فصل 06کتاب: غریزه اراده / فصل 7
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What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In
When you’re feeling down, what do you do to feel better? If you’re like most people, you turn to the promise of reward. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games. And why not? Dopamine promises us that we’re going to feel good. It’s only natural that we turn to the biggest dopamine releasers when we want to feel better. Call it the promise of relief.
Wanting to feel better is a healthy survival mechanism, as built into our human nature as the instinct to flee danger. But where we turn for relief matters. The promise of reward—as we’ve seen—does not always mean that we will feel good. More often, the things we turn to for relief end up turning on us. The APA’s national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them. For example, only 16 percent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them. Another study found that women are most likely to eat chocolate when they are feeling anxious or depressed, but the only reliable change in mood they experience from their drug of choice is an increase in guilt. Certainly not what most of us are looking for when we reach for our favorite comfort food!
As we explore the effects of stress, anxiety, and guilt on self-control, we’ll see that feeling bad leads to giving in, and often in surprising ways. Frightening cigarette warnings can make smokers crave a cigarette, economic crises can make people shop, and the nightly news can make you fat. No, it’s not logical, but it’s utterly human. If we want to avoid such stress-induced willpower failures, we’ll need to find a way to feel better that doesn’t require turning to temptation. We’ll also need to give up the self-control strategies—like guilt and self-criticism—that only make us feel worse.
WHY STRESS MAKES US WANT
The brain, it turns out, is especially susceptible to temptation when we’re feeling bad. Scientists have come up with clever ways to stress out their laboratory subjects, and the results are always the same. When smokers imagine a trip to the dentist, they experience off-the-chart cravings for a cigarette. When binge-eaters are told they will have to give a speech in public, they crave high-fat, sugary foods. Stressing out lab rats with unpredictable electric shocks (to the body, not the brain’s reward center!) will make them run for sugar, alcohol, heroin, or whatever reward researchers have made available in their cage. Outside the laboratory, real-world stress increases the risk of relapse among smokers, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and dieters.
Why does stress lead to cravings? It’s part of the brain’s rescue mission. Previously, we saw how stress prompts a fight-or-flight response, a coordinated set of changes in the body that allows you to defend yourself against danger. But your brain isn’t just motivated to protect your life—it wants to protect your mood, too. So whenever you are under stress, your brain is going to point you toward whatever it thinks will make you happy. Neuroscientists have shown that stress—including negative emotions like anger, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety—shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of reward, and you become convinced that the “reward” is the only way to feel better. For example, when a cocaine addict remembers a fight with a family member or being criticized at work, his brain’s reward system becomes activated, and he experiences intense cravings for cocaine. The stress hormones released during a fight-or-flight response also increase the excitability of your dopamine neurons. That means that when you’re under stress, any temptations you run into will be even more tempting. For example, one study compared the appeal of chocolate cake to participants before and after they were made to feel bad about themselves by thinking about their personal failures. Feeling bad made the cake look better to everyone, but even people who had said they did not like chocolate cake at all suddenly expected that the cake would make them happy.
In moments far away from stress, we may know that food doesn’t really make us feel better, but this clarity flies out the window when we’re stressed out and the brain’s reward system is screaming at us, “There’s a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer!” Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from our clear-headed wisdom and toward our least helpful instincts. That’s the power of the one-two punch of stress and dopamine: We are drawn back again and again to coping strategies that don’t work, but that our primitive brains persistently believe are the gateway to bliss.
The promise of reward combined with the promise of relief can lead to all sorts of illogical behavior. For example, one economic survey found that women worried about their finances shop to cope with their anxiety and depression. Yes, you read that right: shop. It defies reason—they’re just adding to their credit card debt, which will make them feel even more overwhelmed down the road. But it makes perfect sense to a brain that just wants to feel better now. If you believe at some level that buying things makes you feel better, you will shop to relieve debt-induced stress. Binge-eaters who feel ashamed of their weight and lack of control around food turn to—what else?—more food to fix their feelings. Procrastinators who are stressed out about how behind they are on a project will put it off even longer to avoid having to think about it. In each of these cases, the goal to feel better trumps the goal of self-control.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: THE PROMISE OF RELIEF
What do you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or down? Are you more susceptible to temptation when you are upset? Are you more easily distracted, or more likely to procrastinate? How does feeling bad affect your willpower challenge?
