Resisting Temptation: A Battle of Wits

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The biggest human temptation

is to settle for too little.

– Thomas Merton


e are never, not for one moment, free from temptation. There is constant pressure to do forbidden things and there is relentless temptation to quit doing the honorable thing. At any moment we could blurt out an angry, hurtful response, bend the truth about why we are running late, skip our workout, or hit the bottle. We could also stop running the errands that run the household or discontinue our willingness to attend closely to those we love. There are far, far more temptations in a day than we can easily resist. How on earth can we manage our lives in the face of that truth?

What we need are two things: a very good attitude and an abundance of life skills.

The attitude

I have always loved the fact that the word “parenthesis” starts with the word “parent.” Despite the fact that there is no etymological relationship between the two words, the image is nonetheless a very satisfying one for me. Picture, then, being contained within the parentheses of parental care – solidly situated between expectation and support. This is the attitude you need to have toward yourself in order to gracefully and successfully face the fact that we have to resist temptation 525,600 minutes a year. Every year. Forever.

Expectation: You must remember to remember this truth.

The parental voice with traditionally male energy demands that we face the truth that temptation is a defining challenge for human beings. Embedded in that demand is the gratifying belief that we humans can handle the truth. But what is the advantage of remembering to remember this difficult bit of reality? Doesn't thinking about how formidable temptation is just make it harder to resist it? The advantage is this: when we choose to acknowledge that there is constant struggle in being us, we emancipate the philosophical side of our minds – that special human ability to metacognate about how we are doing. This part of our brain is also the part that houses our will and our will to power. By keeping that part of the brain activated, we are much more able to stay attentive to our long range plans, our reasons for living and our deeper values. In other words, when we face existential bad news courageously, we are more fully human.

How to access a little existential pep talk: When it comes to facing bad news, nobody beats the existentialists. Why? Because they so firmly believe that humans are designed to handle difficult truths. The words of these cranky, eccentric writers can provide inspiration and hope, though not necessarily in their original form. Secondary sources of existential material can deliver much of the true grit of these philosophers’ words without putting you in a Schopenhauerian funk or a Nietzschean fog. I would recommend basic textbooks on existentialism by Walter Kaufmann, Marjorie Grene, or Robert Solomon; or see, for example, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There are also many novels and movies that can remind you of the truth that impressive people are those who take their lives seriously, hold themselves accountable, find their lives delightful, work on their existential personal challenges and put sustained effort into their relationships. The FAWBOT boxes in each article on this website offer many novels that address existential issues in an accessible manner.

Finally, cultivate friendships with those who inspire you with their ability to stay focused on meaningful goals as they sidestep the obstacles that life continuously throws in their way. Mental health is contagious, so if you want to catch good mental health, surround yourself with folks who are infested with wisdom.

Support: What can we do to make this easier for you?

The parental voice with the traditionally female energy encourages us to remember to provision ourselves and to ask for help. When we spend some of our time and energy gathering supplies that ease our way, we are proving to ourselves that we matter. This will unleash a solid self-esteem energy that can more easily support our resistance movement. And when we allow ourselves to reach out for support, we rejoin the human community whose members are also struggling to carry out existentially challenging tasks such as resisting temptation. This shared burden connects us to the resources and energy that relationships make available to us and puts us in contact with the metacognitive strengths of many human brains. We receive cognitive support as our thoughts are enlarged and transformed by discussion and consensus building. And our emotional energy is supercharged by the experience of participation in Jean Baker Miller’s concept of “agency-in-community.” She describes the collective experience that fosters comfort and inspiration when individuals are “engaged in an emotional relationship that is moving toward greater well-being” for all participants. Finally, the power of being recognized, valued and chosen by others refreshes our resolve to self-create.

