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The Misfortune of the Very Wealthy

“Those that much covet are with gain so fond,
For what they have not, that which they possess
They scatter and unloose it from their bond,
And so, by hoping more, they have but less;
Or, gaining more, the profit of excess
Is but to surfeit, and such griefs sustain,
That they prove bankrupt in this poor-rich gain.”
― William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

Migrant Mother
Dorothea Lange

Issues of entitlement are rampant in the psychotherapy process, and are particularly amplified in those who come from wealth and privilege. Many of my affluent clients who exhibit difficulties with entitlement, in turn struggle with interpersonal responsibility. They are consistently challenged by expectations of reciprocity. Considering another’s needs before one’s own is akin to self-renunciation. They are often miserly with compliments yet presuming of praise. Selfish insensitive behavior on their part tends to be justified. Elitism and materialism infiltrates their character, their relationships, and their quality of life in myriad detrimental ways.

Naturally these interpersonal dynamics show up in the relationship between therapist and client. The culture of the rich revolves around a ruling class ideology of hierarchal dominance and self-interest. A relational paradigm of collaboration and deference is perceived as a demeaning loss of control. As a result, adhering to the guidelines within the therapeutic frame, meaning the fixed norms and policies structuring the work, is particularly challenging for clients of privilege. Despite written and discussed communication concerning contractual policies pertaining to time and fee, last minute cancellations and arbitrary requests to re-schedule are commonplace. Additionally, depreciating provocation and power plays may organically pervade the therapeutic bond. A position of one upmanship is tenaciously protected as it affords an illusory sense of prestige.

Establishing a therapeutic alliance characterized by mutual respect and trust requires the higher echelon client and clinician to explore the origin of his/her need for control. It involves examining what fuels relentless hedonistic and materialistic pursuits. It requires a willingness to understand the highly competitive world of the very wealthy, the psychological impact of unlimited access to money and resources, dysfunctional generational familial dynamics, and resultant developmental disasters.

Studies show that children from multi-generational wealth and prominence are surprisingly at risk for criminal behavior, eating disorders, and addictive disorders. Studies also indicate that levels of depression and anxiety are considerably higher in affluent youth as compared to low-income teens. Children from highly affluent homes are often cared for by nannies or housekeepers, or left alone to fend for themselves. While they typically are under extreme pressure to succeed, they often experience isolation from workaholic, troubled parents. Sent off to boarding school, these children grapple with regimentation and loneliness. In a climate of inadequate adult supervision incidents of bullying and sexual abuse by staff and students, go unreported and unpunished. Devoid of parental supervision and intimacy, these children struggle with self-identity and forming secure attachments. Paradoxically the constant material gratification and indulgence offers an external locus of control which interferes with the cultivation of basic life skills, such as delayed gratification, learning to compromise, developing frustration tolerance, and forming internal cues of motivation and discipline.

Thayer Willis, family member of Georgia-Pacific Corporation, wrote in Forbes magazine, “The biggest curse of intergenerational wealth for me and many other people is the illusion that you don’t have to do much with your life.” Trust-fund children aren’t required to support themselves. They just need to fulfill an assigned role of status. Being denied the opportunity to fulfill developmental tasks and experience the ebb and flow of triumph and mistakes breeds the narcissistic expectation that all things should be simply handed over on a silver platter. When a client spends her session having a meltdown over Bergdorf’s not having her Manolo Blahniks in Bordeaux, her immaturity and emptiness is tragically palpable. She is an emotional cripple voraciously feeding on wasteful consumption to distract from the source of her brokenness.

The adage is trite but true; money can’t buy you love. Nor can it buy you psychological health. For my wealthy clients who courageously undertake the trials and tribulations of working a 9-5 job, volunteer in some meaningful capacity, and focus their energies on self realization and creative expression, I applaud you. In the pernicious world of toxic wealth and greed, they've come to accept that sometimes stepping down really means a huge step up.

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