Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 2: A Gentler Way

My missionary friend described “struggling” and trying hard to kick unwanted thoughts out of his mind. He was resisting, fighting, and making every effort to succeed at it.

So many men and women who are failing at self-control are working just as hard, and just as unsuccessfully. In our first meeting one of my clients said,

“No matter how badly I want to stay on track, once the thoughts start they just keep building. I try to distract myself, but my mind keeps finding its way back to it. After a couple of weeks resisting, it’s constantly on my mind. Giving in seems to be the only thing that can reset my mind and provide some relief from the constant struggle.”

Torture by Chocolate

To begin to explore a better, gentler way, consider this research study by Evan Forman of Essex University.  He asked each participant to carry around a see-through plastic box that held about 45 Hershey’s kisses over a two-day period. They were to keep the box with them at all times if possible. Each subject made a commitment not to eat any of the Kisses or other chocolate during that period.

In an attempt to help them keep their commitment, Dr. Forman taught one group several control-based strategies for dealing with chocolate cravings. He told them to try not to look at the chocolates or think about chocolate. If they had an urge to eat one, he encouraged them to argue against it: “You don’t really want to eat it. You’ve promised not to.” And finally, if eating chocolate was on their mind, he encouraged them to distract themselves by turning their attention to something else.

Dr. Forman taught a second group of participants several acceptance-based coping strategies. He told them that although they were in control of whether they ate any chocolates, thoughts and feelings about chocolate are not under voluntary control.  Therefore, he encouraged them to accept any chocolate thoughts or urges that came their way. He taught them to mentally step back and observe the experience of having an urge, almost as an outsider looking in. He encouraged them to be willing to experience the discomfort that goes with having—but not giving into—a craving and to remind themselves that they were doing it in order to follow through on their commitment not to eat any chocolate. The researchers used the initials DAWN to remind participants four of the key principles that characterize acceptance based coping: Distance, Acceptance, Willingness, and Noticing.

Dr. Forman and his colleagues found that the control-based strategies were more helpful for those subjects who didn’t have a particular vulnerability to chocolate cravings. If chocolate wasn’t typically a struggle for them, it worked better to try not to dwell on the chocolate and simply fight off any cravings that did come their way.

By contrast, if chocolate happened to be their thing, struggling to beat back their own thoughts and feelings did not end up being an effective strategy! Those subjects who were more prone to crave chocolate found much more success utilizing the acceptance-based coping approach. Chocolate fiends in the acceptance group:

·      Experienced lower overall cravings
·      Rated their cravings as less intense
·      Found themselves less tempted by the cravings
·      Reported that cravings hit less frequently
·      Had less difficulty resisting their cravings and
·      Experienced less distress from their cravings

Interestingly enough, there was some chocolate sneaking by a few of those who unsuccessfully relied on control strategies to try to beat back the tide of their urges. By contrast, no one in the acceptance group brought back a box containing 42 chocolates, shaken up to look like it still held 45, or containing replacement Kisses that were missing the subtle markings the researchers had made on each of the chocolates they originally placed in the boxes.

From Firefighter to Scientist

To shift from struggling against temptation to accepting means adopting an attitude more like that of a scientist than a firefighter. Here’s the way one of my clients experienced this shift.

Cameron was driving home from work and saw a billboard that he found triggering. Then he started worrying. “Oh boy,” he thought, “it’s Thursday so my roommate’s going to be at his lab class tonight so I’ll have the apartment to myself. If I’m not in a good place it could lead to disaster.” With this kind of set-up, he would typically get into a tug of war with temptation that might continue for hours. But then he remembered, “Scientist! What would a scientist do? Observe.” He turned his attention inward, to what was going on in his body. For the first time ever, he noticed the visceral sensations that went with temptation: a distinct tingling in his torso. As he scrutinized it, he realized it was almost columnar in shape. It was hard to tell exactly, but if he had to map it, he estimated that it might stretch from the level of his belly button up to his chest. He tried to estimate its diameter: seemed to be about three or four inches. What else could he examine about it? He decided to track what happened to the sensations over time. “After about 45 seconds it had faded considerably,” he recalled.

“Okay,” I said, interrupting Cameron’s recounting, “Which would you rather deal with: An evening consumed by a battle between raging urges and heroic resistance… or a three inch column of tingling that lasts for 45 seconds or so?

"Yeah," Cameron laughed. "This is different.”

Adopting scientist mode—taking a mental step back, investigating with curiosity, measuring, tracking, and then recording what we observe—actually changes what we observe. Our experience becomes less threatening to us; it doesn’t feel so intolerable.

Be the Fingerprint Technician

As you try to become more scientist-like, don’t fall prey to the pitfall some of my clients have. At times one will come in to a session and report, “I tried what you asked me to do. I took some time and really tried to figure out why I relapsed (or why temptation was hitting me so hard, or why I was feeling so resentful, or whatever the case may have been). But I never figured out anything. It’s still a mystery to me.”

I usually respond, “If you were trying to solve a crime, it’s natural to go into detective mode. You’re hunting for a likely suspect. You’re looking for a motive. However, instead of trying to solve the entire crime, think of yourself as the fingerprint technician. Your job isn’t to figure it all out, but simply to gather data. Take your fingerprint tape and gather samples from the doorknob, the phone receiver, the computer keyboard, the armrests of the chair.”

“Less drama, more data.” That’s what one client said was different about his life since we’d started working together. That sums up perfectly the facet of recovery we’ve been exploring. It entails an attitude of curiosity and a systematic approach. It’s an effective way to learn about ourselves and what makes us vulnerable to destructive habits. It’s a formula that’s conducive to long-term success.

Homework Assignment

You've just gotten a taste of this gentler approach to self-control. Over the next few days, consider whether this gentler waymight be worth trying. And ponder this: If you do try it out and it works to help you shrink the size of the footprint of the problem in your life, as it does for most of the clients I work with... where would you like to direct the time and energy that's freed up? What would you choose to focus on instead? What would you do with the extra mental horsepower? Is there a purpose or passion you'd find interesting and engaging? Is there a contribution you'd like to make that will add beauty to the world? Make your life better? Make someone else happier? Help create more joy in the world? Each day over the coming week, consider these questions and fill in one or more blanks differently each day--brief or lengthy answers are fine: 

"In time as I enjoy a freer mind and am less burdened by my destructive habit, I'd love to devote myself more to ________. I'd enjoy spending more of my time ______. It would be meaningful to me to be more involved in ________."


  1. Resisting one thing just wears me out and then I end up indulging in something else that I am not trying to resist so hard.

  2. Thanks for your input kon31. Yes, the research on willpower shows that it's a limited resource and can be depleted, weakening our will in other arenas.