 

If you'll send me your questions, I'll post them here. jan@self-construct.com

 

How to access a little feminist pep talk: When it comes to organizing support, nobody beats the feminists. Why? Because they so firmly believe that humans are designed to work together to achieve greatness. Writers in this field can be as abstruse as the existentialists, see for example Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Judith Butler’s text Gender Trouble. But much of the original writing is quite accessible – from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. Here is an excellent feminist reading list from the New York Public Library.

When you watch movies or read novels, pay attention to the attachment patterns being represented. Notice how people gather support from their social environment as they move through life’s dilemmas. Notice, also, how it goes for those who try to go it alone.

In your personal life, prioritize relationships with people who take your relationship with them seriously, hold themselves accountable, find you delightful, work on their own existential challenges and are willing to meet you halfway in the maintenance of the relationship.

It is nearly impossible to resist temptation without invoking the life skills described below and it is nearly impossible to invoke them absent a healthy internal discussion as described above. Inside your skull kingdom should be the ruler (your self or your executive functioning or your ego – whichever term you prefer) and your advisors (ideally the voice of expectation and the voice of support). Put these identities in place in your mind and learn to use them. They are all on your side. Make it so the bulk of your brain is rooting for you to succeed.

Life skills

To some extent, every skill described on this website is valuable when fighting temptation. I’ve gathered the most salient to review here. I expect that most of you already know most of this. The material is organized for you to review, to refresh your memory and to fill in any blanks.

Understand the neurology of temptation

The prefrontal cortex of the human brain runs our quintessentially human capabilities such as planning, maintaining goals, directing attention and assigning working memory. This top-down system has an arsenal of weapons to fight off those temptations that our sense of self wishes to resist. Neurologically, when we are tempted, our attention has been captured by one or more of our senses that tell us something desirable has appeared within our reach. The amygdalae – the little twin emotion centers of our brain – send messages to the neocortex labeled “Urgent” describing the tasty option and recommending instant capitulation. (The amygdalae are greedy little bastards.)

Our prefrontal cortex, if it decides to resist the invitation to temptation, can do one of two things: try to ignore the call for indulgence or recruit other parts of the brain to defeat the temptation.

If it takes the first option, it is utilizing the will power system to keep the door closed on the enticement. Unfortunately, as long as our senses are detecting the option as still being accessible, the amygdalae will continue sending insistent messages forward, forcing the prefrontal cortex to engage will power again and again. This quickly becomes a very uncomfortable – and most probably futile – state. Most of us recognize the imprudence of working in a candy store if we have the slightest sweet tooth. The psychological reasons that make this white-knuckle state problematic are described in the next section.

If, on the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is better trained, it will take the second option and draft powerful portions of the brain to help fight off the temptation. What this choice involves is shifting the brain from the content-based strategy of "resist the ______________" (insert enticement of choice in the blank) to the process-based strategy of thinking about how the temptation is worming its way into your forebrain. The process involves evaluating the hold that the enticement has on you and designing an elimination strategy to target it specifically. For example, if sitting and doing nothing is ever tempting, a long think might reveal to you that reclining into inactivity is a covert way to assist petulance in protecting you from burnout. Once the underlying allure of petulance relative to burnout is exposed, other, more enduring strategies can be enacted.

If you take a moment to think about it, you will be able to recognize having experienced these two options. Reflect back on a temptation that grew in strength until you finally gave in (or ran screaming into the night). You should notice that your brain only used the word “NO!” as a weapon. Now think about a situation when you were able to resist a temptation. You should recognize the many ways your brain worked to engage some or many of the life skills described in this section to defeat the temptation.

If you understand that your prefrontal cortex needs to be thoughtful and intentional about how it handles messages of wanting, you can understand how discussing things within yourself can be prudent if you wish to avoid the breakdown of the top-down control system. (For a very readable paper on the neurology of temptation see http://www.dartmouth.edu/~thlab/pubs/10_WagnerHeatherton_Handbook.pdf.)

