Why We Struggle With Self-Control — The Problem of Two Minds
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A war is going on within us,” he said to his grandchild.
“There are two wolves inside all of us. One wolf is white, good, altruistic, generous, and kind, and the other wolf is black, mean, lazy, greedy, and angry.”
“The two wolves are in a constant war inside us.”
The grandson, asks, with awe: “But which one will win, grandpa?”
And the grandfather says (there is usually a pause before delivering the spiritual punchline — wait for it …)
“The one which you nourish.”
How often do you find yourself in a tug-of-war between a part of you which wants to pursue a healthy and productive lifestyle and the other part of you which wants to lie down on a couch have strawberry cheesecake while watching Friends for the 10th time?
And have often do you wonder:
- What is the root of so many conflicts? Where are these two wolves coming from?
- How can I feed the white wolf and help it triumph (hence, be healthy, wealthy, happy, and wise.)
- How can I tie the hands of that sinister and self-sabotaging wolf?
I’ll address all the questions here.
First, let’s identify the root of all the struggles between the good and the evil.
The Problem of Two Minds
The Black Wolf
Evolution has two main purposes: ensuring your survival and reproduction. Thus, towards these ends, it has instilled within you, instincts, impulses, and urges that compel you to fulfill its purposes.
Back then, for instance, when food was scarce, the more fatty and sweet food you had, the more reservoir of energy you would pile up, and in case of long famine, you would survive. That is why you have the instinct to find fatty and sweet food delicious.
These instincts (desires for food), urges (desire for sex), and feelings (anger, fear, laziness), have evolved long before we — the homo sapiens — emerged they are all the manifestations of our inner black wolf.
These instincts were evolved to ensure our survival until things started to change …
The White Wolf is Born
Imagine this: It is 100,000 years ago, and you are the top-of-the-line homo sapiens. Just a few generations before, the black wolf would guarantee your survival:
- Find food (cravings)
- Reproduce (the urge for sex),
- Avoid the danger or fight them (fear or anger)
But now, being part of a society, you would need other tools for survival. You would still need to pursue food and sex but you also needed “not to piss off anyone in the process.”
Even if you had the craving and the urge, you couldn’t just take your neighbor’s buffalo burger and have sex with his mate and get away with it.
Therefore, you needed new skills to win friends and influence people. You needed new mental modules to put a cap on the impulses of the black wolf.
Hence the white wolf was born to provide you with self-control. (I say born but it actually took thousands of years till it developed.)
The War Begins
Evolution prefers to add on to what it has created, rather than starting from scratch or replacing what’s already there.
It means that the white wolf was born and grown under the shadow of the black wolf. And this is the very source of the conflict you sense when facing temptations, procrastination, etc.
You’re on a diet and your gaze locks on the strawberry cheesecake.
You want this so much. But you can’t. But you want. But you can’t. You know what you need to do, but you aren’t sure you can handle this.
This is the war of the wolves in your brain.
And now the million-dollar question: What can we do about it?
Getting Rid of Your Black Wolf?
It is tempting to think of our self-control system to be the superior “self,” and regard our primitive instincts as the vestige of our evolutionary past.
Sure, back then when we lived with dirt all over us they might have saved us well, but now, they’re just getting in the way, leading to empty bank accounts, health issues, and sexual encounters for which one has to apologize on national TV.
“If I only could get rid of these instincts …” you might say.
Not so fast. Although not always beneficial, it is a terrible mistake to think you should conquer your instincts completely.
Well, medical case studies attest how crucial these primal instincts are for our health, happiness, and ironically self-control.
A bizarre case involves a woman who lost her midbrain during brain surgery, and consequently, she lost her ability to feel fear and disgust. As a result, she developed a habit of overeating until she got sick. Even worse, she was frequently found sexually proposing to family members. Not such a good role model for self-control. As Kelly McGonigal — health psychologist at Stanford puts it:
Without desires, we’d become depressed, and without fear, we’d fail to protect ourselves from future danger. Part of the self-control challenge will be finding a way to take advantage of, and not fight, such primitive instincts.
What does it mean?
Does it mean that we can or should reconcile the two wolves towards a shared goal?
Getting Help From The Black Wolf
Fear, disgust, pain, laziness, etc., are all different cloaks of the black wolf that you can use to effectively exercise your self-control and crush your temptations.
The essence of this approach is to associate what you are craving to do (smoking, eating junk food, etc.) with something disgusting, or painful in your mind.
Here’s an example.
Walter Mischel, the brilliant mind behind many studies on willpower and self-control, was a chain-smoker.
One day when he was walking through the halls of Stanford University’s medical school, he sees a terrifying sight: A man is being wheeled down the hall, strapped to a gurney; his eyes wide-open, staring at the ceiling with green dots on his body.
