How one inheritor found creative ways to overcome her guilt and shame

By Barbara Blouin, The Inheritance Project

“Guilt is about doing something bad. Shame is about being bad.”

These few words from Meg (a pseudonym) about being given unearned wealth crystallize the essence of the dilemmas of being an inheritor.

I met Meg a few weeks ago thanks to a friend who is also an inheritor. Meg and I had a fairly short but pithy talk about the experience of inheriting wealth. She has been working with the challenges of wealth-related shame and guilt for many years, and thanks to a number of experiences and much work on her part, she has come out on the other side with a strong sense of purpose and self-worth.

Meg’s only “education” as an inheritor-to-be from her family was brief and paralyzing. Her mother taught her: “Never a borrower nor a lender be.”

Some years later, like many other heirs Meg was told that she was about to receive an inheritance when, at age eighteen, she was taken to the office of her family’s financial advisor. She was warned “never to trust anyone’s motives for knowing me because some day I was going to inherit money and people would be wanting to take it from me.

“My response, rather than losing trust in others, was to lose trust in myself. I feared I would become disdainful, privileged, removed, and uncaring. I’d seen money as a way of separating oneself from the ‘real world.’ By the time, three years later, I inherited a trust created by my grandparents, I was so riddled with guilt and a sense of being undeserving that I was well on my way to self-loathing. My discomfort with my circumstances could find no outlet. I carried my guilt in isolation.”

From my own experience as an inheritor and from listening to a great many accounts from inheritors, I came to see how guilt and shame (along with self-loathing) are entwined, like the tangled branches of a deadly nightshade vine. Dr. Dennis Pearne, a wealth counselor and author of the article “Wealth Counseling” speaks of the difference between guilt and shame in this context. “Often it is important to discuss with a client the difference between the two. Money-guilt is a sense of being wrong about something specific, such as spending too much or hoarding too much. Money-shame is a more global sense of being defective for having, but not deserving, so much money. The shame begins when a child grows up in an environment in which money is not discussed. ‘Oh, there’s something we’re not talking about; it must be bad. I have it; therefore, I must be bad.’ Both money-guilt and money-shame are difficult obstacles, but of the two, money-shame is the more deep-seated and paralyzing.”

Meg had no idea how to find someone who could help her working with her conflicts and confusion about her wealth. Eventually she signed up for a workshop on women and wealth, and “for the first time I’d found some like-minded, though equally unsettled, peers. I was beginning the slow process of trying to sort out who I am, how I feel about who I am, and how to live in the world as I am. Believe me, it has been a slow process.”

She began a graduate program in public-school education (ironic because, as she wryly comments, she had never gone to a public school). While in graduate school she had the opportunity to participate in a Quaker practice known as Clearness Committee.  One person offers to be a “focus person” and shares a personal or professional issue.  Five other committee members ask “open and honest questions” that help the focus person hear his or her own inner wisdom. Although the committee members’ questions are not meant to try to “fix” the issue “I left the cottage with the burden of twenty-one years of shame completely lifted from my psyche. Generosity, shyly and ever so slowly, began to take the place of shame.”

Meg’s account of her personal journey ends with her comment: “My question becomes how to turn money into meaning.”