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  • Dr. Mishelle Ortiz, PhD, LMFT

Peniaphobia in the Time of Corona

My name is Mishelle Ortiz and I think I have peniaphobia. I feel like I am saying this as

if I am introducing myself in a support group. What I mean by this is, that I have a deeply

ingrained, pervasive and mostly unconscious and irrational fear of being BROKE. I know it is

taboo to talk about money, but I know that I can have full blown cold sweats when I think about not being able to cover my bills. I also know that I am not alone in this struggle, so let’s talk about it. By doing just a quick Google search, you can find countless pages dedicated to

providing information and support for people who suffer from a fear of poverty or going without.


I am self-aware enough to know this fear is an outcome of my childhood and is not an

immediate, impending reality. Growing up, I was the youngest of eight children. While I

wouldn’t say we were poor, I did grow up thinking it wasn’t abnormal to come home and find

the lights or water had been disconnected. My mother and stepdad did the best they could, but we were living paycheck to paycheck and borrowing when necessary. This meant I grew up with a great deal of anxiety around asking for anything extra. Bringing a field trip form home or getting invited to the movies always came with a sense of unease. Even as a child, I recognized we didn’t have a savings account with money we could dip into for such things. That is not to say that my mom didn’t make it happen, because many times she did, but the anxiety and unease were still there.


That being said, the youngest of eight children afforded me with a lot of opportunities. I

had several older siblings to guide me and lend support. I was blessed with the opportunity of seeking higher education. Thankfully, I enjoyed school since I seemed to keep going back for more. As a result of the opportunities my education has given me, I have been able to establish myself financially, that is to say I have been able to spend the majority of my adult life without anxiety over covering the bills or being able to afford grocery shopping. I have even been able to treat myself to quite a few luxuries: I’ve traveled, indulged in many a spa day, and have been able to create an impressive toolbox of self-care techniques.


Fast-forward to COVID-19: the virus is spreading, shelter in place orders are happening

and the economy is being severely impacted. There are constant headlines about layoffs and furloughs with no timeline on when things will improve. Leaving us feeling as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. My clients started to scale back sessions with me then started cancelling them all together. I was working as a clinical director when I was my role as being scaled back as they were not receiving new referrals. It was a whirlwind of bad news and I felt the weight of it suffocating me. Suddenly I went from a confident, financially secure woman back to the little girl having a panic attack over a shirt I really, wanted prior to seeing how much it cost and realizing what a sacrifice it would be for me to have it.


As the panic set in, it was like fear completely took over. In my mind, I needed to scale back so that I could ensure the basics could be covered. This led to me cutting out everything I deemed “unnecessary”. I canceled my gym membership and my meal subscription which provided me with healthy options, as cooking is not something I enjoy or excel at. I started buying off-brand products and wouldn’t splurge on extra purchases like bubble baths or essential oils. At this point, traveling wasn’t happening, regardless of whether or not I wanted to. Without even realizing it, I had left my self-care toolbox completely barren. Here I was in the middle of a global pandemic, face to face with one of my biggest anxieties depriving myself of all the things I need to help me! Talk about a therapeutic fail, and by a therapist, none the less.


In an effort to try and ease my anxiety around that deeply ingrained, pervasive and mostly

unconscious and irrational fear of being broke, I started living as if I was broke. I pretty much

stopped taking care of myself now out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to care for myself later. It’s safe to say I was having a hard time, and as I looked around, this reality seemed to be true of many others. Clients who stopped going to therapy when it had been such a big part of their self- care. People canceling with the business coaches that had played such a large role in their progress. Friends who gave up on dieting because “healthy food cost more”. While we were all in survival mode we were doing ourselves a massive disservice. Life seemed to be teaching us a hard lesson: we can’t let the fear of going without in the future stop us from giving ourselves what we need RIGHT NOW.


We are worth investing in and MUST recognize that what we do for self-care is not

“unnecessary”. Oftentimes, they are the most necessary. We need these things to get ourselves to the baseline so that we can be capable of putting in the work. That is how we create the financial stability we need to combat our fears around money. Treat yourself to an at-home facial, invest in therapy, call up that life coach you have been considering, start up your healthy meal delivery, or take an online art class if that is your thing. Do what you need to do to invest in yourself in the time of COVID-19. More than ever, we need to be nurturing our own wellbeing so that we can get out there and be the best versions of ourselves.

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