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: TRY A STRESS-RELIEF STRATEGY THAT WORKS
While many of the most popular stress-relief strategies fail to make us feel better, some strategies really work. According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.) The main difference between the strategies that work and the strategies that don’t? Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward, the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also help shut down the brain’s stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response. Because they aren’t exciting like the dopamine releasers, we tend to underestimate how good they will make us feel. And so we forget about these strategies not because they don’t work, but because when we’re stressed, our brains persistently mis-predict what will make us happy. This means that we’ll often talk ourselves out of doing the very thing that will actually make us feel better.
The next time you’re feeling stressed and about to reach for the promise of relief, consider trying a more effective stress reliever instead.
A LITTLE HELP REMEMBERING WHAT WORKS
Whenever Denise, who was in charge of new project development for a high-tech start-up, had a difficult day at work, she rewarded herself with a bottle of wine and a rendezvous with her favorite real estate website. She clicked through the endless and mind-numbing options of living rooms, kitchens, and backyards. Not limiting herself to her own neighborhood, she would type in faraway cities to see what was for sale in Portland, Raleigh, or Miami. After an hour or so, she felt not so much relaxed as numbed (not to mention a little depressed about her own home’s square footage and decidedly non-granite countertops).
A few years earlier, when Denise had a less demanding job, she had enjoyed going to a yoga class after work. It left her both relaxed and refreshed. She knew that yoga would make her feel better than her wine-fueled real estate voyeurism, but whenever she thought about going to a class, it seemed like too much trouble. The pull to go home and uncork a bottle was stronger. As part of our class experiment, Denise committed to doing yoga at least once. When she did, she felt even better than she had remembered and couldn’t believe she had talked herself out of it for almost three years. Knowing that she was likely to forget again and fall into her old routine, she made a voice memo on her phone after class one evening, describing how good she felt after doing yoga. When she was tempted to skip yoga, she listened to the memo to remind herself, knowing that she could not trust her impulses when she was stressed.
Is there a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better? What encouragement can you create for yourself before you are stressed?
IF YOU EAT THIS COOKIE, THE TERRORISTS WIN
Last night, I made the mistake of watching the evening news. The opening story was about a failed terrorist bomb plot in the United States, followed by reports of a missile attack overseas and the arrest of a young man for murdering his ex-girlfriend. Just before going to break, the anchor promised to tell me about “the surprising thing you eat every day that might give you cancer.” Then the show cut to a car commercial.
It used to puzzle me: Why do companies advertise during such depressing programming? Do they really want viewers to associate their products with the horror stories that fill the nightly news? And who is going to be in the mood for a department store sale after hearing about a brutal murder or the threat of a terrorist attack? It turns out I might be, and you might be, too, thanks to a psychological phenomenon called terror management.
According to terror-management theory, human beings are—naturally—terrified when we think about our own deaths. It’s the one threat we can try to avoid but will never escape. Whenever we are reminded of our mortality (say, every twenty-nine seconds on the nightly news), it triggers a panic response in the brain. We aren’t always aware of it—the anxiety may be just below the surface, creating a free-floating sense of discomfort, without our knowing why. Even when it’s outside our conscious awareness, this terror creates an immediate need to do something to counter our feelings of powerlessness. We will reach for our security blankets, whatever makes us feel safe, powerful, or comforted. (Barack Obama got in a lot of trouble for pointing this out in 2008, when he told a San Francisco crowd that in uncertain times, people “cling to guns or religion.”) Politics aside, terror-management theory can teach us a lot about our own willpower failures. We don’t just cling to guns and God when we’re scared; many of us also cling to credit cards, cupcakes, and cigarettes. Studies show that being reminded of our mortality makes us more susceptible to all sorts of temptations, as we look for hope and security in the things that promise reward and relief.
