It really matters how we talk to ourselves about ourselves. Like REALLY matters. Our internal monologue affects our self-esteem and makes us stressed (or lowers stress!). I am always super interested in these sorts of ideas, but I rarely take the time to analyze my own internal chatter. But as we’ve been going down this personal finance journey I’ve realized that there are a slew of subtle self-talk categories that I use to quietly sabotage my own efforts. My own words often prevent myself from learning something new, building good daily habits, stretching my skills, and figuring out my own strengths and abilities. I can’t determine how to spend my values if I am facing a barrage of distracting negative thoughts. My first step, then, is to examine my beliefs about myself and question my preconceptions. Nothing is sacred - I want to place all these mental pieces out on the table and take a fresh look.
The “I Can’t” Quicksand
I like to think I stand on a firm ground of mental strength. Until something difficult comes along. Then I think “Oh, I can’t do that” and softly slide into the self-imposed quicksand of failure.
Now, I don’t really think “can’t” is an evil word. There are some things I actually cannot do. I can’t reach the top of cabinets because I am too short (even with a stool). I can’t put my foot behind my head. I can’t understand why T-dog has become enemies with the pug from the next block over. There are legitimate things that we cannot do and everyone has their own list of these things.
On the other hand, I feel like I spend a lot of time worrying about the things I could do if I wasn’t so busy thinking about how I can’t do them. When I’m facing a big pile of clean laundry and it’s 10pm at night, all I think is “I can’t.” And then I agonize about it until I fall asleep. When six months rolls around again and I have to call my dentist for another cleaning all I think is “I can’t.” And then I worry about it for weeks. When one side of my brain says “you should learn more about personal finance,” the other side says “I can’t figure that stuff out.”
Yet, I realized that when I say "I can't" I am actually either saying (a.) "I don't want to" or (b.) "This is hard for me." Which are both a lot different from “can’t.” Saying “I can’t” is a full stop. It ends possibilities and tells my inner self that I’m incapable. If I can’t do something then I might as well not even try.
Instead, when “I can’t” pops up in my brain, it is helpful for me to take a second and figure out if I am actually saying (a.) or (b.). If I really don’t want to do something then perhaps I don’t need to do that task at all. Maybe I can ask Alex to fold the clean laundry. If something is hard for me, then one thing I could do would be to to divide it into much smaller tasks that aren’t so intimidating. I don’t have to understand index funds right away, I can start by figuring out how to log in to see my 401K at work. But I know I won’t put any effort into it at all if I just say “I can’t.”
The Identity Trap
- I'm a dog person.
- I'm a student.
- I'm a bookworm.
- I'm not athletic.
- I'm a words person, not a numbers person (I don't do math).
It’s important to know yourself and it’s important work towards knowing yourself so you can understand your own needs and determine your core values. It is important to me to be somewhat introspective because that’s how I can figure out what I want (not what society says I should want, not what my friends/community wants, but what I want). It is actually quite difficult to know what I want, so I find it useful to critically examine myself and my motives. But what I want and who I am fluctuates over time. I am a person in progress. But sometimes I get stuck reciting an identity to myself that is no longer true, which limits my ability to grow and change.
For example, I was not an athletic kid growing up. My parents patiently tried to introduce me to as many sports as possible - T-ball, soccer, ballet, taekwondo (I did really enjoy taekwondo though). I feel really grateful for this variety of experiences, but none of the activities really stuck. Then high school came around and I tried to care about sports a bit, but couldn’t get excited about the options available to me (most of which included too much running or were for tall people). So I embraced my non-athlete identity. I wasn’t into sports! I was into MARCHING BAND! I am not an athlete.
Then I went to college where I learned to play ultimate Frisbee (the best and most awesome sport in the world). One summer I played regularly twice a week, much to my own surprise. Then I joined a team and learned how to run and do conditioning in order to get better at ultimate. Then I started playing pick-up regularly. One summer while working for a summer camp on a college campus, I organized the camp ultimate Frisbee games, taught students to play ultimate, started weight-lifting three times a week, and ran when it wasn’t 1000 degrees outside. Then I heard a co-worker off-handedly mention how athletic I was. And I immediately got annoyed. I was so confused because I am not athletic. They clearly didn’t know me at all! Then I thought, wait a second. They are only responding to the activities they see me doing - gym, running, ultimate. If I saw someone doing those things I would think they were athletic too. My self-perception was mercilessly shattered and I realized that I had forced myself into a pointless box. Maybe it’s okay if I exercise and try to get better at running. Maybe I don’t have to cling to an identity that was only true 10 years ago. I still don’t consider myself “an athlete,” but now I feel okay trying new sports or exercises. Bizarrely, this experience turned out to be a really big deal to my own internal monologue because it broke down a lot of conceptions I had about myself and how I think about myself.