Understand the psychology of temptation

People think that resisting temptation is the same as delay of gratification, and they are wrong. Delay of gratification means that you get to have something wonderful at some point in the future if you can put off seeking gratification now. Resisting temptation means you have to accept the fact that you will not ever get something that part of you wants, perhaps very, very badly. While it is true that there is satisfaction in being the kind of person who can routinely resist temptation, there is no mediating biochemistry that rewards successful resistance. What this means is that our only reward for resistance comes from the psychological skill of intentionally harvesting the feelings of serenity that are accessible to us when we have accumulated enough successes that they are noticeable. Unfortunately, due to the hurry sickness that infects our lives, few of us remember to take the time to swirl our successes in the brandy snifter of serenity.

People also think that will power is the best way to resist temptation. This is also not true. Resistance requires sustained effort and will power is a finite resource. Imagine trying to hold a door closed against a seemingly tireless force trying to push it open. You will pretty quickly tire out. Will power is designed to provide a short burst of energy to initiate behaviors and it will deplete rapidly if overused. In fact, using will power to resist temptation in one area of our lives drains our ability to initiate resistance across the board. This means that keeping a bowl of Reese’s Pieces on your desk at work can make it more difficult for you to stop at the gym on the way home.

Finally, if we understand the psychological truths surrounding temptation, we are better able to intentionally activate cognitive strategies to corral our wayward thoughts. For example, you can use the truth to vaccinate yourself against indulging in whatever fantasy underlies your temptation. Let me explain. All temptations involve a wish for contingent-free indulgence. To return to the examples above, we want to be able to holler our unedited anger at someone without precipitating a social disaster; lie about why we are late with no chance of getting caught; skip a workout with no consequent loss of motivation; or use alcohol to numb ourselves with no physical or psychological harm. When we allow our minds to uncover our fantasy, we can then inoculate ourselves with the reminder: it simply doesn’t work that way! This is a surprisingly effective mantra. It also is a little mantra muscle that strengthens with use, making it more and more potent and more and more generalizable. I see that phrase as a perfect example of blending the mother and father voices into a united message that both supports and challenges you. "This doesn't work" contains, in my mind, both the wish for you to stop torturing yourself with false hopes and a demand that you stop lying to yourself. Try it out and let me know if it works for you.

Environmental control

If you remember that temptation starts with one or more of our senses recognizing something desirable out there in the world, it will be obvious that the more we can protect our senses from noticing things we don’t want them to notice, the easier our lives will be. Like those three little monkeys, we want to see no temptations, smell no temptations, hear no temptations. Plus, it is much easier to use will power once at the grocery store to not buy an indulgence than to resist it dozens of times a day when a treat is sitting there in front of you, smelling all delicious and looking so delectable. So be alert to the stimulus potential of things in your surroundings – from enticing groceries to advertisements on television to on-line shopping to an unmade bed – practice keeping seductive invitations to indulgence at a minimum in your environment.

This attention to environmental control is also germane with respect to the environment within your mind. The remainder of the skills addressed here are ideas for keeping your mental living space free from unnecessary stimuli also.

You will more easily maintain good environmental control when you understand that it is simply sadistic to have something in front of you that you cannot have…be it chocolate, a forbidden person, a revenge fantasy or junk thoughts.

Pre-decide to limit attention

Since not even noticing the temptation is the best strategy, decide to resist something beforehand whenever possible so you can just ignore it. If you can get that philosophical part of your brain willing to think things through before you engage in an activity that may contain temptations, you can have a thorough discussion within yourself to decide what behaviors you would like to not even consider once you are participating in the activity. Obvious examples are deciding not to drink at a wedding or to have only one turn at the food table at a party. Choosing to choose ahead of time frees your mind to focus on other things and prevents your senses from over-stimulating you with temptations. Budgets, wake-up calls, and a gym membership are all types of pre-decisions that save us from losing focus.

Prepare yourself

There are many ways to prepare yourself throughout your day to enhance the top-down strength of your prefrontal cortex.

