The Psychology of Wealth, Power and Celebrity

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

The other night I came across a clip from “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, where he mocked of the phenomenon known as Sudden Wealth Syndrome. In the video, a “reporter” conducted an interview of the two clinicians whose research in treating people of wealth led the concept. During the interview, the reporter made the clinicians look like fools and lampooned them for being concerned with the emotional wellbeing of people of wealth.

While I understand comedy can be biting, I was disturbed by the mean spirited nature of the piece and the insensitivity it showed to the full range of human experience. Essentially, the piece maintained that people of wealth are not deserving of compassionate clinical care; and that the two clinicians who devoted their time to understanding the very real phenomenon of Sudden Wealth Syndrome are in the crass conclusion of the reporter, “dick heads.”

In their minds, wealth and celebrity are goals to strive for and imbue the holder with omnipotent and enviable control over their lives.-Paul Hokemeyer

Like other minority groups, people of wealth and celebrity operate in a distinctly unique world where they face distinctly unique problems. Central to this experience are deeply entrenched power dynamics that keep them trapped in destructive mental health and addictive cycles. But most people, and many clinicians, fail to fully understand and effectively address these systemically based cycles. In their minds, wealth and celebrity are goals to strive for and imbue the holder with omnipotent and enviable control over their lives. They resent the power these people hold and label them as “whiney” and “self absorbed” if they reveal their vulnerability – vulnerability that comes from being fully human in a chaotic and uncertain world.


Case Study: Jason*, was 42 when he came to see me for treatment. A super star in the world of finance, he grew up the youngest of three boys in an aspirational Jewish family. His father, the only son of Russian immigrant parents, suffered from untreated alcoholism and bounced from one failed business to another. In an attempt to bring financial stability to the family, Jason’s mother took a job in the handbag department of Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. She resented the fact that she had to serve the very people she longed to be and hated her job.

Instead of receiving a legacy of unconditional love and support from his parents, Jason inherited his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s anxiety-fueled aspirations. “I learned from an early age that poor was bad. In my family, money and success was love.” Smart, charismatic and manipulative, Jason did exceptionally well in school and learned the ropes at a prestigious Wall Street firm. A short time later, he opened up his own hedge fund where he realized financial success beyond his wildest dreams. But like many people who aren’t emotionally and culturally equipped to deal with the financial windfall that came with his success, Jason found himself paralyzed by anxiety over his new identity in the world.

“I was much more comfortable wanting to be rich,” he admitted after several intense and challenging sessions. “Now that I am really rich, I feel lost and alone.” To manage his emotional discomfort, Jason drank cases and cases of expensive red wine, utilized the services of “women of a certain commercial interest” (escorts), bought garages full of finicky sports cars that he never drove, a townhouse in Manhattan’s West Village, a beach house in East Hampton, a ski house in Aspen and villa for the “shoulder season” on the island of St. Barth’s. He came into treatment, not on his on volition, but rather through the demands of his wife who found in his phone a trail of infidelities and betrayals.

Treatment

In order to deliver effective mental health and addiction treatment services, clinicians must address their patients in the entirety of their being. This includes a host of features including their socio-economic status. Typically, clinicians are trained (as was I in both my M.A. and Ph.D. programs) to be highly sensitive to minority populations who exist in positions of powerlessness. But nowhere along this academic path is attention paid to minorities who occupy positions of power. But power, especially the power that comes from wealth be it suddenly acquired or acquired over time, fuels a host of mental health and addictive disorders.

But power, especially the power that comes from wealth, be it suddenly acquired or acquired over time, fuels a host of mental health and addictive disorders.-Paul Hokemeyer

We see this most visibly in the lives of celebrities. But for every celebrity whose struggles are splashed about like pig’s blood in the tabloids, Internet and nightly news, there are legions of others who struggle under the radar with the intense power of their wealth. Sure it might be a problem that you wish you had, but there’s no denying that it’s a problem none the less – and a problem that deserves to be treated with clinically and culturally competent care.

To be effectively delivered, mental health and addiction services that are provided to people of wealth and celebrity must address the powerful role money plays in their psyche and in their relationships.

