide one with status and power.  It also opens the door to acquiring education and polish.  If a wealthy person also develops and maintains healthy moral and personal values, he or she will generally have a strong enough inner world to sustain his/her core needs for belonging, self esteem, contribution and love. In this case, wealth can be a great blessing. But, when wealth subsumes the self and substitutes for what we need on a deep, human level; it can become a Faustian bargain.

Children of wealth often begin life with prescribed identities and a sense of social and financial superiority; they can be easy targets for jealousy and are often seen as a success by their peers simply for being born where they are born.  This can make it difficult for them to form a personal identity. The world that their family likely inhabits comes with an already established set of rules and expectations that the child of wealth is tacitly expected to buy into. Also, having too much of everything can undermine their personal dreams as well.  They may reason that they do not deserve more and have no right to extended personal success.  They may give up their dreams before they get a chance to even formulate them in their minds.  Who are they to want anything when they already have so much? On the other side, why should they go through the tedious and frustrating experience of being on the bottom when they’re already at the top?  But, it is often just this experience of mastering the many small challenges that are part of climbing the ladder of success that builds confidence and self esteem. However, while climbing that ladder, the child of wealth encounters the same fears of failure that any person trying to succeed does, though in their case, the stakes can feel much higher.  What if they try and fail?  What if their deep fear that they can’t create a success equal to what they have inherited is confirmed.  Then their guilt over being handed such a life and their shame at feeling they both don’t deserve it and couldn’t do it for themselves is justified?  What if the shadow of the family founder is just too long and they never find their way into their own patch of sunlight? They may reason that it’s better not to try and opt to become professional rich person, where their entry level is already assured.  Additionally, the kinds of professions valued by the family founder may be the last ones the child of wealth might want to undertake.  They may have already seen and felt the loneliness of being unimportant in the eyes of the founder who may value money above all else.  They don’t wish to repeat this pattern so professions that seem to perpetuate this pain can become repelling. Furthermore, they have probably already experienced the dark side of wealth, the pain behind the publicly professed pleasure; the empty stage set after the curtain facing the audience has been drawn.

The no talk rules around money can make wealthy people feel that they’re carrying secrets.  Needless to say, this is an elephant in the living room since everyone clearly sees their wealth and all of its accoutrements. This sense of hiding an important part of themselves may add to a client’s feelings of not belonging.  The family who has kept addiction or wealth a “secret” while fostering the feeling of living outside of the norms and ordinary rules of much of society may set the child of wealth up for the lifestyle of an addict which tends to be secretive, outside the norm and rule breaking.

Money as a Mood Manager

Money can be a very effective mood manager.  But when we use money to control our inner and outer experience we are setting ourselves and our children up to do the same; to look for quick fixes to shift moods or gain a sense of belonging and connection. Over time we become dependent on this behavior, this process of spending to regulate mood, fill an inner void and provide us with an identity. But, as with any substance or process addiction, we build up a tolerance. Our ability to hear the voice of our inner world and respond to it can decrease as money, spending and its trappings occupy an ever increasing part of our lives and psychology. The perfect looking life that money can create comes to feel like a necessity rather than a privilege. It becomes an identity, a way of being in the world; in short, it becomes who we are.

Our current economy reflects this mania for more. We lose track of what we really need to sustain a sane life and mortgage our financial security to attain immediate gratification. Clearly, this financial drunkenness leads to a hangover or  crash on all levels, emotional, psychological and financial.

The Family

When too much wealth flows through a family system, small daily pains and annoyances can be skillfully removed from day-to-day living.  Unfortunately, it is these small frustrations that often teach us to develop what psychologists call “frustration tolerance” which eventually translates into an ability to tolerate larger frustrations.  Little of worth can be accomplished in life without an ability to tolerate frustration whether in the work place or at home.  Developing a meaningful profession, tolerating the ups and downs that are a part of any intimate relationship, and having the stamina to take care of children all require an ability to tolerate frustration.

