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Shifting your wealth from worry to wellbeing

Iris Brilliant is an anti-capitalist money coach who guides wealthy people who are confused about what to do with their money. She offers a compassionate space for people to address their shame and anxiety about money. Using her expertise in social justice philanthropy and investing she helps them create a plan for their wealth, lead values-aligned lives and help fund social justice.

Here she talks to Beacon’s Philanthropy Network Director Sarah Hughes…

Sarah:  I’m interested in the idea that money can make you unwell, or cause a lot of anxiety, including when you are wealthy. What is your experience of this and how does  anxiety manifest among the rich?

Iris: The moment we receive something good, we start grasping onto it and are afraid of losing it. That’s what I see happening with my clients when they inherit wealth or quickly earn more money than they’re accustomed to. There’s this very human reaction of immediately being afraid of losing it and grasping on tightly. As we grasp on, we don’t realise how much stress we’re putting in our body; how exhausting it is to suddenly be so afraid of losing something. Something that’s meant to be a gift and a privilege becomes a kind of burden.

When that occurs, a great deal of suffering immediately happens both to the individual and  to their sense of self in the world and their relationships. My work starts there, by helping my clients notice the tension they’re holding in their body and emotionally.

It really doesn’t matter how much money people have. They could inherit half a million, they could inherit 20 million. The stress is still the same. I try to help my clients recognise those stresses and unpack them. What are our fears of what will happen if we lose or give away some of this money? Or consider not investing the money in super lucrative extractive investments just to get richer?

Supporting people to really examine what those fears are helps them make an active choice: how much stress they want to take on when it comes to the tension between protecting versus softening the grip around their money.

Sarah: Iris, can you explain what a money coach is and why you became (an anti-capitalist) one?

Iris: Broadly speaking, money coaches come from an industry of all kinds of professionals, some of whom want to help you make more money, while others want to help you work on your relationship with money and so on. It’s a broad term, but there is a small group of us in the US who work with wealthy people on wealth redistribution commitments. It’s a very small subset.

I’m an anti-capitalist money coach, which means everything I do is played out in the wider context that we’re living in corporate capitalism and we’re functioning in an economy that is not sustainable, that isn’t working for the majority of people and that really relies on exploitation to function properly.

So I take the stance that may be controversial, which is that I don’t believe there’s such a thing as moral capitalism. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as capitalism being reformed to work better for people. My belief is we need a new economy that’s going to actually support the well being of the majority of the world and of the planet.

So I’m an anti-capitalist money coach who specifically works with wealthy people who want to do the opposite of what they were told to do! That is to redistribute wealth, to divest from extractive investments, to have the audacity to talk about money and to disclose their finances for the sake of being transparent in their lives. To dare to consider giving up unearned power and moving towards a life of more humility and closeness with others.

And to also just dare to feel and explore all of the emotions that we have that are connected to wealth and our money stories and our family’s money stories.

Shifting from worry to wellness: Getting real, personal beliefs systems, family stories, big picture commitments

Sarah: Are there any clear steps or stages that a wealthy person can move through to shift from money worry to money wellbeing?

Iris: There’s a very clear formula. Everyone’s a bit different, but for the most part, there’s a kind of predictable arc I take clients through to experience a lot more ease in their relationship with money and wealth.

The first is getting clear on how much money you have, which might sound simple, but I would say 90% of my clients are inaccurate in how much money they think they have, until we really go through and add up their bank accounts and their assets. I would say 99% of the time my clients are richer than they thought.

Then we explore people’s default beliefs about money, and it never ceases to amaze me just how many different and opposing beliefs we carry about money that we’ve just inherited from society and from our family. So we really unpack our different moral beliefs about money and power and our different emotional experiences and early lived experiences connected to money.

I often tell my clients that my first memory of money was my Dad taking me shopping, and he was too embarrassed to come into the girls clothing area, so he sent me off by myself with a $100 bill. I was nine or ten. I don’t know why he decided to do that. I lost the money while I was trying on clothes, and I just had this horrible sinking feeling that I was going to get in a lot of trouble and that I was spoiled and bad for losing this money. And I did get in trouble. As a result, I used to carry a lot of shame and fear. The idea that I’m bad at money and if I make a mistake with money, I’ll get in really big trouble comes directly from that first experience.

