We all understand temptation – or at least we think we do. Alexander Woolcott is supposed to have said, “All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening,” while the Bible says we should “enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
But the simple truth is this: most of us have gotten really good at resisting most kinds of temptation. If you don’t believe me, check to see if you’re currently in jail, or compare your behavior against that of a randomly selected two year-old child! Those of us who didn’t master basic impulse control probably became criminals well before the age of 18.
Sure, you probably have some “temptations” that you give into: maybe you procrastinate or overspend a little or eat some things you shouldn’t. But do you actually enjoy these things?
If you think about it, you’ll quickly realize that most of the things we call “temptation” really aren’t very pleasurable. When we give in to the temptation to overeat, for example, it’s rarely to enjoy a gourmet meal! And when we procrastinate, we rarely “waste” our time by doing something we actually enjoy. To add insult to injury, whatever enjoyment we might have gotten will usually be ruined by guilt – before, during, and afterward!
So what’s really going on here? Why do we seem so tempted to do these things that we don’t even like?!
Why Aren’t We Tempted To Do FUN Things?
Some people theorize that it’s because the things we’re tempted to do are actually ways of avoiding doing something else. We procrastinate because the thing we “should” be working on is hard or scary.
But there’s a minor flaw in this theory. Why do we also procrastinate doing things that we want to do? Somehow I never “find the time” to read a book or play a game or even go to the movies. But none of those activities are difficult or scary in the least!
Now in the last 6 months, I’ve been learning that having goals is a really powerful tool for personal improvement. Whether I achieve the goals or not, they help to set up useful internal conflicts – the kind of conflicts that help me identify “broken thinking”. When I’m working on a goal, and struggling with myself, it’s a lot easier to see which of my thought processes are interfering.
And last weekend, I was working on recording my Instant Willpower course, with a goal of recording an entire lesson (about 30-40 minutes of audio corresponding to about an hour or so of actual “lesson time”). And I didn’t meet that goal, not by a long shot. I did get about 7 minutes down in one continuous error-free take: a personal best for the project so far.
When I recorded that seven minutes, it was right after I’d had an idea and was feeling inspired to record a segment, even though I didn’t yet know where it would fit in the material overall. But after I finished, and started trying to “manage” the remainder of the project, all my interest seemed to go away, along with my concentration. Somehow I kept getting “distracted” and doing all kinds of other stuff.
I met the Enemy – and it was not my laziness!
So the next day, I began trying to identify the problem. I knew that if I used the techniques I was putting in the Instant Willpower course, I could just “willpower” my way through it. But after studying the thought processes I was using, I was shocked to realize that my recently-improved level of willpower was actually making the problem worse!
The real problem was what I’ve previously referred to as my “inner drill sergeant”: the mental tyrant who thinks I should be doing everything, all the time, and that my desires for things like food, water, sleep, bathroom breaks, practice, preparation, and adequate ventilation are just the lazy whinings of a good-for-nothing weakling.
It seems that this crazy little martinet living in my head had decided that since I now had more willpower, I certainly didn’t need anything like an actual completed lesson plan before recording anything! The fact that this was making the recording process ten times more difficult than it needed to be was being conveniently ignored. “Quit your whining and cowboy up!” the inner sergeant would bark. “You’ll just have to figure it out as you go along!”
It was at this point that I realized that he was quite insane, as was I for listening to him all these years! Although this part of me was claiming to be trying to improve me and motivate me, it was in fact constantly urging me to withhold affection from myself until I had accomplished the impossible.
But no accomplishment has ever been good enough for my inner drill sergeant, and none ever would be. His only function was to withhold the goodies until things got done, gradually moving the carrots further and further away until I gave up in despair and started frittering away my time on nothing in particular.
The Vicious Cycle of Inverse Temptation
So this has pretty much been the story of my life. I get motivated and start moving towards a project. At first, I enjoy myself, because I’m feeling inherently interested or motivated by what I’m doing. Then the drill sergeant weasels his way into running the project. If I’m doing it, he says, I ought to do it right. Then he starts taking away my liberties, because I don’t really “deserve” them until the project is finished.