When an over abundance of wealth flows through the family system, family members don’t learn how to regulate the ever fluid substance of money so poor affect regulation may become a family problem. They don’t learn what normal is.  This lack of ability to regulate can generalize to all sorts of areas liquor, food, spending, sex… how much is too much?  And remember the shadow side.  Parents may act on their guilt about having money by depriving themselves and those around them as often as they indulge them.  Couple this with the true and real deprivation of attention and caring that a child of wealth may experience from parents who have hired people to put do the job parenting, while they themselves make cameo appearances. When this happens, the pain of the child is significant.  In this case the child is asked to tolerate too much frustration, too much unrequited yearning, too much loneliness for the attention of the parent he/she longs for.  This further blows his/her frustration tolerance circuits.  If the parents are providing things, in lieu of time, the child is learning one of the primary lessons of addiction: I can kill my pain, at least temporarily, with something outside myself – bring on the mood regulators.  The catch 22 is that while they may be experiencing significant inner pain, the outside world is telling them that they are lucky.   And so, the child is ever more deeply confused as to what he/she really needs and how to realistically set about getting it.  Add to this feelings of being undeserving and over-entitled and you have a potent cocktail for inner turmoil that can contribute to a desire to self medicate.

Relational Issues

This population is used to getting what they want when they want it whether it’s good food, services or things. Personal relationships are a different story, however, and the wealthy person can find himself confused with the dynamics of intimacy. Friends, spouses and children are not employees; they don’t collect a pay check and don’t like receiving a bulleted list of tasks and objectives. Though the person of wealth cannot fire blood relatives they may fire them emotionally if they become too demanding, preferring the types of relationships where they are more in control, less challenged and feel more “appreciated”. This can especially be true of the person who holds the purse strings; why should they endure the interpersonal demands and disappointments of real intimacy when the rest of the world writes them thank you notes, gives them awards and does what they’re told?

On the other hand, there is always what psychologist Carl Jung referred to as the “shadow” or the part of a person that is the submerged opposing aspect. The same person who feels overly entitled and important can have a shadow that feels small and insignificant.  They may feel guilty and out of balance and even yearn for someone to “put them in their place” so to speak.  The other end of being controlling is feeling out of control, and on the other end of feeling over entitled is feeling under entitled. In this scenario, the wealthy person may tolerate too much, their guilt allows other people to use them and take advantage of them.  They tend to have a hard time feeling entitled to personal boundaries. Their guilt and shame about having gotten too much, too easily, immobilizes.  Their issues around regulation keep them from knowing what “normal” is.  They dare not ask for more and they feel undeserving of more while simultaneously feeling entitled to the superior treatment they have always had.

In their growing years, some children of wealth have spent most of their time with employees – people who were paid to care for them, who had shifts and could be hired and fired.  This can make the most consistent relationships in a child’s life, ie the parents, somewhat distant and formal while they learn skills of intimacy from their primary caretakers, who may not be parents. Being “raised by the help” can open the door to anything from neglect, abuse, emotional alienation, wonderful bonds with down to earth people, having an unnatural edge over authority figures to being under the direct authority of and spending the bulk of their time with people who come and go. These are not the best ways to learn skills of intimacy.

Socially speaking, wealthy people may feel both superior and marginalized, or out of the main stream. This is often missed by others as the wealthy person seems so lucky or prominent but underneath may feel that they are different and that they don’t belong. This split between feeling like a highly valued member of society because of social status yet different from the general population, can be exacerbated if there is trouble at home. Feeling undervalued in the family system or by the family founder (read: wealth generator) can lead to a cognitive and emotional dissonance.  It can become a cumulative trauma which may lead the child of wealth to self medicate in order to obliterate the pain and confusion.

A Target for Jealousy and Transference

Another issue that the wealthy client may face is the clinician’s own counter transference issues when it comes to money.  Without a therapist understanding this, the client is at risk of being shamed, misunderstood or hurt by a clinician who is using pat answers and projecting their own unresolved money issues onto a vulnerable person in need of help.  This can be re traumatizing for a wealthy client.

The client who possesses wealth can be a target for transference and counter transference in other ways, too. In a group, for example, those who might be struggling financially may experience envy toward the wealthy group member. The envy might express itself in excluding the wealthy group member from cliques, criticism about things they do in group or put downs that are covering up jealousy. The therapist who has their own unresolved issues around wealth can act out their counter transference by colluding in this non preferential treatment unconsciously, putting the wealthy group member in a vulnerable spot. There may be a tendency on the part of others, whether fellow group members or therapists, to want to see wealthy people as unhappy, snobby, spoiled or superficial as a way of mollifying their own jealous feelings. Somehow it makes it easier to tolerate feelings of envy if we can see the person possessing wealth as in some way miserable or “paying a high price” for their privileged status. The idea that they have something we just don’t have, much as we may wish we had it, is easier to swallow if we devalue it in some way.

Recently, I’ve become aware of two cases of therapists acting out with their wealthy clients in hurtful ways. One is a therapist who called an old client who had previously spent six years in therapy with him and asked him to float him a loan or bail him out financially.  The other is a therapist who asked his client to put him up for membership in his client’s social club.