For example, a study of grocery shoppers found that when people are asked to think about their own death, they make longer shopping lists, are willing to spend more on comfort food, and eat more chocolate and cookies. (I can see the retail strategy now: Supermarkets invite local funeral homes to hand out brochures by the shopping carts.) Another study found that reports of death on the news make viewers respond more positively to advertisements for status products, like luxury cars and Rolex watches. It’s not that we think a Rolex will protect us from a missile attack—it’s that these goods bolster our self-image and make us feel powerful. For many people, buying things is an immediate way to feel more optimistic and in control. This is surely one reason Americans were so receptive to President George W. Bush’s request, “Mrs. Bush and I want to encourage Americans to go out shopping,” following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It doesn’t take planes flying into buildings to press our inner panic buttons. In fact, it doesn’t even take real deaths to set us spending—television dramas and movies can have the same effect. In one study, watching a death scene in the 1979 tearjerker film The Champ made people willing to pay three times as much for something they didn’t need (and would later regret). Importantly, the participants in this study were oblivious to the fact that watching the film had influenced what they were willing to pay. When given the opportunity to buy an insulated water bottle, they just thought they wanted the water bottle. (In contrast, people who had watched a National Geographic special about the Great Barrier Reef were completely unimpressed by the bottle and held on to their money.) This, no doubt, is how we end up with half the purchases that clutter our homes and pad our credit card bills. We’re feeling a little down, we come across an opportunity to purchase something, and a little voice—OK, a few dopamine neurons—in our head tell us, “Buy this—it’s everything you never knew you wanted!” Terror management strategies may take our minds off our inevitable demise, but when we turn to temptation for comfort, we may inadvertently be quickening our race to the grave. Case in point: Warnings on cigarette packages can increase a smoker’s urge to light up. A 2009 study found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers—exactly what public health officials hope for. Unfortunately, this anxiety then triggers smokers’ default stress-relief strategy: smoking. Oops. It isn’t logical, but it makes sense based on what we know about how stress influences the brain. Stress triggers cravings and makes dopamine neurons even more excited by any temptation in sight. It doesn’t help that the smoker is—of course—staring at a pack of cigarettes as he reads the warning. So even as a smoker’s brain encodes the words “WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer” and grapples with awareness of his own mortality, another part of his brain starts screaming, “Don’t worry, smoking a cigarette will make you feel better!” There is a global trend of adding increasingly graphic and disturbing photos of tumors and dead bodies to cigarette warnings. This may or may not be a good idea. According to terror-management theory, the more horrifying the images, the more they will prompt smokers to relieve their anxiety by smoking. However, these images may be quite effective at preventing people from taking up the habit, or strengthening a smoker’s intention to quit. The verdict is still out on whether these new warnings will reduce smoking, but we should keep an eye on the possibility that they will have unintended consequences. 20 UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHAT’S TERRIFYING YOU?
This week, pay attention to what might be triggering terror management in your own mind. What do you hear or see in the media or online? What new flesh-eating bacteria is going to infect you at your local playground? Where are the killer bees coming from this time? What building exploded, where was the fatal car crash, and who was found dead in their home? (For extra credit, check out what products are advertised in between or alongside the fright tactics. Do they have anything to do with your willpower challenges?) Are there any other scare tactics or warnings you’re exposed to that might be triggering cravings for comfort?
Sometimes terror management leads us not into temptation, but procrastination. Many of the most put-off tasks have a whiff of mortality salience about them: making a doctor’s appointment, filling a prescription and taking it when we’re supposed to, taking care of legal documents such as wills, saving for retirement, even throwing out things we’re never going to use again, or clothes we’ll never fit into. If there’s something you’ve been putting off or keep “forgetting” to do, is it possible that you are trying to avoid facing your vulnerability? If so, just seeing the fear can help you make a rational choice—the motivations we understand are always easier to change than the influences we cannot see.
