The one reason why self-control does not work

If you want to finish your project, accomplish a goal, get back in shape, or break any bad habits then what is the one skill you wish you had to help you get there? It is something that takes years to develop, and even then, we never feel we have enough of it. What is that one elusive quality, which everyone, no matter who you ask, will say they need more of?

Most religions prescribe it, our parents recommend it, and our spouses think we lack that quality entirely.

That one thing is, self-control.

It is the ability to control our actions, and therefore our lives. A simple google search will tell you a hundred different ways to increase your self-control. One of the primary methods being, improving your willpower. The more willpower you have, the more self-control you have.

In her book, ‘The willpower instinct’ , Kelly McGonigal gives plenty of examples about how willpower is a limited resource, and how to cultivate it. Most of us dream to have tremendous willpower which would enable us to achieve great things. We believe that successful people got where they are, by using their infinite willpower and self-control, and therefore, we have no option but to follow suit.

Is that really the case? To understand, let’s ask a simple question.

What is self-control?

Normally, we think of self-control as the ability to control our actions. However, what dictates how we act? It is our thoughts, isn’t it? It is not just how we act, but how we think, before we act that defines self-control. Therefore, at a fundamental level….

Self-control, is the ability to make our mind think what we want, when we want, and the way we want it to.

If you cannot sustain the desired thought, you cannot carry out the required action. An example would be, if you cannot consistently think about exercising every morning, then you cannot do it everyday, therefore, you lack self-control.

As simple as it sounds, that’s what self-control is, thought-control.

If you have tried to control your thoughts, and failed, then you are in good company. In fact, every human being who has ever lived, is in the same boat as you. Controlling thoughts, is a very seductive idea, because it is the most basic experience of power. But, it is only an idea. It does not really work, because of our tendency of what I call, mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Let’s say you are on a diet, and you have decided not to eat any sugar for 1 month. You come home from work, and your wife or husband has brought a cake, which they have kept in the fridge. You look at it, and an inevitable thought arises. “I want to eat that cake”.

Then, almost immediately, you remember that you are on a diet, and are not supposed to eat any sugar. Here is how it goes.

Thought : I want to eat that cake.

Opposing thought : I should not eat that cake.

Now, let’s slow down and look at this carefully.

What is the similarity between the two sentences? The phrase ‘eat that cake’ is common to both the thoughts. Take that out, and the two sentences won’t even make any sense. That means, the part that provides meaning to the thoughts, ‘eat that cake’, is exactly the same in both!

Why is this important?

When our mind processes these thoughts, it creates a mirror image of the first thought, and then tries to negate it during the second thought.

This is how it happens.

Thought : I want to eat that cake.

Opposing thought : I want to eat that cake, but, I shouldn’t.

Do you see what’s happening? The original thought was recreated, when that was NOT your intention.

Mirroring: Tendency of our brain to unintentionally re-create the same thought, that it is trying to erase, thereby reinforcing it.

Mirror images obviously do not cancel each other out, but reinforce each other. Therefore, when we try to control our thoughts, in essence what we are doing is, making that which is distracting us, even stronger, completely defeating the purpose of control. We are hoist by our own petard.

A negative thought becomes even more embedded in our mind, if we try to remove it forcefully.

This is why we end up doing the exact thing, we promised ourselves we won’t do. People with addictions, experience the worst of this mirroring phenomenon. The one thought they try to avoid, becomes an avalanche of thoughts that sweeps them away into enacting their bad habits. It becomes a vortex that sucks them in.

Look out for mirroring and its effect in your daily life, and you will become more aware of its power. Especially, watch how the moment there is a negative thought, your mind wants to ‘do away’ with it and tries to squash it. The instant it attempts to squash it, the thought becomes more powerful. Negativity becomes stronger and stronger until it totally occupies our mind.

Well, what can we do about it? Think positive? Thinking positive, is another form of controlling the negative, and hence you get caught in the same cycle.

Superimposing negative with the positive, pushes the negative into the subconscious mind, where it becomes an even bigger problem than it originally was.

When the negative re-emerges to the forefront of conscious thought, you have no chance of dealing with it. It has become this unstoppable force which consumes your mind. This is how mirroring undermines thought-control and therefore, self-control. It makes it almost impossible to think what you want, when you want, and how you want. So you can never act the way you want, when you want, and how you want.

So that brings us to the question…

How to stop mirroring?

The easiest way to stop this phenomenon is by allowing the negative or distracting thought to exist. You have to hold the thought, in such a way that you neither do what it is asking you to do, nor do the opposite of what it is saying. It’s like being patient, when a toddler knocks over a glass of water. You cannot get angry, even though you are thrilled about it either. You maintain a neutral and a calm demeanor towards what you are witnessing.

I know what you are thinking, “But, if you don’t block the negative thought, would it not take things over? Would it not dominate your mind?”

It is dominating your mind as it is, because you try to block it. If you become aware of the negative thought, just as it is arising, you can acknowledge it, and remind yourself of the concept of mirroring. You can watch it unfold. This will trigger a different type of response in your mind the next time it happens. The automatic response, which is to oppose the negative thought, will slowly begin to fade. As you bring more awareness to it, a new response will begin to take shape.

It takes a little bit of practice, but it’s nothing you can’t learn in a few attempts.

This is stage 0, or the current state.

  1. You are doing the work you set out to do.
  2. A distracting or a negative thought arises.
  3. You try to control it, which creates mirroring.
  4. The distracting thought becomes more powerful, and derails your from your work.

This is stage 1, as you find a little awareness.

  1. You are doing the work you set out to do.
  2. A distracting or a negative thought arises.
  3. You try to control it, which creates mirroring.
  4. As the distracting thought becomes more powerful, you realize what is happening.
  5. You try controlling the distracting thought again, which again creates mirroring.
  6. The distracting thought becomes more powerful, and derails your from your work.

This is stage 2, as you find more awareness.

  1. You are doing the work you set out to do.
  2. A distracting or a negative thought arises.
  3. You try to control it, which creates mirroring.
  4. As the distracting thought becomes powerful, you realize what is happening.
  5. This time, a part of your mind stays in the present moment, focused on the work at hand.
  6. Slowly, yet surely, your full attention returns to the work at hand.
  7. You continue doing your work.

This is stage 3, which is a natural progression.

  1. You are doing the work you set out to do.
  2. A distracting or a negative thought arises.
  3. You notice the thought instantly, and just let it be. This time there is NO mirroring.
  4. The distracting thought subsides, and your attention returns back to the work at hand.
  5. You continue doing your work.

Stage 4.

  1. You are doing the work you set out to do.
  2. A distracting or a negative thought arises, and as it arises, it begins to subside.
  3. You feel a slight change in attention, like a ripple passing over the surface of a calm lake.
  4. You get immersed in your work, once again.

These are just arbitrary stages, and often you will find yourself skipping directly to stage 3 or 4. The negative thoughts may stop in time, but distractions or random passing thoughts, are a natural phenomenon of the mind.

Controlling thoughts or actions is a short sighted attempt at changing ourselves. No wonder, the changes we achieve by these methods are temporary and when we relapse into our old selves, we fall even harder. You may have noticed how the journey of self-control always follows the pattern of one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. Its not because you are bad at self-control, but because self-control is bad for you!

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