Before long, I’m starving myself of anything that feels good, and even if I try to take time off or get involved in other enjoyable things, he won’t let up. He keeps telling me I should be working on the project, no matter what else I’m doing.
Finally, I give up, feeling frustrated, deprived, and exhausted. Then I gradually bring myself back into balance by doing some things I actually enjoy… until the sergeant senses it’s the right time to take over again.
This weekend, for the first time, I realized that while this part’s intention may have been to motivate me, its actual effect was to deliberately starve myself of anything enjoyable, on the theory that such things were antithetical to accomplishing anything. And I recognized that this part was just a reflection of what I learned as a child: “Do X to get Y”, where X is something you don’t want, and Y is something you do want, because someone in authority won’t let you have Y until they get X.
There are two catches to this “Do X to get Y” theory, however. The first is that in my childhood, I often didn’t get the Y after I did the X. Instead, a new X was presented, and the price to get Y increased again and again until finally, it might turn out that Y just wasn’t going to happen at all, no matter that I already had done several X’s to pay for it!
Suffer Now, Suffer Later
The second catch in this theory is that it leads to believing you can suffer enough to obtain happiness. However, you cannot ever buy (your own) happiness with suffering. It is true that you can be happy while you are suffering, if that suffering has some personal meaning for you, but you can’t get happiness later by suffering now.
An aspect of my inner self, however, had been deluded into believing that I really didn’t deserve to be happy until I was perfect. And in a fit of circular logic, it concluded that since I’m not perfect, I don’t deserve to become perfect, because then I would be able to be happy, and I don’t deserve to be happy, because I’m not perfect!
Therefore, the same part of me that was trying to hold me to an impossible standard also wanted me to fail to live up to it, because clearly success would demotivate me by making it possible for me to have selfish pleasures! Therefore, it was better to make me give up, because then I could also punish myself with guilt. Just the thing for an undeserving wretch like me!
Once I figured this out, it was finally clear to me why, after so very many years of self-improvement efforts, I continue to have such a cyclical approach to achievement. As my abilities have developed, my inner torturer simply raised the bar for what was expected of me! Thus, I could always manage to fall short of my own expectations, and still get to beat myself up. And the better I get at accomplishing my own goals, the worse I beat myself up for the ones I don’t accomplish!
“After all,” reasons the inner tyrant. “You’re writing all this stuff about how other people should live their lives, but you’re not perfect, you hypocritical phony! You only accomplished fifteen goals in one month out of thirty that you set – never mind that a year ago you’d have been lucky to accomplish five; you failed! No soup for you!” And by “soup”, of course, he really means love.
Time Travelling for a Better Tomorrow
So this last weekend I finally came face to face with the degree of contempt and even loathing that I actually had for myself – and the fact that it would never, ever matter what I did. Nothing I could ever do would ever be good enough for the inner tyrant. He would never love me – I would never love myself – as long as this went on. I would never be comfortable letting myself have anything good, except as a way to bribe myself out of depression in order to trick myself back onto the tyrant’s treadmill.
It has taken me a few days to figure out a way past this block, and I’m not entirely sure I’m done with it yet. Using the techniques from You, Version 2.0, I began unraveling most of the memory imprints that formed the basis of the inner drill sergeant, but I also found an imprint that resisted my efforts to find its origin.
As it turned out, this was because it was an imprint from a time before I had any language or much in the way of cognitive experience. I had to use a slightly different technique called a Doyletic Trace in order to destabilize the imprint.
Apparently, there are some differences in how memories work before the age of 5, and after the age of 5. For imprints formed after the age of 5, it’s relatively easy to get conscious access to them, and then to change them using the techniques I described in You, Version 2.0. For imprints formed below the age of 5, however, conscious access is difficult or impossible. But luckily, just tracing them back to their origin is enough to suppress their automatic nature.