A LATE-NIGHT SNACKER GOES ON A TV DIET
Valerie had the living room television on for an hour or two most evenings, as background for cleaning up or whatever needed to be organized for her kids’ activities the next day. She usually kept it set to a news channel that specialized in missing people, unsolved mysteries, and true crime. The stories were fascinating, and even though she sometimes wished that she hadn’t seen a particular crime photo, she couldn’t look away. When we talked about terror-management theory in class, it was the first time she’d really thought about the effects of listening to so many horrifying stories day in and day out. She started to wonder if her evening cravings for salty and sweet snacks (one of her willpower challenges) had something to do with the tales of kidnapped girls and murdered wives.
Valerie started to pay attention to how she felt during the news stories, especially the tragedies involving children. In class the next week, she reported, “It’s awful. I feel a pit in my stomach, but it’s like I have to keep watching. It feels urgent, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know why I do this to myself.” She decided to turn the channel-of-doom off and find something less stressful to put on in the background—music, pod-casts, or sitcom reruns. Within a week, she felt as if a dark cloud had lifted off of her mood at the end of the evening. Better yet, when she switched from terror-tainment to more uplifting media, she didn’t find herself finishing a whole bag of trail mix that was supposed to be for school lunches.
Take a twenty-four-hour break from TV news, talk radio, magazines, or websites that profit from your fear. If the world doesn’t end without you watching every private and global crisis unfold (prediction: It won’t), consider cutting out mindless consumption of these media.
THE WHAT - THE - HELL EFFECT: WHY GUILT DOESN’T WORK
Before he ordered a Guinness from the bartender, a forty-year-old man pulled out his Palm Pilot. First beer, 9:04 p.m. His intention to drink? Two beers, tops. Several miles away, a young woman arrived at a fraternity house. Ten minutes later, she typed into her Palm Pilot: One shot of vodka. The party was just starting!
These drinkers were part of a study by psychologists and addiction researchers at the State University of New York and the University of Pittsburgh. A group of 144 adults, ages eighteen to fifty, had been given handheld personal computers to keep track of their drinking. Each morning at eight, the participants also logged on to report how they felt about the previous night’s drinking. The researchers wanted to know: What happened when the drinkers drank more than they intended to?
Not surprisingly, people who drank too much the previous night felt worse in the morning—headaches, nausea, fatigue. But their misery wasn’t limited to hangovers. Many also felt guilty and ashamed. That’s where things get disturbing. The worse a person felt about how much they drank the night before, the more they drank that night and the next. The guilt was driving them back to the bottle.
Welcome to one of the biggest threats to willpower worldwide: the “what-the-hell effect.” First coined by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the what-the-hell effect describes a cycle of indulgence, regret, and greater indulgence. These researchers noticed that many dieters would feel so bad about any lapse—a piece of pizza, a bite of cake 21—that they felt as if their whole diet was blown. Instead of minimizing the harm by not taking another bite, they would say, “What the hell, I already blew my diet. I might as well eat the whole thing.” It’s not just eating the wrong thing that triggers the what-the-hell effect in dieters. Eating more than other people can create the same feelings of guilt, and lead to eating even more (or bingeing later in private). Any setback can create the same downward spiral. In one not-so-nice study, Polivy and Herman rigged a scale to make dieters think they had gained five pounds. The dieters felt depressed, guilty, and disappointed with themselves—but instead of resolving to lose the weight, they promptly turned to food to fix those feelings.