• Scheduling: If you understand that will power is depleted over the course of the day, you can try to schedule those activities that involve temptations as early as possible. Your will power is then available to initiate one or many of these temptation-thumping skills.

• Deprivation level: We all have a petulant side that gets activated when we feel deprived. It is important to monitor your overall well-being to determine if your inner sinner is getting enough swag. Put another way, frequent resignation into temptation is diagnostic of being under-rewarded by life. It makes sense to correct this condition.

• Brain chemistry: Lifestyle choices that prevent you from routinely feeling hungry, tired or intoxicated will help tremendously when you are wishing to make wise choices. Blood glucose buffers our tendency to suffer from will power depletion. But that doesn’t mean you should simply eat a piece of fudge every time you feel tempted by something. Keeping your blood glucose level steady is accomplished through exercise, sleep, nutrition, careful imbibing and stress reduction. Lifestyle choices, people!

• Mood states: Angry, lonely or bored individuals have very little incentive to resist temptation. Use those internal parental voices to discourage fleeting feelings of anger, loneliness or boredom from taking hold and putting you in the mood to indulge. Once established, these moods require overt self-construction work to resolve. And, of course, it is best to prevent them altogether. A person with a well-oiled will to power is a person seldom moody.

• Tricks: Figure out what behaviors make it easier for you to resist temptation and practice them. This is the hallmark of a good parental unit – one that works hard to proactively help us run our lives well by training us to preempt temptation. A classic example is to get ready for bed before you watch TV in order to resist staying up too late.

Distract

All temptations are cognitive tensions that gradually draw and hold our attention. What grows isn’t the need, but the tension as, over time, we become more and more aware of using our limited, precious will power to hold the door closed on whatever behavior is trying to force its way in. Loop by loop, the message of temptation comes forward from the back of the brain only to be sent back from the front of the brain with a missive of rejection. After a while, all you can think about is the ongoing conversation between the childlike part of your brain that wants you to indulge and your small army fighting back.

A wise person has an assortment of short, medium and long-range distractions available for instant implementation. These need to be custom-made by you, for you and should include novel thoughts, rituals, activities and movement. (Movement is a powerful distractor which also stabilizes your blood glucose, which, in turn, supports your will power.) Examples would include:

• Thoughts: Because your mind won’t accept the order “Don’t think about ‘X’,” you have to train it to think about ‘Y’ instead using topics such as planning an upcoming event, practicing multiplication tables, running through a to-do list or replaying a happy memory.

• Rituals: brewing a cup of tea, reading a favorite poem, checking your e-mail, or changing into a well-worn sweatshirt.

• Activities: strolling through your garden, making a phone call to a friend, listening to rock and roll, or solving a crossword puzzle.

• Movement: walking around the block, going for a run, two trips up and down the stairs, or stretching.

You probably already engage in many distracting techniques, but, as with people in recovery, it is enormously smart to practice whipping out a distraction to use as early in the temptation looping process as possible.

Reward yourself

Neither delay of gratification nor resisting temptation has biochemical rewards (i.e. happy brain juice) but instant gratification and submitting to temptation both do. What a pickle. Our own brains are selling us out. But if we realize that it is a primitive part of our brain that is trying to bribe us with endogenous opioids, we can more easily override it. (This is not to shame these primitive impulses. A behavior that may have been adaptive at some point in time simply is not so currently.) Just as we used the mantra “It simply doesn’t work that way.” before, we can now add another powerful reminder: “This indulgence is no longer helpful to this particular human.”

You can also counter the primitive pressure with intentional rewards. Positive reinforcement is only effective if it is designed along the lines of all good rewards: concrete, consistent, small, frequent, and rapidly implemented. Again, it is helpful to have small, medium and large rewards handy in your mind to allow for quick and appropriate rewarding.

