From the December 2008 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

December 1, 2008

WHAT ABOUT ME?

During these chaotic market times, many clients are struggling to stay calm and confident. Fortunately, they have you to vent to, to express their concerns and hopefully get some relief. But, what about us? I am sure you will agree that many advisors are feeling just as much--and dare I say even more--pain than their clients in these volatile times. But where do we turn? How can we get some relief from this extraordinary level of stress?

With that in mind, I sought out the wisdom of Dr. Alden Cass, a licensed clinical psychologist and an expert on the use of psychology in the brokerage industry. In 1999, he conducted a groundbreaking behavioral healthcare study on financial advisors, "Casualties of Wall Street: An Assessment of the Walking Wounded," that indicated that approximately 61% of advisors exhibit various symptoms of clinical depression, and more than 20% of the group measured met criteria for major depression. These numbers are troubling because they are significantly larger than national averages for the general public. Furthermore, his study showed that, overall, advisors are at higher risk for mental health problems such as burnout, emotional exhaustion, substance abuse and anxiety disorders than the general population. Unfortunately, Cass also found that they rarely seek help until they hit rock bottom because they feel uncomfortable talking about depression and anxiety. Having those feelings, they believe, is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately for many of them, seeking mental health assistance is still one of the great taboos.

Now please don't take this the wrong way. I am not saying that wealth managers are depressed or have emotional issues. But these are extreme and unprecedented times that can bring even the best and most successful down. I am hearing too many stories from too many advisors about the state of affairs in their offices. So sit back and think: Is your behavior atypical or disturbing? Are you short tempered? Feeling misunderstood? Having trouble sleeping? If not you, your partner? Your employees?

You may want to ask your significant other if they are seeing changes in your behavior. Over the last week Cass says three out of five new clients were told they were "miserable to live with" and thus motivated by family members to seek help. What he is hearing is that many advisors are coming home from work emotionally fried. They have a sense of hopelessness and purposelessness when the investors panic and won't listen to reason. They are being verbally abused by angry clients and are struggling with fears of job instability--many for the first time in their careers. Many to have lost the feeling that they can control their own destiny given such volatile markets, a global market crisis, and government intervention that doesn't fall into a recognizable historical behavioral pattern. Loss of control is making these individuals panic.

Cass has generally found that the extreme and unrelenting anxiety of our current times results first in a feeling of helplessness ("there's nothing I can do to change it"), then hopelessness ("this is never going to end") and, eventually, a deep sense of worthlessness ("I can't handle it anymore; I can't take the heat"). The bottom line, he feels, is that advisors as a whole are perfectionists with very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose--they leave no room for error or failure; they are most critical of themselves for poor performance and misfortunes are far more salient to them than positive achievements.

Furthermore, Cass is coming across many advisors who do not want to share their concerns, fears or change in financial situations with their significant others and thus have added another layer of stress to their equation. He wants you to know that if you identify with this, you are certainly not alone. In fact, Cass told me that within the past month, in one week he had five new client intakes, which is unheard of for a private practice coach or psychologist. A normal rate would be one new client per month.

But he tells his clients that the quality that differentiates the men from the boys--i.e. your future success, in these irrational times--is perception. How an individual perceives his or her past successes or failures can determine the success of the present. Take the differing reactions of Advisor A and Advisor B:

Advisor A walks into his office and screams: "This is a total nightmare. I will never be able to grow my business or get back to where I was, because no one will ever invest again." This vicious cycle of negative thinking validates irrational, bearish thoughts of victimization and incompetence which, in turn, keep him frozen.

Advisor B, on the other hand, admits that these are extreme times and that being an advisor will be challenging over the next year or so, but she views it as a part of her job to deal with market cycles, and that over time the market (and her ego) will heal. Her cautious optimism allows her to continue to seek new clients with confidence and tenacity. Translating her concerns into action, she is focused on what she can control, versus what she cannot.

Cass calls Advisor B's approach "Bullish Thinking," which he describes "as the ability to see the sun through the clouds." It's a cognitive technique that he teaches his clients to help them maintain emotional discipline in the face of adversity. It helps them get back to the top of their game and prevents them from bringing their bad moods home. Simplistic? Perhaps, but for many self-critical perfectionists thinking bullishly after experiencing an unanticipated, negative event is very tough to do.

In his latest two books, Bullish Thinking: The Advisor's Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street and The Bullish Thinking Guide for Managers, Cass details his lessons and action plans. His hope is that readers will learn to take a different mental approach and reassess their concerns from a more logical perspective, to recognize what has to be done and do it, rather than react emotionally in a way that prevents them from being proactive. Passionate about his subject matter, he feels strongly that those who are not students of "bullish thinking" are more susceptible to self-defeating behaviors. which often lead to self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or promiscuity.

Your state of mind correlates directly to your level of success; it is a powerful weapon against the stresses we all face every day, and most importantly, it is what sets you apart from your competition. You must look at the positive evidence in your life, the evidence that challenges these bearish thoughts. Monitor the negative thoughts that stressors bring into your mind and carefully scrutinize what you say to yourself.

Let's look at the differences between the consequences of a "bullish" perception and a "bearish" perception. Cass divides them into Physiological, Performance and Emotional:

In addition to being a working therapist and an author, Cass is president of Competitive Streak Consulting, which assists companies by identifying and correcting employee problems before they hamper productivity and job satisfaction. If you or someone you know is struggling during these volatile times, search for some support. Cass says warning signs are a depressed mood for about two weeks and a sense of guilt, hopelessness and impairment in social and occupational functioning. (For more information about Cass, check out his Web site, www.catsg.com.)

We always tell our clients not to suffer through market turmoil alone--to reach out to us whenever they have concerns, fears, etc. Don't you deserve the same? I am not saying we all should run into therapy; I am saying that if you find yourself in the negative column, seek someone or something to help you. Susan L. Hirshman CFA, CPA, CFP, (sheltd1@gmail.com) is a managing director and wealth advisor at JPMorgan Private Wealth Management in New York

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