Dieters aren’t the only ones susceptible to the what-the-hell effect. The cycle can happen with any willpower challenge. It’s been observed in smokers trying to quit, alcoholics trying to stay sober, shoppers trying to stick to a budget, and even child molesters trying to control their s@xual impulses. Whatever the willpower challenge, the pattern is the same. Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about. That’s how eating a few potato chips becomes looking for crumbs at the bottom of an empty, greasy bag. Or how losing $100 at the casino can trigger a gambling binge. You say to yourself, “I’ve already broken my [diet, budget, sobriety, resolution], so what the hell. I might as well really enjoy myself.” Crucially, it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there is no way out except to keep going. This leads to even bigger willpower failures and more misery as you then berate yourself (again) for giving in (again). But the thing you’re turning to for comfort can’t stop the cycle, because it only generates more feelings of guilt.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE : WHEN SETBACKS HAPPEN
This week, pay special attention to how you handle any willpower failure. Do you criticize yourself and tell yourself that you’ll never change? Do you feel like this setback reveals what is wrong with you—that you’re lazy, stupid, greedy, or incompetent? Do you feel hopeless, guilty, ashamed, angry, or overwhelmed? Do you use the setback as an excuse to indulge further?
BREAKING THE WHAT-THE-HELL CYCLE
Two psychologists—Claire Adams at Louisiana State University and Mark Leary at Duke University—set up a study guaranteed to trigger the what-the-hell effect. They invited weight-watching young women into the laboratory, then encouraged them to eat doughnuts and candy in the name of science. These researchers had an intriguing hypothesis about how to break the what-the-hell cycle. If guilt sabotages self-control, they thought, then maybe the opposite of guilt would support self-control. Their unlikely strategy: Make half these doughnut-eating dieters feel better about giving in.
The women were told that they would be participating in two separate studies: one on the effect of food on mood, and a taste test of several different candies. In the first study, all of the women were asked to choose either a glazed or chocolate doughnut and finish the whole thing within four minutes. They were also asked to drink an entire glass of water—the researchers’ trick to make sure they felt uncomfortably full (a tighter waistband is good for inducing guilt). Then the women filled out surveys about how they felt.
Before the candy taste test, half of the women received a special message designed to relieve their guilt. The experimenter mentioned that participants sometimes felt guilty about eating a whole doughnut. The experimenter then encouraged each participant not to be too hard on herself, and to remember that everyone indulges sometimes. The other women got no such message.
Then came the test of whether self-forgiveness would break the what-the-hell cycle. The experimenter served each dieter three large bowls of candy—peanut-butter-and-chocolate Reese’s Poppers, fruit-flavored Skittles, and York Peppermint Patties—chosen to appeal to any sweet tooth. The women were asked to sample each candy in order to rate it, and were invited to eat as much or as little as they liked. If the women still felt guilty about eating the doughnut, they should say to themselves, “I already broke the diet, so what does it matter if I inhale these Skittles?” After the taste test, the experimenter weighed the candy bowls to find out how much each participant had eaten. The self-forgiveness intervention was a clear success: The women who received the special message ate only 28 grams of candy, compared with almost 70 grams by women who were not encouraged to forgive themselves. (For reference, a single Hershey’s Kiss is 4.5 grams.) Most people are surprised by this finding. Common sense says that the message “Everyone indulges sometimes; don’t be too hard on yourself” will only give dieters permission to eat more. And yet getting rid of guilt kept the women from overindulging in the taste test. We may think that guilt motivates us to correct our mistakes, but it’s just one more way that feeling bad leads to giving in.
ANYTHING BUT SELF - FORGIVENESS!
As soon as I mention self-forgiveness in class, the arguments start pouring in. You would think I had just suggested that the secret to more willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses. “If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll never get anything done.” “If I forgive myself, I’ll just do it again.” “My problem isn’t that I’m too hard on myself—my problem is that I’m not self-critical enough!” To many people, self-forgiveness sounds like excuse-making that will only lead to greater self-indulgence. My students commonly argue that if they are easy on themselves—that is, if they don’t focus on their failures, criticize themselves when they don’t live up to their high standards, or threaten themselves with horrible consequences if they don’t improve—they will slide into sloth. They believe that they need a stern voice in their head controlling their appetites, their instincts, and their weaknesses. They fear that if they give up this inner dictator and critic, they will have no self-control at all.
