Excerpt of an article by Mark Manson.
Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve tried to change your behavior through sheer willpower. And chances are, you also failed miserably. Don’t feel bad! This is what happens most of the time.
Most people think of self-discipline in terms of willpower. If we see someone who wakes up at 5 AM every day, eats an avocado-chia-fennel-apricot-papaya smoothie each meal, snorts brussel sprout flakes, and works out for three hours before even wiping their ass in the morning, we assume they’re achieving this through straight-up self-abuse—that there is some insatiable inner demon driving them like a slave to do everything right, no matter what.
But this isn’t true. Because, if you actually know anybody like this, you’ll notice something really frightening about them: they actually enjoy it.6
Seeing self-discipline in terms of pure willpower fails because beating ourselves up for not trying hard enough doesn’t work. In fact, it backfires. And, as anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet will tell you, it usually only makes it worse.
The problem is that willpower works like a muscle. If you work it too hard, it becomes fatigued and gives out. The first week committing to a new diet, or a new workout regimen, or a new morning routine, things go great. But by the second or third week, you’re back to your old late-night, cheeto-loving ways.7
Viewing self-discipline in terms of willpower creates a paradox for the simple reason that it’s not true. As we’ll see, building self-discipline in your own life is a completely different exercise.
Why Relying on Pure Willpower Doesn’t Work
We do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. And the only way we can ever NOT do what feels good, and do what feels bad instead, is through a temporary boost of willpower—to deny ourselves our desires and feelings and instead do what was “right.”
Throughout history, virtue was seen in terms of this sort of self-denial and self-negation.10 To be a good person, you not only had to deny yourself any pleasure, but you also had to show your willingness to hurt yourself.
This classical approach is where our assumption that “willpower = self-discipline” originally comes from. It operates on the belief that self-discipline is achieved through denying or rejecting one’s emotions. The classical approach fused the concept of willpower—i.e., the ability to deny or reject one’s desires and emotions—with morality. Someone who can say no to the taco is a good person. The person who can’t is a failure of a human being.
THE CLASSICAL APPROACH TO SELF-DISCIPLINE
Self-Discipline = Willpower = Self-Denial = Good Person
This fusion of willpower and morality had good intentions. It recognized (correctly) that, when left to our own instinctive desires, we all become narcissistic assholes. So the great religious leaders and philosophers and kings throughout history preached a concept of virtue that involved suppressing our feelings in favor of rationality and denying our impulses in favor of developing willpower.
And the classic approach works! …kind of. Well, okay, while it makes for a more stable society, it also totally fucks us up individually.
The classic approach has the paradoxical effect of training us to feel bad about all the things that make us feel good. It basically seeks to teach us self-discipline through shaming us—by making us hate ourselves for simply being who we are. And the idea is that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.
In Case You Didn’t Know: Shame Fucks You Up
Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex.
The brain likes sex. That’s because a) sex feels awesome, and b) we’re biologically evolved to crave it. Pretty self-explanatory.11
Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupts you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself for wanting it.
This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows.
Eventually, this tension becomes unbearable and must resolve itself in one of two ways.
The first option is to overindulge. Hooker orgies. Compulsive masturbation for days on end. Rampant infidelity. But indulgence doesn’t really resolve the tension.
So, if indulgence doesn’t work, what about the other option?
Well, the only other option to escape that internal tension is to numb it. To distract oneself from the tension by finding some larger, more palatable tension. Alcohol is a common one.13 Partying and drugs, of course.14 Watching 14 hours of television each day can be another option. Or just eating yourself half to death.15
Sometimes, people do find productive ways to distract themselves from their shame. They run ultra-marathons or work 100-hour work weeks for years on end. These are, ironically, many of the people we come to admire for having inhuman willpower. But self-denial comes easy when, deep down, you fucking hate yourself.
Because shame can’t be numbed away. It just changes form.16 The person who exercises religiously to escape their self-loathing will eventually find ways to loathe themselves for their exercise habits. And soon, what started out as a remarkable work ethic in the gym morphs into some form of body dysmorphia, like those guys who inject Synthol into their arms to make themselves look like Popeye.
Self-Discipline Through Self-Acceptance
Step one to self-discipline is to de-link your personal failings from moral failings. You have to accept that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person. We all cave to indulgence in some shape or form. We all harbor shame. We all fail to reign in our impulses.
Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions, so fuck it, why try?
There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either.
But, once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives.
For one, it suggests that emotions are merely internal behavioral mechanisms that can be manipulated like anything else.
We must address the emotional problem the compulsion is trying to numb or cover up. You compulsively eat tubs of ice cream each week. Why? Well, eating—especially sugary, unhealthy food—is a form of numbing. It brings the body comfort. It’s sometimes known as “emotional eating” and the same way an alcoholic drinks to escape her demons, the overeater eats to escape his.
So, what are those demons? What is that shame?
Find it. Address it. And most importantly: accept it. Find that deep, dark ugly part of yourself. Confront it, head on, allowing yourself to feel all the awful, icky emotions that come with it. Then accept that this is a part of you and it’s never going away. And that’s fine. You can work with this, rather than against it.
And here’s where the magic happens. When you stop feeling awful about yourself, two things happen:
- There’s nothing to numb anymore. Therefore, suddenly those tubs of ice cream seem pointless.
- You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself.
And, incredibly, that tub of ice cream no longer feels good. It’s no longer scratching some internal itch.
Similarly, exercising no longer feels like this impossible task that you’ll never be up for. On the contrary, it replenishes and enhances you. And those good feelings start showing up that make it feel effortless.
Result: Self-Discipline Without Willpower
Once you resolve much of your shame, and once you’ve created situations to provide greater emotional benefits from doing the desired behavior than not doing it, what you end up with is the appearance of airtight self-discipline, without actually putting forth any effort. You end up with discipline without willpower.
You wake up early because it feels good to wake up early.
You eat kale instead of smoking crack because it feels good to eat the kale and feels bad to smoke crack.
You stop lying because it feels worse to lie than to say an important truth.
You exercise because it feels better to exercise than it does to sit around, covering yourself in a thin layer of Cheeto dust.
It’s not that the pain goes away. No, the pain is still there. It’s just that the pain now has meaning. It has purpose. And that makes all the difference. You work with the pain rather than against it. You pursue it rather than run from it. And with every pursuit, you get stronger and healthier and happier.
And eventually, from the outside, it will look as though you’re putting forth monumental effort, that you have this endless reservoir of willpower. Yet, to you, it will feel like nothing at all.