(This essay is adapted from a podcast by Charles Eisenstein, part of his course, Dietary Transformation from the Inside Out. The ideas are mostly Eisenstein’s; the words are mostly my own —JJM)
As a way to change behavior in the long run, willpower is problematic. It’s also perfectly consonant with our dominant cultural model, which seeks wellbeing through control.
Our culture tells us that nature is random, soul-less—maybe even hostile, because we live in a world of competition, both biological and economic. If you believe that, then control is the safest course.
Our habit of seeking control is modeled on a hostile external world. But “self-control” is a problematic concept, when you think about it. Imagine clamping your jaw closed with your hand to prevent your mouth from eating too much! We don’t do that, but what we do is akin to setting up a war within ourselves. We seek to use the surface mind, the conscious and “rational” part to hold in check the impulses that run below the surface.
Implicit in this program is the assumption that our rational minds know better. Our instincts are crude—honed for survival in a long-ago world. Our instincts were programmed into us by natural selection at a time when food was scarce and the everyday world held lethal threats. No wonder we eat too much! No wonder we are liable to chronic anxiety!
How do we assert self-control? We can learn about this by looking at the way we control others. Rarely do we do this with overwhelming physical force. More often, we try to control the people around us by offering and withholding affection—threats and promises. Or we do it by moral suasion—manipulation by triggering socially-conditioned emotions, now within all our heads. We may attempt to raise feelings in another person that say, “I am a bad person if I do this.”
“Self-forcing” is the use of these same techniques on the self. We offer ourselves strokes, internally, if we do the desired thing. We tell ourselves, “I am bad, bad, bad” if we do the forbidden thing.
Underlying all these ways of maniipulating others and manipulating the self is fear. Fear of withheld affection, fear of ostracism or shunning. If this sounds like a stretch, remember the experience that all of us had coming into the world. Our mothers were our lifeline to protection, nutrition, and comfort. We were utterly dependent on a loving mother to provide for our survival, and most of us had mothers who leveraged that dependence to control our behavior, to socialize us, to keep us quiet and out of the way. Or worse, in some cases.
Conditional approval in our childhood becomes internalized as conditional self-approval in the adult. Contrast this model with the ideal of unconditional love. If we were loved unconditionally (by our mothers, by ourselves), would we then behave irresponsibly, constantly stepping on each others’ toes in a campaign to get more, more more?
That is certainly the model of human behavior on which our control methods are based. It comes from a 17th-century British philosophical tradition of Locke and Hobbes. But it is not in line with contemporary ideas of how most humans work.
It is the people who were most effectively manipulated by parental guilt when they were young who become selfish adults. “Spoiled” children are not those who are given everything they want, but rather those who are given toys and candy as substitutes for unavailable love. Children raised with unconditional love tend to become unconditionally loving adults. Both our experience and modern psychological studies tell us this.
It’s not too late. Try treating yourself the way you wish you had been treated by an unconditionally loving mother. Have patience if you run to excesses of undisciplined behavior for awhile. Give the program a chance. Trust that if you swing out, you will swing back to a more grounded, more stable equilibrium. Relax all self-forcing.
Nature is not a random, indifferent world, but an innate intelligence, a holistic order. You can trust your instincts to take care of you, once you cease the internal warfare and become your own best friend.