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The Psychology of Advice: Getting Your Act Together

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While Bernie Madoff’s empire was falling apart, remember how he would walk past the cameras with no sign of emotion except for a small, nervous smirk? That impassivity was more infuriating to many of his victims than if he had cracked under the strain, wept, and tried to explain or apologize for what he had done.

Despite scattered signs of hope and recovery, many of us face the real or potential crash of our own “empire” every day: a job loss, shattered dreams, a strained or broken marriage, loan default, even bankruptcy. With all this stress, it’s no wonder so many people are experiencing various forms of meltdown. Some of us react, like Mr. Madoff, by acting as if nothing serious were happening; others reach out for help, and still others shut down and hide from the world. These different behaviors require special understanding–and different interventions.

Q: I happened to walk into my colleague’s office the other day, and he was sobbing. While it was a little tough to get him to open up about what was going on, it turns out that his marriage is breaking up, partly because of the economic crisis and the money pressure it’s put on his family. He’s usually a strong person, and I told him to talk to me if he needed any help, but I don’t know how to really help him. Does he need a grief therapist? How do I find a good one in my small town?

A: Our society values stoicism, and tends to view breaking down in public as a sign of emotional instability. (When Hillary Clinton misted up under stress, it made many people doubt whether she was presidential timber.) But it’s both normal and healthy for people to need to grieve for life disruptions that involve loss and letting go of the past. No matter whether your colleague has had a good or bad marriage, something is being ripped apart as it ends. The pain may catapult him into the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and at last (hopefully) reconciliation with a new reality. Meanwhile, his financial losses are engendering grief and sadness as well. In short, this normally well-functioning guy is reeling from a double whammy of loss and sorrow. No wonder he’s sobbing at his desk!

You’re a sensitive friend to tune in to his concurrent losses and think about finding assistance for him. I would suggest taking him out for coffee or lunch and asking him about his sources of support. If he isn’t making time to de-stress himself, you may be able to help by taking walks with him or going to the gym together. Find out if he has access to a pastoral counselor or spiritual support group.

Although a grief counselor is a fine eventual choice, he might consider a marital therapist, who can help him and his wife decide if this is truly the time to call it quits. If so, this professional will help them give the relationship what I like to call a respectful burial, honoring what they had even if it has now ended. Or, he may be able to get through this crisis with the aid of any good therapist who connects well with him. If this is necessary, many therapists charge on a sliding scale for clients who are financially stressed.

Q: While taking the train to work today, I ran into a former client who was also headed into the city, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying his laptop case. Having heard through the grapevine that he’d recently been laid off, I thought he might have a new job. However, he volunteered to me that he goes in to “work” at an Internet cafe every day. It’s to “keep the rhythm going,” he said. I understand that it’s important for some people to keep up appearances, but this seems like he’s in denial. What’s your opinion?

A: It’s perfectly understandable that you first thought this might be a charade. However, there is considerable therapeutic value in people’s resilience and ability to “act as if” they are confident in the midst of a serious setback. Your former client’s determination to keep his routine going and make job-hunting at the caf? his work may be just what the doctor ordered. With this discipline, he is able to keep on keeping on instead of being paralyzed or laid low by his job loss and concomitant sense of failure.

David DeSteno, a Northeastern University psychologist, points out in an April 7 New York Times article that pride is vital “for thriving in difficult social circumstances, in ways that are not at all obvious.” Research noted in this article (“When All You Have Left Is Your Pride”) indicates that whether you feel “authentic” pride, based on real accomplishments, or “hubristic” pride, which is closer to arrogance or narcissism, putting on a good face can convince others that you are worthy of respect.

So I applaud your client’s continuing to function in this way, with one important caveat: unless he is one of those people who recover better from trauma or crisis on their own, his solo solution may fail if he tries to hide his true situation from everyone in his world, thereby isolating himself from sources of comfort and support. An awareness of when you need help, in combination with “acting as if” you feel confidence and hope, may be the best remedy to restore balance.

Q: I’m at my wits’ end. My clients are so needy that I haven’t had a chance to reassess my own family’s financial situation. Everyone at the office is earning less, my wife complains that she never sees me, and our youngest child has just been diagnosed with a problem that may require surgery. I know these worries aren’t even in the right order. I haven’t slept well in days, and keep having episodes where my heart races and I think I’m having a heart attack. I need to get a grip on myself, but how?