Most of us believe this at some level—after all, we first learned to control ourselves as children through parental commands and punishment. This approach is necessary during childhood because, let’s face it, children are wild animals. The brain’s self-control system does not fully develop until young adulthood, and kids need some external support while their prefrontal cortices fill out. However, many people treat themselves like they are still children—and frankly, they act more like abusive parents than supportive caregivers. They criticize themselves whenever they give in to temptation or fail in their own eyes: “You’re so lazy! What’s the matter with you?” Each failure is used as evidence that they need to be even stricter with themselves. “You can’t be trusted to do anything you say you will.” If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control. Consider, for example, a study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, that tracked the procrastination of students over an entire semester. Lots of students put off studying for the first exam, but not every student made it a habit. Students who were harder on themselves for procrastinating on their first exam were more likely to procrastinate on later exams than students who forgave themselves. The harder they were on themselves about procrastinating the first time, the longer they procrastinated for the next exam! Forgiveness—not guilt—helped them get back on track.
These findings fly in the face of our instincts. How can this be, when so many of us have a strong intuition that self-criticism is the cornerstone of self-control, and self-compassion is a slippery slope to self-indulgence? What would motivate these students if not feeling bad for procrastinating the last time? And what would keep us in check if we didn’t feel guilty for giving in?
Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.
One reason forgiveness helps people recover from mistakes is that it takes away the shame and pain of thinking about what happened. The what-the-hell effect is an attempt to escape the bad feelings that follow a setback. Without the guilt and self-criticism, there’s nothing to escape. This means it’s easier to reflect on how the failure happened, and less tempting to repeat it.
On the other hand, if you view your setbacks as evidence that you are a hopeless loser who screws everything up, thinking about your failure is a miserable exercise in self-hate. Your most urgent goal will be to soothe those feelings, not learn from your experience. This is why self-criticism backfires as a strategy for self-control. Like other forms of stress, it drives you straight to comfort coping, whether that’s drowning your sorrows at the nearest dive bar, or lifting your spirits with a Visa-sponsored shopping spree.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: FORGIVENESS WHEN YOU FAIL
Everybody makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. How we handle these setbacks matters more than the fact that they happened. Below is an exercise that psychologists use to help people find a more self-compassionate response to failure. Research shows that taking this point of view reduces guilt but increases personal accountability—the perfect combination to get you back on track with your willpower challenge. Bring to mind a specific time when you gave in to temptation or procrastination, and experiment with taking the following three points of view on that failure. When you experience a setback, you can bring these perspectives to mind to help you avoid a downward spiral of guilt, shame, and giving in again.
What are you feeling? As you think about this failure, take a moment to notice and describe how you are feeling. What emotions are present? What are you are feeling in your body? Can you remember how you felt immediately after the failure? How would you describe that? Notice if self-criticism comes up, and if it does, what you say to yourself. The perspective of mindfulness allows you to see what you are feeling without rushing to escape. You’re only human. Everyone struggles with willpower challenges and everyone sometimes loses control. This is just a part of the human condition, and your setback does not mean there is something wrong with you. Consider the truth of these statements. Can you think of other people you respect and care about who have experienced similar struggles and setbacks? This perspective can soften the usual voice of self-criticism and self-doubt. What would you say to a friend? Consider how you would comfort a close friend who experienced the same setback. What words of support would you offer? How would you encourage them to continue pursuing their goal? This perspective will point the way to getting back on track.
