Beating the Self-Control Fallacy – ART + marketing
Beating the Self-Control Fallacy
I must have been three cookies in when I felt horrible about myself, decided I had a problem, and started to brainstorm how to get help. It’s not that I was ever severely overweight. Once I’d moved past the first year of college and lost the Freshman 15, no one would have ever used the word “chubby” to describe me. It’s true that I’d held more in the hips than some women and would never be a “stick,” yet I felt hopelessly lacking in self-control.
Discipline is held up as a universal virtue and in the minds of great people and spiritual gurus, it’s also seen as the key that unlocks all of our blessings.
The 14th Dalai Lama said:
A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.
And let’s not mention all of the quotes about how discipline is the bridge towards all of our goals, all of our inner peace, and all of our dreams coming true.
Discipline is a virtue and the lack of it, in the minds of those who have it, is a character flaw. A sign of weakness, that the individual is “just not strong enough.”
They are out of shape because they just aren’t disciplined enough to workout.
They are unsuccessful because they just aren’t disciplined enough to put in the time and focus for their job.
Their relationship with God and spiritual life are weak because they are not disciplined enough to wake up early for their prayer time.
And the less they can force themselves to do the beneficial things with sheer force of will, the more negatively they will view themselves.
This way of thinking is a fallacy. After interviewing the people in my life who are the most disciplined, I’ve learnt that the way to build discipline isn’t to exercise it like a muscle. Rather, it’s to think strategically in order to render your own personal willpower irrelevant to the final equation.
This past weekend, I had a great conversation about this piece with my new friend, Alphonse. A Spaniard and a restaurant consultant (he insists my describing him in that order), we became fast friends when we met at the home of one of my editors, Louise, to drink Gibraltars.
As we sat together in her backyard waiting for the grill to heat up, he told me that discipline and self-control are both non-negotiable qualities in the women he dates. “Life will be easier with a companion who’s not enslaved by her desires and whims,” he’d explained. It was hard to disagree. Stories of friends who were in longterm relationships with people who were carnal and driven entirely by pleasure were fresh in my mind and I’d seen too many relationships to alcoholics, relationships to porn addicts, and relationships to serial cheaters to bother playing devil’s advocate.
Even in my own life, the majority of my problems came not from bad decisions made impulsively but from lack of discipline or an inability to make decisions with a longterm perspective.
After going back and forth, I told him, “I’ve found that a lot of times, trouble comes when we think more highly of our will-power than we should.”
To illustrate this, let’s take a common, addictive habit that’s almost impossible to break using sheer power of will: pornography viewing. Anyone who runs in circles where it’s treated as a vice — whether religious communities or groups of social justice-oriented people who are concerned about its objectification — has most likely been privy to conversations about the challenges of stopping.
A girl I met at my last church told me three months ago, “It’s like I stop for one week, one day, even a month but fall back into it again and again.” So many battle their addiction with resignation, holding onto the unspoken view that slipping back into it isn’t a matter of “if” but of “when.” Those who don’t share their struggle judge them and so they judge themselves, viewing themselves as weak and incompetent.
Yet over and over again, those who manage to exercise self-control don’t exercise self-control at all, instead taking themselves out of the equation entirely. Instead of overestimating their dominion over self, they view their self-control with such a low regard that they utilize barriers of protection to save them from themselves.
For those struggling to kick a pornography habit, this often comes in the form of moving the computers to a shared area, putting parental controls on their web browser, installing an app or add-on that texts an accountability partner when certain keywords are entered into the search engine, meeting weekly with a counselor who hasn’t watched a video in ten years, and joining a support group, none of which put faith in self-control that you’ve already proven you struggle to consistently exercise.
Basically, when it comes to the question of how to build up the self-control required to resist your temptations, the answer is simple: Get yourself out of dodge.
It’s just like my mom says, “If you’re on a diet, don’t even buy the Oreos. Leave them on the shelf.”
Let’s take a look at the Christian faith tradition for a moment because it teaches something very valuable and relevant. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gauge it out.” Sounds gruesome and melodramatic, but let’s not let the principle be lost on us because this is actually universally applicable. Jesus wasn’t expecting his followers to just sit there and withstand temptation by their own sheer strength. He was saying you should flee temptation, getting yourself out of its presence.
Don’t trust yourself, guard yourself. Put up barriers between yourself and temptation. Get in the support group, give someone the title of “Accountability Partner” and with it the permission to be in your business. Purge your life and home of temptations and triggers.