I have this little voice in my head that likes to slam me for the missteps I make.
If I eat too much at supper, that voice will say, “Are you completely lacking in self control or what? You didn’t need to eat like that! How disgusting!”
If I spend money on something without thinking it through, that voice will say, “Are you even remotely thinking of your family’s future? Why did you throw your money away like that, you fool?!”
If I forget to pay a bill, that voice will shout out, “How can you be so disorganized and lazy? Can’t you see that paying attention for just a measly minute could have saved you and your family a bunch of money!?”
My voice might be a little bit on the cruel side, but I think that some version of that voice exists inside all of us. It chides us for our missteps.
In small doses, that little voice can be a powerful moral compass. It can be a very strong guide that tells us which decisions are right and which decisions are wrong.
But when you’re trying to improve yourself and adopt stronger standards for yourself, that voice can turn on you hard. It goes from being a great moral compass to being a giant guilt-tripping machine of pure negativity that makes you feel like a loser.
The problem, of course, is that when you begin to feel negative about yourself, it becomes really easy to retreat from your positive standards and initiatives. You fold in on yourself, returning to old habits and old practices that seem safe and reliable and your progress in improving yourself grinds to a halt and even regresses.
This type of cycle is a danger with any kind of self-improvement, whether it’s financial or health-related or mindset-related or exercise-related or anything else. You set strong standards for yourself, which is good, but then your negative internal voice is unleashed and it criticizes you hard for simple mis-steps, which eventually leads you to abandon your progress and retreat to safer rules and standards, which puts you right back where you started.
After all, no one wants to feel bad about themselves. No one wants an internal voice that’s a constant critic.
Further compounding the problem is that there are often contradictory internal rules that we have that guide us in different directions over the same decision.
Let’s say I’m standing in one of my favorite stores – if you want a specific visual, let’s say the Quill and Nib in Des Moines, Iowa. I’m holding some item that I want in my hand; let’s say a big fat Rhodia notebook. It’s something I know I will use in the near future, but not something I strictly need. I could buy a cheaper notebook, absolutely.
So, I have the voice inside of me telling me to buy it and listing the reasons why I should – the great paper, the long-term reliability of the notebook – and then that same voice is telling me reasons not to buy it – the cost, mostly. I have different internal “rules” pushing me in different directions, and I honestly can’t please them both at once.
Either way seems like a mis-step, and it can feel really frustrating and really disheartening. When you’re working hard to improve yourself and your situation, you often wind up in those no-win situations and if you have a strong internal voice that you use to guide yourself, that voice turns on you, no matter what.
That can be devastating to one’s self esteem. It can also cause you to walk away from self-improvement plans entirely.
Here’s the thing, though. You really, really want to be able to trust that inner voice. The benefits of a strong inner voice that guides you well through difficult choices is tremendous. The trick is figuring out how to make that voice quiet down sometimes and how to handle real dilemmas.
This is how I’ve come to handle it.
First of all, I try to be aware of situations that are going to put my own internal rules into conflict. This often happens for me when I’m considering buying a product that I don’t strictly need but that I know I’m going to use, or when I’m considering meal options that will please both me and my family, or when I’m choosing between multiple social options, among many others.
Those types of situations call my internal “rules” into conflict with each other, and when that happens, that voice pipes up. I’m glad I have that voice to tell me when I’m about to make a bad choice, but when I’m in a conflicted choice, that voice is going to pop up no matter what I choose.
Simply by recognizing that I’m going to have to softly violate one of my internal rules because there’s no other real option, I can cause that voice to quiet down. If I know I’m going to a store to buy a specific item and I know the choice might be tough, I think about that a little bit first so that I’m not going to beat myself up over that choice.
Second, I mentally walk through such scenarios, both before and after. This is a constant trick that I use for making better choices in life: I visualize them in advance. This is one of the most common things I do when I’m driving somewhere or waiting at a doctor’s office or waiting for my kids to finish soccer practice.
It’s simple. I just think about situations that I’ve been in recently or situations that I know are coming up where the choice is going to be tough and there’s going to be a conflict in terms of those rules I use to operate my day to day life. I try to figure out the “best” thing to do and why exactly I’m making that choice.
I find that thinking through such scenarios usually sets this kind of “mental precedent” where, if I follow through with that, my internal criticism stays nice and quiet because I’ve clearly already figured out the best choice, even if it goes against one of my internal rules.
Third, I try to prioritize which rules are more important and which rules are less important. For example, if I have money left in my “free spending” budget, then I’m going to prioritize buying the best “bang for the buck” hobby item rather than the cheapest one, but if I’ve spent most or all of my hobby money, then my “be frugal and don’t spend” rule will kick in. Or if I’m eating by myself or just with my family at a normal meal, healthy eating rules are dominant, but I put them aside for the occasional “special occasion” meal with others.
These “rules exceptions” are things I consciously think about when I have the chance. I find that consciously thinking about such things “trains” that voice to abide by more sensible rules and exceptions that handle the realities of my life better so that it’s not shouting at me for “breaking” rules all the time. In other words, it begins to learn that there are sometimes clear exceptions to the rules and that’s okay. Thus, the number of situations where I’m in a genuine conflict gets smaller and smaller over time, and thus my internal voice is less and less aggressive.
I find that this is the best of the strategies for handling unexpected situations where conflicts arise, because having good sound internal rules for handling almost everything on instinct makes decisions easy and keeps that internal critic at bay.
But what do I do if I’m still besieged by that internal critic? I keep a gratitude journal and a “good moves” journal. Each day, I spend a little bit of time reflecting on what I’m grateful for in my life and the best moves I made that day. I think about the multitude of good choices I’ve made and then, on top of that, the gratitude I have for all of the good things that my consistent good choices have built for me.
I have a great relationship with my wife and a great relationship with my kids. I have a job that I love. I have a lot of friends whose companionship I value. I have a steadily rising profile in my community, which means that there are more and more people I know when I walk around my town and can greet and talk to. I have an unquenchable curiosity about the world and I know how to constantly feed it and grow as a person.
All of those things are things I’m very grateful for, but I also recognize that they’re built on the back of a lot of good choices over the years. Yes, I mess up some choices, but I make a lot of great choices, too. Reflecting on the things I’ve done right today shows me some of those immediate good choices, and reflecting on the things I’m grateful for shows me some of the long-term benefits of a long history of good choices.
That process usually quiets that voice of internal criticism pretty directly. Yes, I’ve made missteps, but I’ve made a lot of good steps, too, and those reflections are the evidence of those good choices.
Together, these tools keep me from beating myself up excessively over missteps and little mistakes. Yes, I make mistakes, and yes, I criticize myself over them, but these strategies keep that criticism from boiling over into self-loathing and regression into bad habits.
Instead, these tools keep that internal voice where it should be: as a great guide to good behaviors that reflect my values and lead to the long term goals I have in life. It’s a voice that preaches frugality and lifelong learning and personal growth and good personal choices without beating me up when I’m not perfect. Instead, it guides me to where I should be on that journey.
Work with your internal critic. Don’t let it be cruel to you. Instead, train it to be a useful guide. It will help you make great spending decisions, great personal decisions, great time use decisions, and so much more.