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02.12.09

Losing Money Is Good for My Narcissistic Wall Street Patients

To paraphrase The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo money, mo problems.” The Daily Beast’s News Shrink on what his patients can learn from watching their fortunes dwindle.

I have spent most of my 30 years of practice counseling top executives at a number of name-brand financial firms. In other words, I analyze the rich, and while the recession hasn’t been good to most of them, it’s been good for them.

A lot of my patients are narcissistic—they believe they are special and unique and that there shouldn’t be any limits on what they can have. They define their self-worth by the cars they drive and their Park Avenue apartments. So when the recession hit their bank balances, lots of my patients plunged into depression, coupled with deep feelings of shame, shame that they didn’t get out of the market when they should have, shame that they might be targets of an investigation. There’s also the humiliation that they can no longer afford annual vacations to St. Bart’s.

The evidence shows that you don’t get happier when you get more money. Two houses means two mortgages and two sets of worries.

But this depression is a good thing. I try to remind my patients that there’s nothing wrong with having and enjoying nice things, but if you think that what you do is who you are, then you’re screwed when you lose that investment job. They need to change the way they value things because it is possible to feel good about yourself even if you can no longer afford the Mercedes, and what’s more, it’s healthy.

Then there are the marital problems, most of which stem from the traditional structure of Wall Street marriages, where one person makes the money and the other person spends it. Probably 90 percent of the married couples I see have a male breadwinner.

A few weeks ago I had a couple in my office. The wife said she got a great vacation deal—the two of them could go to the elite Canyon Ranch spa with a girlfriend and her husband for four days at $10,000. Steam was coming out of his ears. But she thought they got a deal and relative to their past vacations, she had. Four days at Canyon Ranch used to cost $25,000. She was trying to help make a financial decision where before she would have spent without thinking.

Of course, her husband didn’t see it that way—he thought it was an unnecessary expense because their net worth had dropped from $3 million to $2 million since the fall. Yet if he told her that they had $2 million, she’d say “Why are you so worried—we’ve got $2 million.”

These guys never explained mortgages or interest rates to their wives, who don’t understand that even if you have a $2 million fortune in stocks and assets, that doesn’t mean much right now because the market is still vulnerable. Oftentimes, the man comes across as sexist and neurotic because he’s so worried. A common refrain in my office is “You just don’t get it, hon.”

Another area where the recession is really hurting my patients is divorce. Some people thought that it’d be good to get the divorce while their salaries were low, but that’s actually not true—if you divorce someone, they can take you back to court when their salary goes back up. In some cases, divorce isn’t an option because it’s impossible to value a couple’s actual assets. It’s also really expensive to keep two apartments in New York City, which means I’m treating patients who can’t bear to look at each other, but can’t afford to move out. In extreme cases, I’ve suggested that they try to minimize contact with each other. Most of the rest of the time, I try to get people to view their partners’ demands with empathy.

My patients' main problem is that they think money will buy them happiness, that if they’re rich, other people will think more highly of them, accept them and approve of them. But the evidence shows that you don’t get happier when you get more money. Two houses means two mortgages and two sets of worries. Or, in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G., "Mo money, mo problems."

One of my patients told me how he had to go into Bergdorf’s to pick up some cosmetic thing for his wife. He went down into the spa area where he saw a bunch of women waiting for spa treatments. He said, “I’ve never seen more beautiful women in my life, and not one of them was smiling.” But massages and facials do not pave the way to happiness.

My patients can’t always get what they want, nor should they. Now is the time for them to step back and realize that they’re not special, just human, and it’s time for them to rethink what they value.