This is a population that needs and deserves the same sensitive treatment as any other group. They can feel marginalized and insecure.  They crave acceptance and love, not the kind of sympathy that may represent a counter phobic response of a biased or even envious therapist or group member, but genuine empathy and understanding.

Characteristics of Children of Wealth AND Addiction

Guilt and Shame vs Self Indulgence

The child of wealth may carry deep guilt and shame over their privileged status in life.  They have grown up feeling different from their less wealthy friends, called  “ rich-kid” names or expected to chip in extra when paying the food bill or the bar bill.  They have been seen as lucky and successful, connected to the kind of power and privilege that our society values as the ultimate prize and the most significant of all accomplishments.  These kinds of shallow values, seeing the acquisition of wealth as the end all and be all, can deeply confuse the child of wealth who may already be paying an internal price at feeling different from other kids.

With bewildering, conflicting feelings of superiority and inferiority and an identity that doesn’t feel like his own, the child of wealth may take refuge in a self indulgence that is designed to take away these inner conflicts, nagging fears about the future or feelings of alienation and insecurity.

When family addiction is also present, this child can experience mind and heart numbing swings between emotional deprivation and over indulgence.  Their “beautiful” world can feel like it is constantly mocking what is going on underneath.

Entitlement  vs Feeling Undeserving

Entitlement is one of the most commonly cited qualities of the child of wealth (though it can emerge with equal force at the opposite end of the social spectrum). Things have always magically appeared for the child of wealth with or without effort on his part.  His family money has generally provided him with layers of service that grease his path through the world and remove frustrating obstacles that others have had to learn to cope with and accept. This can become a habit and an expectation that gets layered onto many situations.

On the other hand he may reason, “I have so much I don’t deserve to want any more so I will foreclose on my own dreams.  I will play small so people won’t hate me; I’ll be self deprecating and hold my wants back so that no one can point a finger at me and call me over indulged.” The sad truth here is that the children of wealth don’t allow themselves to be as big as they naturally are.  They hold back and stay beneath the radar so that they won’t feel over exposed. They play small and withhold their own natural talents and desire for success. Sibling order may play a role here.  Perhaps the first follows the family founder and the second or third look for other roles.

When addiction is present feelings of not deserving and feeling objectified by both their family and their social world are driven even deeper underground.  The hole in the soul of the child who is isolated by both wealth and addiction grows ever deeper and wider.

Hi Profile vs Hi Isolation

Children of wealth, oftentimes, have access to a social status that carries a certain amount of high regard in worldly terms. Doors are open to them that might be closed to others. Positions on boards, memberships to clubs, and entrée into social situations is oftentimes a natural part of the life of wealthy people. This allows them an assumed level of social status.

Wealth also allows one to live in a sort of splendid isolation. Wealthy people can afford to live in exclusive worlds apart from everyday people. Deep feelings of disconnection from others, not feeling “normal” like other people, feeling marginalized from the rest of the world – all of these feelings can simmer beneath the surface for this population. Then, as they feel disconnected and lack the natural security gained from feeling “part of the gang”, they may erect defensive walls that further isolate them. This feeling of disconnection can be a traumatizing experience that is cumulative over time.

Addiction is traumatizing and trauma victims tend to feel different from others and often isolate themselves in their own private worlds of pain. The combination of the isolation that follows wealth and the isolation that accompanies trauma and addiction can be a double whammy for the child of wealth from an addicted family. This becomes a vicious circle in which the more isolated one becomes, the more difficulty there is in re-engaging, and the more difficult re-engaging is, the more isolated one becomes. This cycle can deepen pain which can lead to a desire to self medicate with drugs, alcohol, food, spending, sex and so on.

Low Self Esteem  vs.  Grandiosity

The child of wealth may feel that nothing they can accomplish will ever match the huge accomplishment of the family founder.  The founder all too often values making money above any other accomplishment, seeing money as strength, power and the ultimate success. Family founders tend to have their own identity, they “came from behind, they made it” while the child of wealth is always living up to an identity other than his own – a family identity or the identity of the dominant person.  This may, or may not, fit for him and his natural personality. In addition, the wealthy family may tend not to value professions that don’t lead to wealth or a high profile.   All of this can undermine the self esteem of the child of wealth.