A WRITER CHALLENGES THE VOICE OF SELF-CRITICISM
Ben, a twenty-four-year-old middle-school social studies teacher with literary aspirations, had set the goal to finish writing his novel by the end of summer vacation. This deadline required him to write ten pages a day, every day. In reality, he would write two to three pages one day, then feel so overwhelmed by how far behind he was that he skipped the next day completely. Realizing that he wasn’t going to finish the book by the start of the school year, he felt like a fraud. If he couldn’t make the effort now, when he had so much free time, how was he going to make any progress when he had homework to grade and lessons to plan? Ben started to doubt whether he should even bother with the goal, since he wasn’t making the progress he thought he should be. “A real writer would be able to churn those pages out,” he told himself. “A real writer would never play computer games instead of writing.” In this state of mind, he turned a critical eye to his writing and convinced himself it was garbage.
Ben had actually abandoned his goal when he found himself in my class that fall. He had enrolled in the class to learn how to motivate his students, but he recognized himself in the discussion about self-criticism. When he did the self-forgiveness exercise for his abandoned novel, the first thing he noticed was the fear and self-doubt behind his giving up. Not meeting his small goal to write ten pages a day made him afraid that he did not have the talent or dedication to realize his big goal of becoming a novelist. He took comfort in the idea that his setbacks were just part of being human, and not proof that he would never succeed. He remembered stories he had read about other writers who had struggled early in their careers. To find a more compassionate response to himself, he imagined how he would mentor a student who wanted to give up on a goal. Ben realized he would encourage the student to keep going if the goal was important. He would say that any effort made now would take the student closer to the goal. He certainly would not say to the student, “Who are you kidding? Your work is garbage.” From this exercise, Ben found renewed energy for writing and returned to his work-in-progress. He made a commitment to write once a week, a more reasonable goal for the school year, and one he felt comfortable holding himself accountable to.
We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, wants the best for you, and will encourag e you when you feel discouraged.
RESOLVING TO FEEL GOOD
So far, we’ve seen the many ways that feeling bad can lead to giving in. Stress sets off cravings and makes our brains even more attracted to temptation. Reminders of our mortality can send us searching for the comfort of food, shopping, or cigarettes. Guilt and self-criticism? That’s a quick path to “What the hell, I might as well indulge some more.”
Sometimes, though, feeling bad pushes us in a very different direction. Overwhelmed by guilt, anxiety, and stress, we turn to the one thing that really does feel good: resolving to change. University of Toronto psychologists Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman—the researchers who first identified the what-the-hell effect—have discovered that we are most likely to decide to change when we are at a low point: feeling guilty about a binge, staring at a credit card bill, waking up hung over, or worried about our health. Setting a resolution offers an immediate sense of relief and control. We don’t have to believe that we are the person who made that mistake; we can become a completely different person.
Vowing to change fills us with hope. We love to imagine how making the change will transform our lives, and we fantasize about the person we will become. Research shows that deciding to start a diet makes people feel stronger, and planning to exercise makes people feel taller. (Nobody said these fantasies were realistic.) People will treat us differently, we tell ourselves. Everything will be different. The bigger the goal, the bigger the burst of hope. And so when we decide to change, it’s tempting to give ourselves some very large assignments. Why set a modest goal when setting a gigantic goal will make us feel even better? Why start small when you can dream big?
Unfortunately, the promise of change—like the promise of reward and the promise of relief—rarely delivers what we’re expecting. Unrealistic optimism may make us feel good in the moment, but it sets us up to feel much worse later on. The decision to change is the ultimate in instant gratification—you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. But the challenge of actually making a change can be a rude awakening, and the initial rewards are rarely as transformative as our most hopeful fantasies (“I lost five pounds, and I still have a crappy job!”). As we face our first setbacks, the initial feel-good rush of deciding to change is replaced with disappointment and frustration. Failing to meet our expectations triggers the same old guilt, depression, and self-doubt, and the emotional payoff of vowing to change is gone. At this point, most people will abandon their efforts altogether. It’s only when we are feeling out of control and in need of another hit of hope that we’ll once again vow to change—and start the cycle all over.
