Underearning Is a Trauma Symptom

It’s time we talked about “underearning.” That’s when you could earn sufficient and fair money, but you don’t. It’s common for people who grew up neglected or abused.

I don’t know why, but trauma experts hardly ever discuss money. It’s as if you’re not supposed to talk about it—as if it’s irrelevant, consumerist or too capitalist. But the longer you underearn, the longer your freedom to build a happy and materially secure life remains out of reach. If you’re not charging enough, if you’re in a line of work that pays notoriously little, or if you’re not learning people skills or putting in the time to advance your career, then there’s an inside barrier holding you back.

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Here are the signs of underearning and what you can do about them:

  1. You live in vagueness. You’re never quite sure how much you need, what your budget is, how you’ll earn more, or how to improve your work life. You’re in a fog of hoping and sometimes hurting. But the action you need to take never quite comes into focus.

  2. You’re going into debt. You’re going into debt, with no practical plan to change that and start building savings instead. I’m sure you’ve been told that you have to live within your means, but if you’re not earning what you need in the first place, you’re underearning.

  3. You think the world should change, but you don’t change. You resent not earning enough, but blame your family, gender, country or the economic system. People with a healthy sense of self-care work within the systems they’re in to meet their needs. Some people have disabilities that make it impossible, but, generally speaking, sane earning means you evaluate the limitations and find what will get your needs met.

  4. You resent your chosen career (though it’s known to pay very little). Your line of work is known not to pay well, but instead of doing what it takes to earn more—being a star in that career, getting a second job, or choosing a new line of work—you stay stuck believing that the world should pay you to do this thing. You need a Plan B.

  5. You don’t take steps to advance your career. Maybe your organization doesn’t need or want to pay someone at a higher level. Maybe you don’t have the skills to raise your pay. Or maybe you haven’t asked for a raise. Sometimes getting a raise means you have to change jobs. Generally speaking, if you don’t ask for a raise or declare higher rates, nobody is going to come and give that to you. We lose that point when we parentify our boss or colleagues.

  6. You blame other people for the fact that you’re stuck. Underearners outsource responsibility for their career growth to other people and then resent them. This creates a toxic dynamic. Even if you act friendly, if there’s anger boiling under the surface all the time, people feel it and it will undermine your progress. If you’re angry about work, it means some change is needed.

  7. You don’t charge enough for your time. I’ve hired a lot of freelancers and the first thing I ask is their rate. I use that number to get a feel for how skilled they are. I’m counting on them to tell me what level they’re at. I never hire someone who tells me a number then immediately says “but I’ll charge less if you need me to.” If you can’t get work at your first price, you may need to bring it down gracefully, but not before you find out if someone will pay it.

  8. Your clothes and belongings are shabby. Broken furniture, a barely running car, stained shirts: The energy of underearning leaks onto the things of your life. When you’re underearning, it feels as if you have to have cruddy, broken belongings but at a certain point the belongings dictate what you can earn.

  9. You misuse your time. One form of that is procrastination. Or you might be someone who works like crazy when the boss needs it, but you can’t put in a couple of hours to learn something new that would make your work better. Another misuse of time is giving away your work pro bono when you really need to build your earning potential.

  10. You continue to work for clients or employers who short you. Maybe because you didn’t set clear expectations, or maybe because you don’t like asking for the money, but you feel that you have to keep working when someone hasn’t paid on time.

To get paid what you’re worth, on time, in work where you’re valued and on a path of growth, takes all the trauma healing you’ve got. You need good boundaries. You need to learn to calm the triggers that make it hard to work with people or advance your career. Most of all, you have to overcome the trauma-driven belief that everything difficult is controlled by people other than you. This is the big epiphany: So much of your experience is under your control. You can learn to take life on life’s terms and do your best within the world around you. 

There’s an excellent 12-Step program called Underearners Anonymous, by the way. It costs nothing and it’s a place where you can learn from others who are healing this problem too. You can also find support in the Crappy Childhood Fairy Membership program (see the link below).  Building a life no longer suppressed by trauma is the great adventure. Healthy earning is one way you do that. It starts with basic trauma healing. When that gets better, everything gets better, and the potential in you that you didn’t even know you had comes shining through.


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