Hold on to the big picture

Each temptation refusal stands alone, often with very little value in and of itself. It behooves us, therefore, to take the time to assess the patterns of behaviors that are coming to define us. Are we routinely managing to engage our psychological skills to thwart the twin amygdalae who are madly signaling us that there is something sexy that they want? If we are indeed putting together a string of good behavior, we need to focus on the value of the string. Like baseball fans, we root for our ability to do well statistically rather than episodically.

It is important to treat yourself with kind understanding when you do indulge. Don’t expect perfection and don’t shame the times you surrender. The emotional hangover of shame we feel from a binge leaves us less able to engage our frontal cortex the next time we are facing the urge to splurge. It also prevents us from gathering rich data that will help us continue to fine-tune all these resistance skills.

Recruit help

As I said above, our frontal cortex will draft other parts of the brain to assist in defending against the temptations that it wants to deny. Our sense of self needs to also reach out for help from others. This can be very difficult to do if we shame the fact that we have temptations.

I have tried over and over and over on this website to reassure you that everyone struggles with life. You need to believe me to a sufficient degree in order to overcome the shame around having myriad temptations. If you are unable to believe this, it may be time for you to consider individual counseling.

As described above, seeking help from those around us connects us to agency-in-community. Sometimes others will have good strategies to help us resist and sometimes they can only offer moral support. But wise people feel no compunction in reaching out to others for help. They will also pay attention to their social world, making sure that there is a growthful relational context available to them at a moment’s notice. If you struggle with this step, here is a pithy article about why it is difficult for some folks to ask for help: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/07/business/07shortcuts.html?pagewanted=all.

Use humor

As a last thought, humor is also a great weapon to use as we spar with existential challenges such as temptation. If we know that of course we are tempted, we can tease ourselves about how committed we are to pretending otherwise, or we can mock the clever way we try to fool ourselves into submitting to an indulgence. Who hasn’t acted as if we were completely unaware that we are on our third helping of birthday cake or that we are letting the clock run out on any possibility of getting to work on time?

It can be also helpful to remember that many of the things we want to submit to are just a little silly. For example, to resist the urge to utter every thought that enters our heads, we can run through an imagined stand-up routine of doing just that and enjoy the act inside our head rather than enact it on the world.

As the anonymous quote on the Internet reminds us: Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell. Sometimes it just boils down to a battle of wit.



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Addendum: When Petulance and Temptation Combine Forces

Sometimes petulance and temptation gang up on our prefrontal cortex.

When this happens to me, I generally lose without a shot being fired. In fact, I usually give up as soon as I realize that the childish part of me that is in league with my amygdalae has put her fingers in her ears and refuses to discuss anything. As long as she is blockading the conversation, she remains in control. And she is one powerful cookie. I cannot access any of my psychological skills if I can’t discuss things with myself. So, when I find I am indulging in a triple mocha latte chocolate fudge espresso deluxe with extra whipped cream and there is absolute silence in my head, I know that all I can do is wait. The little kid in me won’t be willing to listen until she is steeped in caffeine and sugar. Then it’s time for a little debriefing.

My first inclination is to let the voice of expectation lead the discussion because he carries the big guns and I’m feeling defeated and miffed. But that’s rarely a wise choice if it’s not an emergency situation. Experience has shown me that it’s better, but much more difficult, to lead with the prefrontal cortex. If I can get her to run the interrogation, I stand a much better chance of having both parental voices participate in the investigation. What I need to discover is why I was vulnerable to the petulant child at this time. I can do this when both the voice of expectation and the voice of support ask questions and when they both understand the mechanics of petulance and of temptation.

A successful debriefing results in two healthy outcomes. First, rather than weakening my sense of self with shame, I am able to utilize feelings of appropriate guilt to reinforce the need to learn from this experience. Second, I uncover the cascade of events that led to this emotional hijacking. With that understanding I can better design and practice proactive strategies to protect myself from defeat in similar circumstances in the future.

Sometimes it takes several episodes of loss and debriefing before I can mount an effective defense. And, of course, sometimes the debriefing illustrates very clearly that my petulant side was right to indulge in this instance.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.