Awhile back I had one of those moments where I read something that made all the kaleidoscope pieces shift slightly into a pattern that made more sense: part of our problem in trying to make the best, healthiest choice about everything is that self-control is a limited resource. If you’re constantly forcing yourself to behave in ways that don’t feel very good, by the end of the day you’ve got no willpower left and you find yourself with your head in the refrigerator licking the pie plate, or using your to do list as a coaster while you watch a third episode of some show you don’t even like. If you don’t actively decide what’s important to you and cut yourself some slack around it, the things you succeed and fail at get decided for you by how worn down your resistance is when they come around.
I read it in The Willpower Instinct by Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal, who is also a big proponent of the “science-help” genre, which I appreciate since reading actual psychology or science articles often requires more willpower than I have available at the end of the evening. When she says that willpower is a limited resource, that doesn’t mean she’s giving people a get out of jail free card though. Her main point is that it’s a mind-body response which can be studied, understood, and intentionally improved, not just a virtue that you either have or you don’t. The good and bad news is maybe there are some ways you really can’t control yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn.
Self-control is rooted in stopping something that feels good because you can see that it will lead somewhere bad later. Adults are pretty strongly motivated by the avoidance of imagined future pain, so if they envision their boss calling them into her office and yelling at them for doing something, that’s usually enough to stop them from doing it. Children, however, aren’t very good at predicting consequences. They need adults to act as a control while they’re learning because their primary motivation is the experience they’re having right now. They’re figuring out how to avoid getting in trouble later by making a better choice in the moment, but they’ll get all the way to being yelled at before they realize it was a mistake, at which point they’d do anything to make it stop. And that anything is often just another thing that seems like a good idea at the time, but actually makes it worse later.
One character type that seems to have been coming up a lot lately is that guy who can’t control himself, like Don Draper in Mad Men or Marty Hart in True Detective. In a way they act like children, but that tired metaphor is a cop out because however damaged they are, they’re grown men. Their problem is not so much an inability to perceive consequences as it is a crackerjack combination of gambling and self-deception that keeps convincing them it’s ok to spin the wheel just one more time. They have no self control in part because they can’t believe the consequences are real until they’re actually happening to them.
As they sit and eat their tv dinners alone, or press their noses to the windows of their exes’ lives, they seem genuinely puzzled, as if they can’t quite understand how they got where they are. What is wrong with them? Why do other people have happy lives? They don’t seem to know. Of course they can see that not everyone is happy, but they believe in the story of happiness as natural rather than seeing it as something that doesn’t come easy, so they feel like they’re cursed or fundamentally faulty in some way because they can’t hang onto it.
The thing is, there’s a difference between poor judgement and bad luck. If you miss dinner because you happen to be the only person your mechanic has ever seen have the engine of their otherwise reliable brand of car catch on fire when they weren’t even driving it, that’s unlucky. If you decide not to go home after work and instead go to a bar, strip club, ex-girfriend’s house, or really anywhere else, leaving your partner at home with the kids, that’s poor judgement unless you’re trying to get divorced. In fact, even if you are trying to get divorced, there are ways to do it that don’t suck so much.
It seems like there’s a fascination with watching other people blow up their lives. Maybe it’s that seeing it play out is a confirmation that we don’t really want to do that to ourselves even if it’s sometimes tempting. Sure, it feels good in the moment to give in to what we want, but look where it lands these guys. Nowhere we’d want to be. Nowhere they really want to be. We’re making a good choice by not being dishonest, self-centered jerks.
But what makes it watchable is that they’re not completely unsympathetic either, because sometimes we’re all dishonest, self-centered jerks. We all tell ourselves stories about what we’re doing to avoid the truth about what we’re doing. Everyone has moments when they don’t want to go home, when they can’t face the consequences of being honest, when they just want what they want regardless of the cost. And if we never give ourselves what we want, we end up back where we started, in the fridge or on the sofa or wherever we’re trying not to be because it doesn’t really give us what we need.
On the bright side, if you put in even a little effort you’ll probably be more in control of your life than Marty Hart or Don Draper.
alex MacFadyen knows exactly how that dog with the cookie feels.