In a similar way, I have always thought that I am not a numbers person. I was an English major, I read books, I wax philosophical about the liberal arts, I update my Goodreads account religiously and determinedly put off filling out my W4 even though Alex asked me about 100 times and told me exactly what to enter. I use a calculator for basic math. I still don’t understand percentages. I count my Scrabble score on my fingers. I had to ask Alex what the point of a 401K was last week. I am not a natural personal finance pro.
But the more I heard Alex talk about the outcomes of understanding personal finance, the more interested I became. It sounded like Alex had a really clear understanding of our finances and could talk about a variety of possible financial futures that might allow us to do all kinds of crazy stuff. And I thought, boy if I was a numbers person I could try to learn some of this for myself. Oh wait, I made up that “not a numbers person” identity. It’s not a law of nature - it’s just a thing I tell myself because math does not come easily to me and I envision personal finance to be chock full of math (even though it’s really not).
So I’m working to create a new identity narrative about myself. I may not be a numbers person - but I do know how to study and I do know how to learn. That will be my new identity! I’m a learner!
The Excusitis Illness
Oh my gosh guys, I am so good at excuses! No matter what task is at hand, I can always find something more important or more urgent to do. I can craft intricate excuses that sound legitimate to my friends and family. My favorite one these days is “I’m too mentally tired from my long daily commute to fold the laundry/walk the dog/work on the blog/make dinner.” Sometimes I don’t even bother coming up with an excuse - I either conveniently “forget” because the task isn’t important or interesting (or is downright unpleasant) or I just don’t do it. For no good reason. Just don’t do it.
Caveat: When I talk about excusitis - I mean the reasons we give ourselves to not do something that is beneficial and life-giving and fulfilling. Sometimes I actually cannot do something (see above) and that is not, then, an excuse. But there regularly seems to be a reason not to eat healthier, move around more, read a thoughtful book, or call my grandparents. At that point, we’ve moved firmly into excuse territory.
Excuses feel wearisome to me. When I blame something else (my “urgent” work, my long commute) I feel powerless, like I am fighting an uphill battle. There’s no end in sight, because I can’t change my commute yet, and I do have to actually do the work they are paying me to do. But I found that a simple change of phrase really helped me own my excuses and get some power back. Instead of saying, “My commute made me too tired to do yoga tonight” I think to myself “I choose not to do yoga tonight because I need a different kind of activity (like a movie or a book) to feel refreshed for tomorrow.” And then I try to think ahead to which days I will want to do yoga. As soon as I see my actions as my own choices, I suddenly have more power over my day.
My mom told me this aphorism once - “you have time for what you make time for.” For some reason, I found it super empowering because it helped me ease the flare up of my excusitis. When I catch myself thinking “ugh, I don’t have time to study Chinese/do yoga/go through my clothes/clean the bathroom,” I take a step back and look at the things I am choosing to spend time on. My time is relatively finite, because I made the choice to take this job that requires 40 hours of work and I choose to live far away from work and have a long commute because I want to live with friends. But there are still a pretty solid number of hours in the day and the weekend - and you better believe I’m making the time to read the next Brother Cadfael book and watch Foyle’s War. So I try not to say “I don’t have time” anymore. Because what I’m really saying is, I have chosen to value something else.
I once read about a guy who had planned a series of self-improvement tasks for a 6-week period - read more, exercise more, cook healthy meals, etc. I was impressed with his comprehensive wellness plan. Then he said an interesting thing - “there are a lot of reasons I can’t accomplish these things - but they’re just excuses.” That was the most inspiring thing about his story to me. He diminished the power of his excuses by relegating them to the sidelines - they’re just excuses.
So I will continue to try to confront my excuses and turn them into choices, find new identities that focus on who I am now and who I want to become, and challenge all the “I can’ts” in my life. What about you? What are your favorite excuses? How do you use positive self-talk in your daily life?