Why don't we do what we want to do? Why do we lose control? How
can we manage difficult behavior? Methods for controlling strong habits
Thus far, we have said that when you don't know how to do something you want to do, you have to learn. We have discussed three kinds of learning and some of the complexities involved. Also, we said when you want to do something that you know how to do but you can't get going, you need to increase your motivation. We've discussed that too.
In this section, we will discuss various kinds of "blocks" that interfere with our doing what we would like to do or keep us from stopping unwanted behavior. All of us have "good intentions" which we don't achieve. Why not? There are many kinds of unwanted behavior, such as ordinary "bad habits," selfishness, sins, addictions, compulsions, obsessions, etc. we can't stop. Why? Some answers sound simple and easy: Why do we overeat? Tastes good & comforts us. Why eat fast food? Quick & easy. Smoke? Pleasurable habit. Party? Fun. Gamble or make risky investments? Adventure & occasionally win. Complain and get mad? Influence others & discharge feelings. Unprotected sex? Quick & nobrainer. Avoid meeting and talking to people? More comfortable. The easiest route often not the best. Quick pleasures may cost dearly.
Why do we avoid good choices, like going to the doctor or dentist? Costly & painful. Why don't we save money? Want things now. Eat healthfully? More trouble. Exercise? Hard work. Protect against STD? Have to plan. Prevent psychological problems? Have to learn. Have another degree? Have to study. Have a better marriage? Have to read, discuss, & get counseling. Give more to church? Have to sacrifice. Good things often require work.
The more complete true answers to these "why" questions are surely complex and involve the concept of intentionality, our motivation for short-term vs. long-term goals, the use of mechanisms of self-control, the conditions that undermine our "will," emotional reactions that overpower our best intentions, strategies for intentional or unintentional self-deception and the development of false beliefs (such as the smoker who doesn't believe smoking will hurt him), unconscious motives, and many other irrational processes. There are also lengthy philosophical discussions about these matters and others, such as "what really is self-control?" (e.g. what if you are brainwashed by a friend into wanting to do something--are you still under self-control?).
There is clear evidence that we humans tend to "believe what we want to be true." We sometimes unwittingly generate our beliefs, e.g. we can biasedly select the data or distort the collected data to believe what we want to believe. We can act in certain ways to confirm what we want to believe. We can persuade ourselves that our intention is one thing when objective observers would believe our motives are something else. All this is related to self-control. If you are interested, Mele (1987) provides a long philosophical discussion of these matters.
Behavioral blocks and getting unstuck
Lipson and Perkins (1990) have a book explaining why we don't do what we would like to do. How is our intended behavior "blocked," such as when we are constantly late, can't lose weight, don't exercise, don't do our best, etc.? First of all, they assume that all of our behavior is the result of many forces, including our will, pulling and pushing us in many directions. However, they don't use the concept of reinforcement and they decry the idea of increasing our "will power." They point out, as I have, that much self-help advice is very simple and unquestionably correct: stop procrastinating by "planning your time," lose weight by "eating less," be successful by "studying more," etc. But such advice is often inane--useless--because it can't be followed, our will power just isn't strong enough to make the changes. Often, though, they say that if you understood the forces that block your good intentions, you could counter those forces and do what you want to do. This is a cognitive (insight) approach to self-control of your behavior. Let's see if it helps to describe five different kinds of blocks.
First, a strong force in the environment may block our intended or desired behavior; it overpowers our will. We often know exactly what these forces are; we recognize them as constant temptations, e.g. a strong attraction to desserts ruins our diet, a desire to have fun keeps us from getting our work done, an angry reaction to someone causes us to say things we shouldn't, an urge to buy clothes overdraws our account, etc. When these forces overwhelm our best intentions, we say, "I'm weak willed," "I'm lazy," "I'm selfish," etc. It may be neat in a way that there are so many strong forces in the world--things we want and enjoy, physical, hormonal, and genetic drives, social needs, compelling emotions, and on and on. But, these forces frequently crush our self-control, and that's not so neat.
