My heart went out to the missionary who emailed asking for some coaching:
“It’s been two years since I’ve seen any pornography and almost a year serving here in Brazil. But it’s still a real struggle to keep my thoughts clean. And my eyes love to wander. I always try my best to kick the thoughts out when they do come and I try not to let my eyes wander. Seems like a losing battle. Why can’t I get on top of it?”
If self-control were just about changing our behavior, this young man would be ecstatic—almost two years free of the behavior! But he’s still struggling and distraught. He wants his mind back. His life back.
It is important to work on changing our behavior and to track our successes and failures in that arena over time. However, because self-control is such a mind game, it’s also helpful to assess initially and periodically measure again the size of the footprint of the problem in our lives.
What's the Size of the Footprint in Your Life?
Of all the things you do in life, what percentage of your time, energy and focus is consumed by your self-control struggle? For this missionary, that includes everything from
- wishing he wasn’t still struggling
- trying to learn ways to get over it
- feeling drawn by temptation
- trying to resist the pull
- slipping up in some way with unclean thoughts or wandering gaze
- feeling guilty about giving in to the urges
- beating up on himself that he even struggles with this problem in the first place
When my new friend wrote back and said that the footprint of the problem is around 30-45% for him most days, I couldn’t help but gasp. Here’s a young man who has taken two years of his life to go try to help complete strangers halfway across the world better their lives and find spiritual light. I’ve never been happier that I’ve spent the last 24 years trying to crack the code of self-control and learning everything I could from others working in the same field. I couldn’t wait to pass along to him everything I know about the topic.
Struggling Can Make Things Worse
I knew he'd have to start approaching the problem in a way that would allow the footprint of the problem to shrink rather than continuing to grow. So the first thing I did was teach my friend about the Rebound Effect.
Trying to suppress our urges and unwanted thoughts may seem to work, and may indeed work quite well for a time. However, if those urges and thoughts are intense and difficult to manage, then suppression eventually breaks down. In fact, it can even backfire. In time, the thoughts and feelings we were trying to suppress come back with a vengeance. The energy we poured into urge suppression actually intensifies the later echoing intrusion. The vigor in our fling of the boomerang translates into nothing but a harder bonk on our own head when it flies back our way.
That’s the rebound effect, and it happens whenever we suppress thoughts that are personally potent and difficult to manage. And there are reasons why.
What would happen if every time a smoke detector went off in your city, the fire department was automatically alerted and firefighters were required to barge into the area with hoses gushing? Not effective fire suppression. Why not? Smoke alarms are ubiquitous, their detection capacity hypersensitive, and they require next to nothing to keep running—a single nine volt battery will keep one going month after month.
While detection may be easy demand barely any resources, the suppression function is another story. In the scenario suggested above, firefighters would be busy all the time and even then wouldn’t be able to keep up. Think of everything that would get used up to soaking every home where a smoke alarm went off: the man hours, gas for the trucks, the water drained from the city’s pipes. Fire suppression places a heavy demand on limited resources.
Because suppression resources would get used up even in the event of false alarms, there are bound to be times when a true need gets neglected, times when real fires don’t get doused.
Fighting Fires in the Mind
These kinds of breakthroughs happen in our efforts at thought suppression as well, and for similar reasons. First, there’s no shortage of smoke. The part of the brain that’s good at looking for sex, food, or any other potentially addictive substance or behavior is very good at doing its job. This part of the brain is bound to get activated regularly and forcefully.
The part of the brain that detects this “smoke” is also good at doing its job of blaring away, calling attention to this “urgent” state of affairs. It keeps flagging thoughts that need to be suppressed, pointing out all of these new important jobs that need to be done.
The part of the brain that suppresses thoughts and urges, on the other hand, requires conscious effort and attention. It’s mentally taxing to suppress unwanted thoughts, and we only have so much energy to devote to it.
Given this setup, breakdowns and breakthroughs in thought suppression are inevitable. They’re also extremely costly: they scorch our self-confidence and our hope that we can eventually be free. They char our spiritual strength and consume our time, energy, and money. Perhaps most devastating of all, they can make ashes the trust that was once placed in us by loved ones.
We can wear ourselves out trying to extinguish unwanted thought after unwanted thought, but we can never succeed at it over the long run.
There has to be a better way.
Stop Calling 911
To start our pivot to different direction, consider this question: What did you actually do last time a smoke detector went off in your home? Did you call 911 and ask the operator to tell the firefighters to charge their hoses and come in blasting?
No, you probably took the pan of bacon off the burner, opened the windows, or fanned the air near the smoke alarm. Or you may have cleared out the spider web that was being built inside your detector, like I once had to do.
You probably didn’t resent the sensitivity of the detection function or smash the annoying-sounding device with a hammer. You need it to keep doing its job, as long as you’re the one who gets to decide how to handle the signals it sends.
You didn’t respond in a knee-jerk way. Despite how urgent everything seems at the time because of the intense noise, you appraised the situation and responded in a way that corresponded to the degree of actual threat. You acted in a manner that was commensurate with the need.
A proportional and fitting response: that’s way you'll be learning to handle unwanted urges and cravings
The purpose of these lessons is to show you how to address temptation similarly, in a way that is more proportional to and fitting of the actual need. Your new approach will work better and won’t drain you the way the struggle has up to now.
Homework for Lesson 1:
1. How big is the footprint of your self-control struggle in your life? In other words, how much of your time, energy and focus is consumed by it? This includes both inner and outer responses, such as thinking about it, feeling drawn by it, fighting against urges, giving in to it, feeling guilty or ashamed about having the struggle, and trying to get rid of the problem once and for all. If you took a pie that represents all of the time, energy, and focus you spend on everything in your life (100%), what slice of that pie ends up going to this struggle throughout a typical day or week? Give it a percentage. Don't worry about getting the number exactly correct, just estimate roughly. This number (_____%) is your Baseline Footprint.
2. Now, ask yourself this question: how much will the footprint have to shrink for you to be satisfied with the degree to which your particular self-control issue is still a concern in your life? You won’t necessarily be ecstatic about it, mind you, simply okay enough with where you’re at regarding this issue that you can focus almost all of your time and energy on other endeavors. What percentage would be small enough that you will no longer consider it a weight on your shoulders or a problem that’s haunting you? This will tell us when you’re ready to fire me as a coach. This number (_____%) is your Target Footprint.
3. On a somewhat related topic: How big of an issue do you think your self-control issue is to other people who have never had a particular problem in that arena of life? What percentage of their time, energy, and focus would you guess they spend dealing with their sexuality, if that’s your struggle? Or their appetite for food, if that’s your struggle? This number (_____%) is your Estimation of Normal.