Additionally, we will explore legacy and family messages around money because a lot of us carry instinctive money reflexes that we’re not sure of the origins for. However, we know trauma gets passed down intergenerationally. So there’s always trauma in a family lineage that is in some way connected to safety and survival. For those of us who are raised wealthy and have wealth today, demystifying that can help us understand why we have so much fear about our security.

And then we will look at values we have that are bigger than any feeling or emotion about money. An example could be someone setting out that they want to commit to climate justice and to feeling proud of what they did in their lifetime to support different ecosystems to flourish. That becomes their guiding principle and is set as something that matters more to them than their individual comfort. This allows them to create a long term vision for what they want in their lives.

Finally, when we have those commitments laid down as part of a vision for the life they want to lead, we identify the measurable, courageous steps they’re going to take to move towards that long term vision, both for themselves and for the world they want to see. That always includes setting a concrete giving goal that feels more brave than ones they’ve had before.

And then the coaching shifts into offering accountability and support to ensure they’re making progress on their goals and supporting them when they get stuck, which often happens when we have ambitious goals.

Sarah: Do you include all the different ways they can use their capital for good in your coaching? Would you talk about impact investing and if so, does that surprise any of your clients?

Iris: All of my clients here in the US are very interested in impact investing and divestment and all the different aspects of the burgeoning ‘just economy’. So no one is surprised to look at leveraging all their actions and resources.

I find it a tricky topic, however. I recently read Marjorie Kelly’s book “Wealth Supremacy: How the Extractive Economy and the Biased Rules of Capitalism Drive Today’s Crises” and I recommend it. It’s an incredible book.

One of the things she talks about is capital bias, which is a bias towards maximum increase of capital, no matter what, which is ultimately to benefit the wealth holders and the shareholders at the expense of workers, the economy and the planet.

I worked at a wealth management firm that does social impact investing. And in working there and studying different types of socially responsible investing, I’ve learned we have to be really careful to look under the hood of where our money is being invested. There will always be marketing that tells us that it’s impact-oriented or more socially aware than other forms of investments, which it might very well be. The bottom line is, when we are making more profit than inflation rates from our investments, we’re always extracting.

Marjorie has a great expression in the book: “There’s a dream world of wealth. The fiction that financial gains somehow fall from the sky pristine and unblemished.”

And that’s exactly the myth we’re taught. You see this little number on your computer screen that’s invested somewhere. You don’t know where it is. It magically grows as it’s supposed to, and all is well and good. But underneath that number on your screen are human beings who are working and being barely paid for their efforts. They don’t get to have any agency in the company. And the profits go to us, those who aren’t doing anything.

So part of what I do is help clients develop more discernment around which types of investments truly are centred on social justice and which ones are just a little bit less bad than being invested in oil companies.

The wealthy white family has firm rules

Sarah: Iris, you’ve written about the “rules of the white wealthy family”. Can you summarise them for us and why wealthy white people, or all who are wealthy, should understand and resist them?

Iris: I think this article series is relevant to all wealthy people, although not every message will resonate as deeply with families of colour or immigrants who have different family and community values. But some of them certainly still will, because these are general rules of wealth.

In the ten years I have been doing this work I have seen two things hundreds of times over that make me very curious.

I’ll be coaching people on increasing their giving and I’ll find that a lot of the people who come to me are only giving away 1% or 2% of their money annually and want to increase this and will happily increase a little bit. But when we explore the possibility of greater giving from the principal or corpus, there’s this full body shutdown. Again, it doesn’t matter how big the corpus is, there’s an intense fear that I see on my clients’ faces. This total block that it is not okay to spend down, it is not okay for the next generation of your family to have less money than you.

The second contradiction is with clients who are very committed to community, perhaps they live more in a community and they have a really strong network of relationships, but they are terrified to share money with people they know. They can give to nonprofits, but they are scared and overwhelmed at the concept of giving money to people in their lives who deeply need money.

These two contradictions led me to a lot of research and then to this article series which made total sense to write because I see so much of it.

The first article is my best attempt to examine the unconscious beliefs that we were taught about family and money. Beliefs that serve to preserve wealth in wealthy families and not have us share money with anyone else, through the guise of it being just. This is how family is and is intended to be.