This notion of blocks is obvious; however, it isn't easy to assess the strength of the blocks or your "will power." How successful do you feel your will power has been in overcoming the blocks (temptations and distractions)? These authors say will power is frequently weak, usually over-estimated and a false hope. Instead of "will," we have to use our brain--our knowledge of self-help--to devise ways of avoiding or containing these strong forces. There are lots of such methods; most are in this book.
Secondly, in contrast with the forces mentioned above that we are keenly aware of, Lipson and Perkins (1990) contend that some strong forces are hidden from us and, thus, since we can't combat them handily, they easily block our intentional behavior. We know the forces are there because we see the results. Examples: Our hot attraction to someone turns cold (we don't know why but perhaps he/she is coming on too strong or getting too dependent). Our grades in chemistry are D's and F's (we have the ability but maybe we fail because medicine is dad's choice, not ours). We have a short fuse with our spouse without sufficient reason and without knowing why (maybe because we feel taken for granted or got a lousy assignment at work). We don't want to turn cold, fail chemistry, or have a fight. But things like this happen to all of us; hidden forces are the cause. To understand these blocks, we must seriously search for the reasons, the hidden forces. When we think we have found the reasons, we must carefully question and critically assess the explanation (because we are prone to self-deception). Are the conjectured forces really there? Are they powerful enough to block our desired behavior? When we accurately see the hidden forces (not easy), we have a better chance of getting back in control.
Thirdly, besides strong forces in the outside world (things we yearn for, fears, reactions of others, etc.), there are strong forces generated by our own self-evaluations. Examples: You may be only 5 or 6 pounds overweight but see yourself as embarrassingly chubby. During a conversation, you may panic thinking, "I don't know what to say, I'll look like a jerk." These thoughts and feelings about ourselves are powerful forces that frequently block us from doing what we would like to do. By observing our internal dialogue and self-appraisals, we can gain better control over these blocks. Examples: Some negative things about ourselves, e.g. 6 pounds or quietness, we can accept as okay, others we can "own," e.g. sarcasm or self-criticism, and take responsibility for changing. Likewise, some of your traits may initially be seen as positive, e.g. being a party animal and excessive drinking, but by recognizing their negative long-term consequences and "disapproving" of the destructive aspects of the traits, we can reduce these blocks to achieving our more important life goals.
Fourthly, many activities can captivate or "enthrall" us: eating, drinking, listening to music, watching TV, socializing, and even cleaning can capture our attention once we get started. Becoming preoccupied with these activities blocks us from doing other things. Enthralling activities may have a relatively weak initial "pull" for us but once we are absorbed in the activity the "grip" can hold us. All of us have wasted evenings watching worthless TV. If we had gotten off the couch and turned off the set for a minute, we almost certainly would have found something better to do. Ask yourself frequently, "What is the best use of my time right now?" Change your environment. Try to develop more fruitful "counter-thralls." Witkin (1988) has a book about controlling these urges.
Lastly, blocks occur when a complex collage of forces pushes us in certain directions, such as when a woman marries the same kind of jerk three times. Another example is the person who is so concerned about being liked that they try too hard to please. As a result, they are seen as weak, "an easy mark," and not respected, which pushes them to try even harder to please. This is called a self-sealing system and this vicious circle occurs in many situations: a person creates more problems drinking to avoid problems, an over-protective parent produces a more and more helpless child, an insecure and jealous lover increases his/her chances of being dumped. Obviously, complex but powerful and mostly hidden forces are pushing these people in disastrous directions. Such people must get an understanding of the complex forces shaping their lives, then they have a better chance of coping. They need courage to self-explore--maybe in therapy.
