One afternoon a few months ago, I felt like I was having a mini meltdown at the fabric store.
This happened to me with alarming frequency. The store I shop at most often is gigantic. It’s stuffed with so many lovely silks, linens, knits, and wools that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices. And the longer I spent there, the more confused I would feel.
I was having one of those moments. I went there for just a couple simple knits I needed for specific projects. But once there, I saw so much that I wanted to buy.
The thing is, I didn’t really need to buy more fabric. I had a long queue of projects I want to make, and everything I need to make them. Plus, I have a lovely stash I really should shop from more often.
It felt like there were two voices in my head. One said, “oooh, pretty! Shiny! Buy!”
The other calmly explained that I already had plenty of fabric I should be excited about sewing.
The first voice responded with all kinds of excuses: This fabric is special. It probably won’t be here next time. I really need some new blouses. This will stop me from buying RTW instead. On and on and on.
The calmer voice prevailed, but not until after a lot of discussion in my head.
Apparently, this sort of internal bickering is not as crazy or uncommon as I might have thought.
The curse of higher thinking
A 2007 study compared the self-control of 40 humans against 19 chimpanzees. Who do you think won?
In the study, each subject was offered a choice. They could have two of their preffered treats immediately, or they could wait two minutes and have six.
The chimps decided to wait for the larger reward 72% of the time.
The humans: 19%.
So what happened here? Do chimps really have better self-control than humans?
In her book The Willpower Instinct, researcher Kelly McGonigal says, “Of course not. When we’re on our best behavior, humans’ ability to control our impulses puts other species to shame. But all too often, we use our fancy brains not to make the most strategic decisions, but to give ourselves permission to act more irrationally.”
In other words, the chimps don’t have quite the same ability to talk themselves into making bad decisions. They’re not capable of thinking, “oh, I’ll take the treat now, but next time I’ll wait,” or “I deserve this treat now, I worked hard today,” or “I might not want the treat in two minutes, so I’ll take it now.”
In other words, they don’t rationalize.
Balancing multiple personalities
McGonigal posits that in terms of our self-control, each of us has many selves living at once inside of us. At the very least, there is a self who wants instant gratification, and a self who wants long term rewards.
These two selves often struggle for control. It happens to me when shopping, or when a bowl of tortilla chips are set in front of me (yum).
One self remembers the long term goal (don’t spend too much money, don’t ruin your appetite for dinner) and the other thinks up all kinds of rationalizations (you deserve this, you’ll make up for it later).
I don’t think the challenge is to obliterate the pleasure-seeking voice. What fun would that be? But keeping the two in balance is a constant struggle, for all of us.
Here are a few tricks I’ve come up with for dealing with these conflicting desires. They’re helpful in a variety of situations, not just at the fabric store.
Technique 1: Acknowledge your multiple selves
The first and most important step is recognizing that you have conflicting wants. That’s half the battle right there.
When you have one of these moments, stop and consider for a minute that you really want two things at once.
Next, try to identify with the calmer, more rational voice. It isn’t necessary to think of the other voice as “bad.” But merely thinking of the calmer self as the “real you” and the other voice as a different point of view is helpful.
I like to think of the wanting voice as a more hyperactive friend. Imagine you are shopping for fabric with a friend. You’re going to make her a dress. She flits from rack to rack pulling out anything and everything that looks pretty. Your job is to explain to her what she really came for, that you can only sew so much at one time, and that you can’t spend all that money right now.
Technique 2: Set limits
Setting some limitations in advance is a great way to curb your more acquisitive side.
Having rules for yourself about anything, be it spending money, spending time online, or eating ice cream when you’re lactose intolerant (that’s me) is a powerful way to manage your short-term thinking.
I try to always go to the store with a list that I stick to. Of course, I do sometimes buy an outstanding bit of yardage I didn’t plan on, but having the list makes me much more focused.
Many of us go on occasional fabric fasts, but I find that even less stringent constraints can really help. What about limiting yourself to only buying from indie shops? Or only buying fabric for one project at a time?
Technique 3: Indulge mindfully
I find it’s important not to villainize yourself over these things.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a short term pleasure. It’s not a bad thing, just something to be aware of when it does conflict with your long term goals.
I definitely still allow myself to give in to impulses, frequently. But I try to do it in a mindful way, considering whether it’s something I really want, how it meshes with my long term plans, and how much pleasure it will really give me. I want to gorgeous silk yardage now, but will I put it in a box and forget about it soon?
And when I do take my more impulsive pleasures, I enjoy it as much as I can.
I’ve found that just the knowledge that you have conflicting needs is empowering. You don’t have to be a slave to any one of your inner voices. Just knowing they’re there helps to balance them out.
Do you feel conflicted like I do when you’re shopping? How do you deal with the competing demands in your head?