A nurse explains that the patient had cancer and was being taken for another radiation session. The green marks were there to direct the radiation.
“I could not shake that vivid image of the consequences of my addiction from my mind,” Mischel recalls.
And, this is how he used this repelling experience to quit smoking for good:
Cigarettes were my continuous temptation, and I had to change them into something that disgusted me in order to cure my addiction. Whenever I felt a craving (at first this was often), I inhaled deeply from a large can filled with old, stale cigarette butts and pipe debris. The can had a concentrated nicotine odor intense enough to be nauseating. […] I supplemented this step by deliberately reactivating that haunting image of the cancer patient to make the “later” consequences of smoking as salient and vivid for myself as possible. […] It took a few weeks of struggle, but ultimately it worked.
Visualizing such terrifying scenes is not fun at all but it is one of the most powerful ways to crush any addiction or temptation.
If the situation is life-threatening or causing you misery, summoning the black wolf for help is a quick way to salvation.
But what about the white wolf? Didn’t you say you can nourish it to make it mighty? Unyielding to the reign of the black wolf?
Self-Control Workouts — Nourishing The White Wolf
Neuroscientists now posit that if you ask your brain to do math every day, it gets better at math. If you ask it to worry, it gets better at worrying. If you ask it to concentrate, it gets better at concentrating.
By the same token, can you ask your self-control to get better? In other words, can you feed the white wolf and take it to the gym?
The answer is an exciting YES.
Now, what does training for self-control look like? This is how Kelly McGonigal — Stanford psychologist — suggest you do it:
You can challenge your self-control by planting temptation traps around your home, a chocolate bar in your sock drawer, a martini station by your exercise bike, the photo of your very married high school sweetheart taped to the fridge.
So, you are forced to exercise your self-control regularly.
This way of increasing willpower is similar to what Baumeister and Dianne Tice — the pioneering psychologists on willpower studies — have found.
In a lucky experiment, they discovered that the bothersome advice — “Sit up straight!” — caused the most significant improvement in the willpower of participants. And the reason: It required them to override their habit of slouching.
This is the key to empowering the white wolf:
Regularly, engage with activities that is burdonsome or requires overriding a simple habit.
Here are some ideas:
- Start using your non-dominant hand for routine tasks. I’m right-handed and from three years ago I started brushing my teeth, holding my spoon, opening doors, etc., with my left hand.
- Another training strategy is to change your speech habits, which also require mental effort to modify. For instance, try breaking the habit of peppering your discourse with like and you know.
I have experimented a lot with willpower and self-control. The most effective approach that I have found to work is this:
As a rule of thumb, when facing any task, decision, etc., if you don’t feel like doing it, that is exactly what you should do; and in the long run, what happens is that you become comfortable being uncomfortable and that’s the ultimate freedom.
But, does it have to be so painful to increase self-control?
Well, there’s actually a better way.
Taking The White Wolf to The Gym
We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training. — Archilochus
If you want a simple and powerful way to increase your self-control, then you need to meditate.
Neuroscientists have found that meditation has a wide range of benefits for self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.
In her book, willpower instinct, Kelly McGonigal writes:
People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at self-control skills. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex [the seat of self-control] as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.
The good news is that you don’t need to practice for a lifetime or become a monk to see the benefits. Studies show that just three hours of meditation practice leads to improved attention and self-control. And after eleven hours, those changes are readily visible in your brain (through the fMRI imaging technique.)
So if you are now ready and excited enough to meditate, here’s the minimalistic approach to do it.
The five-minute breath focus mediation:
- Stay still and put: Seat up straight on a chair with feet on the ground. It’s important not to fidget and not even scratch an itch meanwhile. That’s the physical foundation of self-control. Resisting the impulses.
- Turn your attention to the breath: Close your eyes and focus on your breathing (whether on the sensation of breath passing your nostrils or on your belly moving …)
- Get back your attention to the breath: When you notice your mind wandering (and it definitely will), just bring it back to the breath. This is the critical step of meditation, catching your mind wandering and taking it back to your breath.
The practice of taking attention back to breath causes blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex which is the brain equivalent of lifting weights at the gym.
A crucial question here is, how do you know if you’re doing the meditation right?
No one describes a successful meditation session better than Tim Ferriss:
What if you think of your to-do list, past arguments, or porn for 19.5 minutes out of 20 minutes of meditation? Do you get an F in meditation? No. If you spend even a second noticing this wandering and bringing your attention back to your mantra (or whatever), that is a “successful” session.
Thanks to the modern architecture of our brain, we have two rulers in our brain each of which competing to get the reign of our behavior.
But there seems to be a third self in play too. Our awareness, which notices the conflict between the other two selves. A judge that can intercede. A leader that can direct the force of both selves to a greater good.
Educate and train this leader. As Horace once said:
Rule your mind, or it will rule you.