So as it happened, I had a “doyle” (i.e., an emotional body state cluster) that was a full-body defensive posture, my arms and legs drawn inward, my body curling to protect my stomach, coupled with an intense feeling of weakness and helplessness and a sense that I would not survive. I still don’t know what actually caused this imprint, although I have a few suspicions. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter; just tracing it back was enough to keep it from being an automatic response to stress any more.
Breathe, breathe in the air; Don’t be afraid to care…
Tracing this imprint back also had an interesting effect on my breathing. I realized for the first time that I almost never breathe with my chest, but instead only with my belly, tending towards deep sighs. After the trace was complete, I found that I could breathe with my whole body, leading to an immediate feeling of greater confidence. That feeling of weakness and helplessness was something that I had carried with me nearly all the time without really noticing it.
Indeed, it was that very feeling of weakness that my inner tyrant exploited, even as he was contemptuous of me for having it! My feeling of weakness was “proof” that I would never amount to anything, no matter what I did. Because no matter what I did, it was always there. At least, until now. My inner tyrant has fallen mostly silent now, and raises no objection when I choose to give myself small gifts. Gifts like reading, or even exercising.
You see, the funny thing about the tyrant was this: he couldn’t bear me exercising because I wanted to. It was only acceptable to exercise if I forced myself to, because then that was at least an accomplishment in his eyes. He had to turn all my “want to”s into “have to”s, because otherwise I would be showing love and appreciation for myself. If I expended effort for my own gain, that would be saying that I am worth the effort! And that just wasn’t allowed.
I’m not quite sure where I go from here. I sense that, even though the tyrant has lost the primary target of his contempt, there are still many tangled webs of belief remaining in me, around the subjects of self-worth, compassion, and caring. I have come to realize that my previous sense of weakness has tended to keep me from empathizing with others as much as a healthy person would, and to be more defensive and fearful in my interactions with people than I would prefer.
I am also starting to relearn how to use and carry my body, which was restricted in its ability to move gracefully by the deep-seated tension I felt. I’m experimenting with my voice, especially my singing voice which seems to have a whole new resonance now, now that I’m really breathing. Some of my personal projects are on a temporary hold while I sort through these adjustments. I get the feeling that some of my priorities will shift, and that learning how to actually enjoy myself is probably going to be a top priority for at least a little while.
There’s selfish, and then there’s SELFISH
So this experience has taught me many things, but the one I want to leave you with is this. There are two kinds of selfishness: one that comes from a self that is small, the other from a self that is large. One is demanding and pushy, because it believes there will be nothing left for it otherwise. The other is generous and kind, because it is based in actual love for one’s self, rather than contempt. One kind of selfishness hurts – itself and others – and the other one heals.
And then there are two kinds of temptation. There are the temptations to indulge the self, and those to betray it, deny it, and withhold every good and precious thing from it. The second kind is far more deadly to the soul, no matter what anyone may tell you. Deliberate indulgence as a gift to yourself, as you might give a gift to your child or your lover, will do you no harm. After all, why would you gift yourself with something harmful? Would you give your child something that would hurt him or her? Would you give something harmful to a friend?
In truth, the two kinds of temptation are opposite sides of the same coin. When we fall prey to the temptation to indulge, it is not because we desire the thing that “tempts” us, but because we seek escape from the prison the second kind of temptation has built for us. We divide ourselves in two: a “good” half and a “bad” half, one to be the jailor, and one to be the prisoner. Is it any wonder that the prisoner tries to escape whenever the jailor’s back is turned?
As always, I have a lot more to say on this subject than I have room for in a single blog post. Some related materials will be going into lesson five of Instant Willpower, including some exercises related to the work I did to make these changes. I also expect to say more on the subject in future articles here.
But for now, I’m going to continue my new habit of generous self-indulgence by getting some more sleep. And for once, I find myself looking forward to the sheer pleasure of going to sleep – instead of griping inside at how much more I could get done if I didn’t have to go to bed yet!
In the meantime, I encourage you to look for the door to your self-imposed jail cell, and at the same time give up the job of being your own jailor. Love yourself, and you will be free.