Furthermore, people worship other people with money.  Money in our society buys anything – houses, cars, clothes, social status– spouses, friends. These are the people who tip big, pick up the check and donate to causes, schools and museums. The child of wealth and addiction may opt for the easy way of feeling good about himself, depending on what his wealth can buy rather than what he can accomplish on his own. He may become grandiose as a defense against darker emotions that threaten to protrude into his consciousness.

High Expectations vs. No Expectations

The child of wealth can be caught in a painful bind between feeling the pressure of succeeding in larger than life terms, trying to reach an ever heightening bar of success and having very little expected of him or her. This tends to be the child who has a summer program rather than a summer job, who has no practical needs that drive him to work. Getting a job and contributing to one’s life in needed and practical ways can be a real source of self esteem for any growing person. The fact is that the child of wealth does not have these needs, whatever he will earn as a young person will probably be less than he has easy access to through his parents. And, if addiction was present he has likely swung between emotional abuse and over indulgence. Children of wealth have often been a part of a family that has unusual focus and discipline. Fortunes aren’t made by magic and family founders are often among the most disciplined of society and scorn those who aren’t. They can also be ruthlessly competitive as illustrated by the well known problem Thomas Edison had losing in any game to his children, even when they were very young. This is not a normal sentiment for most fathers and can leave children confused about what is normal to expect of those close to them and of themselves.

If addiction is also present the child of wealth can experience much more emotional abuse than is easily seen. They can be psychologically battered by a parent who sees them as shiftless, lazy and undeserving and who feels a very real contempt toward them along with the abuse that follows in addictions wake. The addict may well be the spouse of the founder who is self medicating his or her own loneliness and disillusionment.  In this case, the child of wealth may lose access to two parents, one who is lost in alcohol and drugs and one who is lost in work.

Helplessness vs Perceived Powerfulness

The children of wealth have often had many situations in life handed to them. They have not had to “put up” with the initial stages of getting something started for themselves, getting a job or starting at the bottom. They have had housekeepers who wash their clothes and pick up their messes and gardeners to mow the lawn and other kinds of help that have removed them from many daily tasks that others have to cope with in order to take care of themselves. As a result, wealthy people may actually not know how to take the steps to organize their lives that others take for granted. Their social skills may not crossover to types of skills necessary for succeeding in business or even recovery. Their relationships with people may have been limited to socializing rather than networking, for example. They may also lack a certain aggression in career paths because they didn’t need to be aggressive, in fact the opposite, they were more likely to be cordial or to fend off those who were aggressing toward them. When they are faced with needing to “make friends” they feel compromised or unable to take the preliminary steps involved. Also, the learned helplessness that accompanies trauma, which is inevitably incumbent on addiction, can exacerbate the helplessness of the wealthy client and immobilize him.

At the same time, wealthy clients may feel they are entitled to special treatment, that they shouldn’t have to go to twelve step meetings like other people or get “down and dirty” in recovery. They are used to having other people do things for them and they may want or expect other people to get them well, too. They may want it to happen easily or quickly, to be provided with crib notes on recovery so to speak. This can frustrate clinicians who are aware that addiction and codependency are basically the same for everyone and it doesn’t get better by itself.

High Bottom vs No Bottom

Earning a living can provide boundaries that set off alarms that we respond to where necessary. But, for the person with wealth, that boundary is often removed. There is no bottom. The need to earn a paycheck may not exist and bills get paid whether the substance abuser is using or not.  Addicted parents can “buy out” of parenting by hiring others to do their job whether they are using or not. This can mean that even thought the wealthy person or parent can be extremely sick and addicted, outward appearances are more or less maintained. The wolf never gets to the door. The child in this circumstance suffers deeply. While to the outer world he may seem fortunate, the inner world of his family is falling apart and he is living a split identity.  In the absence of the kinds of constraints that would bring most families to their knees, this family lives with a wound that never heals, a constant low level of desperation. Smiling to the world in which they operate has the effect of making them feel that they are unseen and living a lie.

On the other hand, this is also the family who has access to the best resources money can buy and the wit and savvy to use them. Being able to reach out for help, gives this group an excellent chance at recovery. It does require, however, that the family, addict, enabler et al, come to the humble realization that they have fallen prey to an illness that is bigger than they are.  In short, that in spite of their wealth and status, they are really no better or different from anyone else.

For the purpose of the online CE Course, the article objectives are:

  • To make therapists aware of their own counter transference issues as related to wealth.
  • To outline the issues common among wealthy clients that may emerge during the course of treatment.
  • To show how money can set the stage for addictions and how growing up with money can lead to other process addictions.
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