Polivy and Herman call this cycle the “false hope syndrome.” As a strategy for change, it fails. But that’s because it was never meant to be a strategy for change. It’s a strategy for feeling better, and these are not the same thing. If all you care about is the feeling of hope, this is not an irrational strategy. Resolving to change is, for most people, the best part of the change process. It’s all downhill after that: having to exert self-control, saying no when you want to say yes, saying yes when you want to say no. The effort of actually making the change cannot compare, from a happiness point of view, to the rush of imagining that you will change. And so it’s not only easier, but also much more fun, to milk the promise of change for all it’s worth, without the messy business of following through. That is why so many people are happier giving up and starting again, over and over, rather than finding a way to make a change for good. The high we get from imagining our own extreme makeovers is a difficult drug to quit.
False hope syndrome is especially sneaky because it masquerades as self-control. In fact, it does such a good job fooling us, I’d wager that while you were reading this very section, it took you a moment to realize that I was describing another willpower trap, not the silver lining of feeling bad. And that’s exactly why the promise of change is worth looking at. There is a fine line between the motivation we need to make a change, and the kind of unrealistic optimism that can sabotage our goals. We need to believe that change is possible; without hope, we’d resign ourselves to the way things are. But we must avoid the common trap of using the promise of change to fix our feelings, not to fix our behaviors. Otherwise, we can turn what looks like willpower into just another version of a rat pressing a lever, hoping this is the time we get the reward.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: RESOLVING TO FEEL GOOD
Take a moment to think about your own motivations and expectations for change. Do you only feel motivated to change when you are feeling bad? Is the best part of setting goals the pleasure of imagining how succeeding will change your life? Do you use fantasies of your future self to fix your feelings now, more than you take concrete steps to fix your behavior?
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: OPTIMISTIC PESSIMISM FOR SUCCESSFUL RESOLUTIONS
Optimism can make us motivated, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed. Research shows that predicting how and when you might be tempted to break your vow increases the chances that you will keep a resolution.
For your own willpower challenge, ask yourself: When am I most likely to be tempted to give in? How am I most likely to let myself get distracted from my goal? What will I say to myself to give myself permission to procrastinate? When you have such a scenario in mind, imagine yourself in that situation, what it will feel like, and what you might be thinking. Let yourself see how a typical willpower failure unfolds.
Then turn this imaginary failure into a willpower success. Consider what specific actions you could take to stick to your resolution. Do you need to remember your motivation? Get yourself away from the temptation? Call a friend for support? Use one of the other willpower strategies you’ve learned? When you have a specific strategy in mind, imagine yourself doing it. Visualize what it will feel like. See yourself succeed. Let this vision of yourself give you the confidence that you will do what it takes to reach your goal.
Planning for failure in this way is an act of self-compassion, not self-doubt. When that moment of possible willpower failure hits, you will be ready to put your plan into action.
THE LAST WORD
To avoid stress-induced willpower failures, we need to discover what really makes us feel better—not the false promise of reward, and not empty promises to change. We need to give ourselves permission to do these things, and to protect ourselves from sources of stress that have nothing to do with our lives. When we do experience setbacks—which we will—we need to forgive those failures, and not use them as an excuse to give in or give up. When it comes to increasing self-control, self-compassion is a far better strategy than beating ourselves up.
The Idea: Feeling bad leads to giving in, and dropping guilt makes you stronger.
Under the Microscope
• The promise of relief. What do you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or down?
• What’s terrifying you? Pay attention to the stress of what you hear or see in the media, online, or from other sources.
• When setbacks happen. Do you respond to a willpower failure with guilt and self-criticism?
• Resolving to feel good. Do you use fantasies of your future self to fix your feelings now, more than you take concrete steps to fix your behavior?
• Stress-relief strategies that work. The next time you’re stressed out, try one of the stress-relief strategies that really work, such as exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby.
• Forgiveness when you fail. Take a more compassionate perspective on your setbacks to avoid the guilt that leads to giving in again.
• Optimistic pessimism for successful resolutions. Predict how and when you might be tempted to break your vow, and imagine a specific plan of action for not giving in.
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