The first rule is that the nuclear family is the only legitimate form of family. And I know it very much lives in my body that in order to have a good or successful life, I need a spouse and I need to have kids. I think a lot of us feel that pressure and there’s a lot of reasons why. But one of them is because the nuclear family is one way to preserve wealth within a wealthy family and to make the lines of inheritance extremely clear.

The next, which goes with the first rule, is that you can’t share money outside the family. The only new person you can bring in is someone that you will marry. Beyond that, it’s inappropriate, it’s rude, it’s simply not done. To share money with your friends, employees, neighbours; it’s inconceivable for us and another thing that serves to preserve wealth within wealthy families.

That’s two of the rules, the next three cover why anything goes in the name of family, secrecy and the strict behaviour code that traps us all.

I really encourage your readers to dig into the article, and I would add another read that I think they might appreciate. This one is about the conditionings in philanthropy and finance around perpetuity legacy with the default assumption that we need to preserve wealth for future generations and that generations should only get wealthier over time. This is core to what I want your readers to consider questioning.

It’s natural and normal for parents to want to feel reassured that their children will be okay when they die. That’s just such a natural and loving instinct and a really beautiful thing. I want people to avoid taking it to the extreme though.

Because when you give your kids enough money to live off of indefinitely without having to work, let alone when you create trust funds for your grandchildren or your unborn grandchildren — which people can do and my clients parents often do so — you are actually setting up your children to be really disempowered in their lives.

Rather than a gift, you are opening them up to a huge world of existential turmoil, insecurity around their ability to work, separation and alienation from others, potential  entitlement, and a lot of mental struggles and mental health issues at the expense of keeping more resources that really the rest of the world desperately needs.

So I encourage anyone concerned about releasing capital and letting their descendants down to reconsider, as leaving massive inheritance might not be the gift that you hope it would be.

I meet a lot of clients who would much prefer quality time with their parents over all the material luxury. It’s kind of tragic because I believe the parents were working really hard with the belief they were taking care of their kids but then were unintentionally neglecting them and having their children just basically be raised by other people.

And so most children just want quality time and emotional nurturing from their parents and they want that more than toys and they want that more than money.

That’s really at the core of where we get stuck around wealth redistribution is around parenting and around family. I encourage your readers to just reflect on what type of legacy you really want to leave behind and if that can really be achieved through inheritance.

Exploring generosity

Sarah: I’d love to know what generosity means for you personally, how it either shows up in your life or work, or how you get to tap into your own generosity.

Iris: For me, generosity is doing something that is difficult to do. I don’t feel particularly generous if I buy lunch for someone. It’s a nice thing to do – a gesture. But I more feel generous when I do something that’s genuinely hard. So, for example, my friend went through a really traumatic experience when they got robbed and they didn’t want to sleep alone in their home. So I loaned them my dog. My dog is my emotional support animal. I love her so much.

At the time I was really struggling with my mental health and I really didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be away from my dog. But I knew it was important to do. To me, that is being generous — more than doing things that externally look or seem generous. I feel the same way about receiving.

If somebody comes and they’re super busy and stressed but they still make the time to show up for me and to offer me emotional support or to spend time with me, even if it’s challenging for them, I really feel the generosity of that.

I think that that’s what’s hard about what it means to be generous.

When you have $20 million, at what level would you have to give for it to really challenge your life and affect your life? That’s going to be quite a big number, right? And so I think that’s where giving can sometimes get confusing when we’re working with such unfathomably high numbers, because it’s just difficult to give at a level that will actually reflect some type of sacrifice on your end.

Sarah: Your dog example is incredibly generous. When you did such a thing, did you enjoy it? Did you allow yourself to feel the halo of generosity? Because you’re allowed to feel warm and fuzzy.

Iris: I absolutely believe that. I believe in taking in the moment. I usually encourage clients to pause after they donate and just notice what they feel in their body. I have them imagine the communities they’re supporting. With the dog story, if I’m honest, I think I felt a mixture of relief for my friend who I knew was sleeping better, and felt reassured, but I also felt sadness because I missed my dog. But then I got her back. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

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