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I can be so mean to myself. My inner critic roasts my actions like a political attack ad, with claims that are cruel, overstated and often inaccurate. My ad would assert that I’m stupid with money, bad at decision-making and a crybaby to boot — all endorsed by yours truly.
I’m not the only one talking trash about myself. Most people face negative self-talk at some point, and it comes up often in the practice of New York City-based financial therapist Aja Evans. Even financial therapists serve themselves harsh burns. “My inner monologue is brutal,” Evans says.
Personal finance is a prime topic for inner critics to judge, as it can be emotionally loaded and involve major decisions. Learn how to identify this voice and reframe its message.
Why you should acknowledge this voice
Internal criticisms can be limiting when they become self-fulfilling prophecies, says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based financial therapist and author of “The Financial Anxiety Solution.” For example, why try to reel in your shopping if you’ve already labeled yourself as an overspender?
Or say your inner voice insists you’ll never understand investing. That statement could queue the following negative thought loop, Bryan-Podvin says: Because you already assume you can’t grasp investing, maybe you’re intimidated by the idea of opening a retirement account. So you don’t set one up or learn to do so. Then, well, you don’t have retirement savings or pick up any knowledge about investing. So you continue feeling like you’ll never understand it.
This kind of spiral reinforces the initial unhelpful claim, Bryan-Podvin says.
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How to identify unhelpful self-criticism
To address overly critical thinking, you must first recognize it. The fancy term for these thoughts is “cognitive distortions.” In a Harvard Medical School article, Dr. Peter Grinspoon describes them as “internal mental filters or biases that increase our misery, fuel our anxiety and make us feel bad about ourselves.”
Or consider this simpler definition of a cognitive distortion, from Bryan-Podvin: “an unhelpful or untruthful thought.”
Look for clues to identify cognitive distortions. According to the Harvard article, those could include labeling, like calling yourself a bad saver, and fortune-telling, like insisting you won’t ever make much money. Watch for absolute terms, too, such as “always” and “never,” Bryan-Podvin says.
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What to do with your inner critic
When it comes to quieting these criticisms — or changing any behavior — Evans says that “building awareness and tracking matters.” That’s why people log calories to eat healthier foods, for example, and track spending to save money.
Similarly, Evans says that acknowledging unfair claims is key to wrangling them. Perhaps in the moment, you simply say, “There’s my inner monologue again, being too harsh,” she suggests.
If noting your cognitive distortion in the moment is too hard, she says it’s fine to write or talk about your feelings later.
One way to do so is by scheduling recurring “worry sessions,” says Alex Melkumian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. Dedicate those times to reflect on the financial challenges worrying you and how you tend to judge yourself about them.
Or attach this reflecting time to an existing habit, like your daily walk, Bryan-Podvin says. Another route: Identify when that inner voice tends to yell the loudest and get ahead of it, she says. For example, if checking your spending always stresses you out, “maybe five minutes before you log in to that budget app, you spend some time lovingly challenging that inner critic,” she suggests.
Whether you silently note your feelings, jot them down or speak them aloud to yourself or a friend, Evans says, “the key is to be brutally honest with yourself.” Examine what your voice says and how you typically react, as well as these criticisms’ impact on your life, she says.
Then brainstorm activities that typically get you “back to a more neutral place” when you’re overwhelmed, she says. Perhaps jogging outside, calling a buddy or scrolling through dog photos tends to make you feel better. Aim to tap those coping mechanisms the next time your inner monologue gets the best of you.
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Ways to learn from your inner critic
“The goal is not to get rid of the inner critic completely,” Melkumian says, adding that doing so would likely be exhausting — and fruitless.
Try to contain, rather than eliminate, the voice, Melkumian says. Think of your mind as a house and the critic as your roommate. “It doesn’t have to be sitting right next to us, talking in our ear,” he says.
And like a rent-paying, dish-washing roommate, your inner critic can have value. Recognize its overly harsh claims, and ideally you could learn from them. “Ask which part of what the inner critic is saying is true,” Melkumian says.
Take the investing example. Assuming you’ll never understand investing is extreme, but maybe the topic does confuse you. Use that bit of truth as a prompt to learn about investing in a beginner-friendly way.
More: Depressed? Fighting about money? Talk to a financial therapist
By acknowledging and examining these unfair claims, they can become more helpful and less hurtful. “As soon as we start paying attention,” Melkumian says, “we start getting some of our power back.”
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Laura McMullen writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lauraemcmullen.