Let’s banish guilt. Far too often, I turn myself in knots trying to quell my feelings of guilt over not doing something quickly enough or frugally enough or environmentally-friendly enough or creatively enough. Why do I torture myself? There’s always room for improvement in every endeavor in life–I know this–and guilt only serves to steal my time.
Our society loves to tell us what we should be doing and how we should be living. Some of these prescriptions are useful (for example, not stealing is a sage directive to follow) but more often than not, these “shoulds” are prescriptions that worked for someone else, but very well might not work for us. So why get caught up in them?
I used to immediately question myself and experience guilt anytime I broke from the conventional course and didn’t hew to society’s standards. If I didn’t dress like everyone else, that was a failure. If I didn’t enjoy the same things as my peers, that too was a failure. What I’ve realized as Mr. Frugalwoods and I continue our nontraditional frugal weirdo lifestyle–of reaching financial independence and moving to a homestead–is that firstly, no one actually cares what we do with our lives and secondly, guilt does nothing to facilitate a happy existence.
Guilt Is A Wasted Emotion
Except in instances of demonstrating remorse over actions that harmed someone else, guilt is essentially a worthless emotion. Most of my guilt is directed at myself after perceiving that I’ve failed to live up to the expectations of some external source. Lately, my guilt is primarily arranged around how much I want to achieve each day.
I set towering expectations for myself consisting of herculean to do lists that I instinctively know are unrealistic, yet I still write them down and set about trying to accomplish them. This battle with perfectionism stems from both the internal source of my desire to create the life I want, but also from the external source of what society instructs me comprises the good life. But guilt doesn’t enable better living; it fosters scared living.
Seeing the supposed perfection of other people gives me pause and makes me question my own successes and life path. And when people criticize the decisions I make, I immediately translate that criticism into guilt. Since we can’t change other people, the only thing I have the power to change is how I react to this criticism. I can let it eat me up, or I can extract the kernel of insightful truth (there usually is one) and move forward.
Guilt is a misappropriation of valuable mental resources. Feeding guilt takes energy. I’ve spent more time and mental overhead than I care to calculate berating myself for my assumed shortcomings. And to what end? We all have shortcomings, we all have foibles. But so what? Guilt isn’t going to ameliorate any of this.
Money Doesn’t Care If You Feel Guilty
Something I hear frequently from readers and friends is that people routinely feel “guilty” over their money decisions. They perceive they’ve made unwise choices and so should assume the mantle of martyr in order to properly serve penance for their sins. But this does nothing to address the root of their financial issues.
If we feel guilty about a situation (such as our finances), our most likely course of action is to avoid it entirely. In the case of money, and most things, avoidance is the worst approach we can take. We need to acknowledge our deepest ailments head-on, which is nearly impossible to do if we’re shrouded in guilt.
Money itself doesn’t care whether we feel guilty about it–money is entirely devoid of emotions. We impose a great deal of emotion onto our finances, when in reality, it’s a totally misplaced outlet. Money doesn’t indicate our self-worth or our kindness as a person or our creativity or our ability to contribute to the world around us. Yet it’s very common to conflate our perception of ourselves with how much money we do or don’t have.
When we’re able to remove drama from our thoughts about money and instead tackle it as the math problem it is, we’re able to arrive at constructive solutions. When Mr. FW and I review our finances, I actually find it helpful to pretend I’m looking at someone else’s balance sheet. I’m just a person, reviewing some numbers on a page, and I’m going to simply draw a logical conclusion from what I find. There’s no sentiment or mental anguish involved. It’s just me, a spreadsheet, and a calculator (and we all know I’d better not, uh, attempt math sans calculator).
Another typical money emotion is regret. Slipping into regret over debt or purchases is in fact so stereotypical, there’s a cliche for it :”buyer’s remorse.” Well, here’s the thing: if you’ve lost the receipt or otherwise can’t dial it back, there’s nothing to be gained from wallowing in remorse. Best to move forward and seek solutions rather than trying to invent a very specific one-person time machine to travel back and undo your decision.
From Guilt To Proactivity
I receive quite a few notes from readers who are ashamed or remorseful over their debt or their student loans. They tell me that if they’d known what they know now, they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this position in the first place. But there’s no use beating yourself up. You have debt, or you have a car loan, or you have some stuff you wish you hadn’t bought. Accept that fact and put it behind you. It ain’t gonna change and no amount of guilt will help. The best course of action at this stage is proactivity.
Rather than coming up with a plan for, say, paying off student loans, it’s much easier to pay the minimum every month and pretend they’re not there. And it’s much easier to keep spending money each month without any real sense of where that money is going or even the total outlay. I challenge you this month to free yourself from guilt and instead empower yourself to sit down and be proactive with your finances.
If you need to start tracking your expenses (and if you’re not already, then the answer is you do), take a few minutes to sign up for Personal Capital (don’t worry, it’s free), which will help you organize and understand your expenses. And if you don’t have a concrete pay-off plan for your debt, make one–you might try using this free tool. Sit down with your bank statements and see what you can find. It probably won’t be an immediate solution, and I can’t tell you precisely what it’ll be, but see what you can uncover. The first step is always to review your income and expenses. Simple as that.
You might try the strategy I use: pretend you’re looking at someone else’s finances and decide what would you advise them to do, absent judgements of regret and anxiety. I’m not saying this is easy, but it’s such a worthwhile exercise. Enfranchise yourself to take control of your money–don’t let it dictate how you should feel. You tell your money what you want it to do for you, make a plan for it, and then… forget about it. Don’t let it rule your mind. Enact a plan and then walk away. When we’re able to remove the worldview of guilt, we can then begin the work of addressing our problems in a constructive, goal-oriented manner.
Abandon Guilt, Embrace Your Truth
While there’s certainly merit in learning from others and sharing our stories, I find that blatant comparison almost always yields frustration or guilt. We only have incomplete understandings of other people’s lives and trying to model our choices off of theirs is naturally flawed.
In many ways, I think our culture doesn’t encourage the value of charting one’s own unique path. Although rugged individualism is a tenet of our American ethos, it seems to play out quite rarely. Far too often, we’re all shuttled into the same boxes of expectation and taught to desire the same things (usually material goods) and achieve them in the same way (usually working jobs we may or may not like for our entire lives).
And since we’re not interchangeable automatons, far too often the resulting emotion from participating in this standardized track is guilt or disgruntlement or a nagging suspicion that we’re not “good enough.” But we are all good enough in our own way. We just don’t all conform to the same mold or reflect identical attributes–and life would be pretty boring if we did.
What if instead of mindlessly adhering to this proscribed regimen, we did what brings us fulfillment? What if we instead disavow our culture’s prescriptions for rampant consumerism and endless consumption? What if we instead pursue our own personal calling and destiny? In the absence of our consumer culture’s “shoulds,” we can identify how we want our lives to progress.
Guilt holds you back from being who you are and achieving what you want. Don’t let it. I know I’m not going to anymore.