This is a nice theoretical summary of blocks. But, removing your specific blocks is not easy. Washton and Boundy (1989) make the point that many of our self-help efforts are directed at the bad habit and not at the block or real underlying problem. For example, it is common to see drinking or smoking or over eating or procrastination or TV addiction as the problem, while, in truth, the more basic problem is the hurt, anxiety, emptiness, frustration, shame, etc. (feelings and thoughts), which the drinking, eating, escaping behaviors attempt to relieve. These unwanted surface behaviors are not the real problems; they are attempted solutions! The underlying feelings are the problems! Having the will power to stop the unwanted habits is not enough. You must reduce the psychological pain inside which causes the bad habits, i.e. our dis-ease. (Chapter 2 made the same point.) Discovering this internal hurt may be easy; it may be hard even with therapy; it needs to be done (see chapters 14 and 15).
Sidney Simon (1988) describes another set of barriers to changing: (1) Having low self-esteem and feeling unable to change or undeserving of a better life (see chapter 14). (2) Failing to see alternatives or feeling you can't make or don't have good choices (see decision-making in chapter 13). (3) Being unsure of what you want and/or are simply going along with someone else's decisions about your life (see chapter 3 and assertiveness in chapter 13). (4) Finding lots of excuses for doing nothing or "Yes, buting" and, thus, reducing your motivation to change. (5) Being afraid to change (see chapter 5). (6) Feeling alone and unsupported or "I don't need anyone" or "I shouldn't have to ask for help." (Ask for help anyway!) (7) Demanding perfection. (8) Lacking the determination or "will" to get the job done.
When changing, the first step is the killer. If you haven't exercised in months or have smoked for years, the first day is toughest. You must use willpower (or, if you prefer, motivation or self-talk). You can strengthen a weak will. Simon suggests building your willpower by (a) practicing in more and more difficult self-control situations, (b) taking small successful steps followed by rewards, and (c) planning alternatives to use when major temptations threaten. Besides will power, you need lots of other skills. But the hardest part for many of us will be getting a handle on the underlying emotions causing the inner pain and creating the barriers. This kind of insight comes from gaining more and more knowledge about people and from honestly looking inside yourself.
Once we have self-control why do we lose control over some behavior?
Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice (1994) do a good job of explaining our failures at self-control, e.g. giving up during the performance of a task, losing control over our thoughts or emotions, and letting some habit (eating, drinking, smoking, buying, etc.) get out of control. Unfortunately, these authors' work is of limited value because it doesn't tell us much about how to prevent the loss of self-control. However, by understanding the process by which we lose control, perhaps science can help us learn how to maintain self-control. You will recognize that "blocks," discussed above, have much in common with "loss of self-control."
Three steps are needed for us to be in self-control. First, we need "standards," i.e. to know what we want to do or should do. Second, we need to be aware if our behavior is failing to meet our standards. Third, we need to be able to correct our behavior when it becomes sub-standard (this is what the ordinary person would often call "will power"). Failure in any of the three steps will lead to poor self-control: if we don't know where we are going, if we don't pay attention to see if we are getting there, and if we don't know how (or don't have the strength--see blocks) to get back on track if we get lost.
Here are some of the more common ways we lose self-control: we set no goals or impossible goals; we lose control or don't pay attention to our goals or to our behavior; we quit because we get tired or stressed and weakened; we attend to our immediate situation and needs overlooking long-range goals; we misjudge what is important to do; we focus on calming our emotions but neglect doing our tasks or solving our problems; we become obsessed with protecting our egos and neglect getting the job done; we let the initial failure lead to a "snowballing" of many failures (see relapse prevention below); we believe in venting our feelings rather than in eliminating the emotions; we decide we are helpless or bad and stop trying in order to avoid further failure.
Solutions to losing self-control? Set goals, monitor your progress carefully, reward desired behavior, and practice self-control and in the process learn as much as possible about the self-help methods that work for you. As Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice explain, one barrier to gaining this self-knowledge is that most people don't really want to know a lot of accurate information about themselves. Our species prefers to be told positive things or, at most, be told negative things they already believe about themselves. We resolutely avoid accurate self-knowledge about our weaknesses. The more we can overcome this I-don't-want-to-know-the-truth trait, the better we can gain self-control.