A: It sounds like your personal tachometer is definitely redlining–a warning to ease off before you break down. To begin with, I’d suggest that you put all your work aside at least once a week (twice is better) to spend quality time with your wife, doing something that costs little but brings you respite and fun. Take care to exercise and eat well. Meditation, breathing exercises, or relaxation practice can all be beneficial ways to shift down to a lower gear.

You should also consider visiting your family doctor. If there’s nothing organically wrong, he or she may recommend that you see a pastoral counselor or therapist to help you cope with your stress. As to your money worries, have you considered consulting another financial advisor for some impartial assistance? Just as therapists need therapy from other therapists (because we can’t easily mirror our blind spots and patterns to ourselves), I believe that advisors occasionally need to consult their peers for help in planning for themselves.

Q: Because of reduced revenues, our practice recently had to let a paraplanner go. She took it very hard–when she finally went out the door, we were all nearly in tears. Although I, for one, offered to give her a good reference, I hear she isn’t looking for a new job. She just hides at home all day, playing some sort of online game. I feel I should reach out to help her, but this is a tricky proposition since I’m her former boss. Should I call her, pretending I don’t know how she’s doing, and try to buck her up?

A: You sound like a caring boss, and this former employee definitely needs compassionate help. I think you should throw caution to the winds, follow your instincts, and phone her. As gently as possible, make it clear that you are calling her as a friend, not on behalf of the company (so she doesn’t get false expectations about being rehired).

I would invite her out for lunch or coffee and propose some job leads to her, if you can come up with any in these trying times. Without opening a can of worms about her departure from your firm, you can remind her of all her strengths and positive qualities and ask what she is doing to keep her spirits up. If you know any stories about people who turned a similar setback into an opportunity, share them with her.

My guess is that the amount of time on her hands contributes to her low morale. If she’s ever had an impulse to volunteer, encourage her to consider it now. You might also ask if there are any personal interests she hasn’t had time to pursue before. Any worthwhile activity will help give her unstructured life more shape and meaning.

Good luck! I hope you’ll succeed in helping your paraplanner to start aiming toward a more positive future.

Q: The wife of a fellow in my office lost her job as a human resources director a couple of weeks ago, and he’s falling apart. He talks constantly about his reduced AUM, the cost of his kids’ school tuition, his mortgage, the impossible job market, and so on. It’s getting so we all find other things to do when we see him coming. Obviously he needs some kind of help to handle this situation, but what can we do?

A: Your colleague is far from alone. According to another recent New York Times article (“Recession Anxiety Seeps Into Everyday Lives”), panic, insomnia, depression, marital strife, and other anxiety reactions are on the rise, even among those whose finances have not been significantly affected by the downturn. In a survey by the American Psychological Association last September, 80% of people said the economy was causing them significant stress, up from 66% just five months earlier. One 52-year-old graphic designer told The Times that when panic attacks over the economy sent her to her doctor’s office, she had a hard time accepting his recommendation of therapy and medication because she’d been raised to believe “you pull yourself up.”

I think it would help your stressed-out co-worker if you find a quiet, relaxed time to chat with him. Begin by sincerely communicating what you like and value about him, his personality, and his work. Remind him gently that many people are struggling to maintain their emotional and financial well-being these days. If you do this well, you can go on to say that we are all tempted to share our worries and concerns when we feel anxious, panicky, or out of control, but this may depress even our best friends and make them want to avoid us.

Consider recommending a good therapist, particularly someone you have personal experience with or have heard good things about, who can help him vent instead of just sitting on his anxieties. In any case, try to help your colleague brainstorm ways to communicate that draw people in closer, instead of pushing them away.

This is another instance where “acting as if” can be of benefit. In his case, learning to manage anxiety would be a form of “practicing the non-habitual” which, though uncomfortable at first, may yield positive results he could not have imagined.

If you or people you care about are feeling buffeted by worries, losses, or other stresses, it’s important to seek support. People who feel threatened by job loss can proactively form a job-hunting group. Someone who is being kept awake at night by financial anxieties should be talking with a trusted advisor. In the meantime, I would suggest “acting as if” things were progressing in a positive direction. Maintain a normal structured day, but make time for activities that bring you pleasure and lighten your spirit. Keep up rituals of success and connection. These familiar activities will remind you of the best and most functional parts of yourself.

No two people are alike in what they need in order to connect with optimism, hope, and healing. By creatively combining all these techniques, you may succeed in recreating a sense of life balance in these stressful times.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and, business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Client Connection: How Advisors Can Build Bridges That Last, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].