To be comprehensive, this analysis needs to occur on the following five areas of the patient’s life:

  • The sociocultural framework in which they live: This includes the dominant cultural view of wealth and the zeitgeist surrounding money. In America, and other capitalistic countries, wealth is seen as an aspirational goal and a panacea that can solve all problems. At the same time, we are living in a time of great wealth disparity, hostility and mistrust towards people of wealth. This schizophrenic view of wealth, wherein it’s simultaneously idolized and demonized, causes people on all levels of the economic spectrum to view one another with mistrust and distain.
  • Their family of origin: Just as we track mental health and addiction issues inter-generationally, we can also see how money is used in families as a reward or a vehicle to control. We can also look for compulsive spending, poor boundaries around money, bankruptcies and other financial events that impact a patient’s sense of place in the world.
  • The inter-personal relationships in their lives: Money can be an energetic that is used to control and manipulate, to foster unnatural dependencies and serve as a substitute for intimate connections and emotional nurturance.
  • The intra-personal relationship they have with their selves: Everyone has an internal dialogue and self-concept. For many, notions of external success are used to measure one’s sense of self and value in the world. This leads to a destructive “I am what I own” mentality.
  • The psychotherapeutic relationship the patient has with his or her clinician: The typical clinician has not been trained in dealing relationally with a person of wealth. As a result, they either deny they’re impacted by money or use their wealthy patients to fuel their own narcissistic ego. In addition, many people of wealth are accustomed to being in charge of their relationships and either consciously or unconsciously intimidate their clinicians to avoid being challenged.

In applying these five factors to the case study cited above, we can see how Jason’s drive to succeed was fueled from a position of pathology and weakness rather than from a place of strength and self-actualization. Rather than acquiring his wealth in a way that could contribute to his development as a fully functioning adult, he remained stuck as the little boy who desperately craved the love and approval of his mother.

His mother in turn, didn’t have an outlet to constructively process her disappoint over her husband’s failure to achieve success in America, the land of opportunity and abundance. In her chronic state of anxiety, she passed on to Jason a legacy of uncertainty and fear. But perhaps the biggest tragedy in this family system is Jason’s father who came into a new and foreign land that valued material possessions over strong family bounds, biologically wired for addiction, with absolutely no understanding of his disease or tools to deal with it.

…behind the curtain of his American Dream was the wizard of his addictions, pulling strings and forcing him to betray his self and those who loved him.-Paul Hokemeyer

So it was only natural that Jason from the tender age of 12 resolved to transcend his economic class, save his family and earn the love and respect of not just his parents, but the also the world around him. Instead of finding peace of mind and a secure sense of place in the world, however, Jason discovered the platinum trophy he sacrificed so much to acquire was cold, hard and insatiable; and that behind the curtain of his American Dream was the wizard of his addictions, pulling strings and forcing him to betray his self and those who loved him.

To recover, Jason had to get a holistic perspective on his motives and drives, his emotional and biological makeup, and his relational patterns. He had to tease out those aspects of his self that were exceptional and harness them in constructive rather than destructive ways. Central to this process was Jason’s need to see how wealth, power and external success should be used to upholster the high performance jet he had become, instead of being the fuel that propelled it on dangerous and destructive missions.

The good news was that in addition to inheriting challenges from his cultural, genetic and psychic environment, Jason also inherited incredible strengths. These included a strong middle class work ethic, a keen mind, a healthy and physically robust body, the drive to become a better person, solid family values and a willingness to change. With the proper clinical care and psychotherapeutic interventions, Jason’s prognosis was optimistic and promising.

There’s no denying that material wealth and the comforts it brings are worthy goals to strive for. Used properly, money and the power inherent in it can provide a person with heightened sense of safety and security. It buys higher quality food, safer cars and homes, leisure and access to a full range of quality educational and healthcare options. But let’s not pretend that money and the effort expended to acquire and maintain it don’t also hold the power to enslave, because they do. Therefore, it’s critical when seeking help for mental health and addictive disorders that all patients, regardless of their place on the economic spectrum, look at the role money’s power plays in their lives and the full price of the external success they strive for.


*Patient name and details changed to protect the confidentiality of the patient.
Photo Source: istock

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