4 Ways to Practice Self-Control
As I research how we can embrace courage in order to live more optimally healthy, happy lives, reading F. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, a self-help classic, is giving me tons of insight. Having only read Part One so far, I already get why the book was such a runaway bestseller. This post will be the first of a series of blog posts about The Road Less Traveled, so stay tuned.
As uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, reading this book takes courage because I’m already discovering some things that myself and my ego (I call her Victoria Rochester) doesn’t particularly like seeing. Part One is all about how life is hard and filled with problems and how discipline is required in order for us to be effective problem-solvers. To be disciplined, we have to employ 4 behaviors.
The 4 behaviors are:
- 1. Delaying gratification
- 2. Accepting appropriate levels of responsibility for our circumstances
- 3. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
- 4. Balancing (knowing when to employ these behaviors and when to fudge a little)
I started reading about delaying gratification, and Victoria gloated, “I’ve so got that one.” After twelve years of delaying pretty much anything pleasurable in life in order to endure my medical education, I have no lack of proven ability to delay gratification. In fact, I delayed gratification to a fault. At every milestone along the journey – my college graduation, passing Part 1 of my medical boards, med school graduation, passing Part 2 and 3 of my boards, finishing residency, and finally passing my specialty boards, my mother wanted to throw me parties, but stubborn me, I wouldn’t let her. Why? Because the pain of my medical education wasn’t over until it was over, and I was afraid that if I indulged in gratification in the moment, I might lose the drive necessary in order to survive the whole painful ordeal. Sadly, by the time I finished my specialty boards, Mom no longer offered to throw me a party. The day went unmarked.
So I’ve proven my ability to delay gratification – but reading this book made me realize that ever since I finished my medical education, I’ve been making up for lost time. In fact, I’ve been so rebellious about not delaying gratification for one more day of my life that I’ve slacked off in the discipline department. In some areas of my life, I’m still very disciplined about delaying gratification – like in my professional life, when I’m working against a deadline, or when I reward myself with a hike out in nature, but only after I’ve gotten all my tedious tasks done for the day. But in some ways, especially in my personal life, I’ve swung 180 degrees in the opposite direction. I want what I want – and I want it NOW. Extremes are never the solution.
Rx for myself: Coming back to center would help my emotional and spiritual growth.
Accepting Responsibility For Your Circumstances
Dr. Peck divides people who seek therapy into two categories – those he calls “neurotics” and those he defines as suffering from a “character disorder.” While the terminology reflects outdated psychotherapeutic lingo, his descriptions of what these categories represent hit home.
“Neurotics” = Those who unduly accept responsibility for everything bad that happens to them (ie. “It’s all my fault because I’m a bad person.”)
“Character Disorders” = Those who never accept responsibility when bad things happen and, instead, blame everybody else (ie. “It’s that damn system/ my idiot boss/ my abusive husband/ the patriarchy.”)
He says every single human being has at least some aspect of one of these diagnoses, while others are more extreme in their disordered behavior. I started thinking through the people I love – and examining myself – and I realized that these two patterns feed off each other.
My husband Matt has “neurotic” characteristics. He blames himself if anything bad happens, even when, much of the time, from my perspective, he hasn’t done a single thing wrong. It goes along with what Martin Seligman defines as the pessimistic explanatory style. Pessimists explain negative events as personal, pervasive, and permanent. In other words, “It’s all my fault, it affects not just the adverse event, but everything, and it’s going to last forever.”
I, on the other hand, have more of a “character disorder,” which fits in with the optimistic explanatory style. When negative events happen in my life, I explain them to myself as not personal, specific to the adverse event, and temporary. In other words, “It’s not my fault – it’s someone else’s, it doesn’t affect everything, just this one thing, and it’ll go away.”
While an optimistic explanatory style is good for your health (optimists have a 77% lower rate of heart disease than pessimists), Dr. Peck says neurotics are easy to get along with and respond better to psychotherapy because they’ll always blame themselves rather than shirking responsibility off on someone else.
And of course, neurotics and character disordered people fit together like lock and key. When I first met my husband, he jokingly told me his 2 step process of conflict resolution – #1 Assign blame. #2 Move on. He offered to always accept blame, and most of the time, in our relationship, he does, even when it’s not his fault.
Rx for myself: This needs to change – for both of us – and for how I engage in relationship with many more people. (Ouch.)
Telling The Truth
The third key is to always tell the truth, not just by avoiding falsehoods, but by never withholding the truth about what you believe, how you feel, what you do, and the authentic essence of who you really are and what is true for you. I was guilty guilty guilty of breaking this rule until my Perfect Storm hit in 2006. It’s not so much that I lied outright (though I was definitely guilty of that as well). It’s more that I hid who I really was in order to appear socially acceptable. I wore masks to cover up the truth of who I was because I was afraid I was essentially unlovable underneath all the pretty, socially acceptable masks, and I thought everyone would reject me if only they knew the truth.
I still do this to some degree. Even as vulnerable as I am with you – my readers – I still withhold some things I think you might not like. I’m afraid that if you found out the whole ugly truth, you might not want to keep reading what I write – or you might lose respect for me and then maybe nobody would learn from some of my hard-earned life lessons.
So I tell a version of the truth that’s sometimes sugar-coated. Or I hide from you things I don’t want you to know. And I do this with everyone to some degree. There’s only one person who knows every deep, dark, dirty secret of my entire life and that’s Matt. Bless his heart for sticking around in spite of my truth.
Rx for myself: Brené Brown is right. The only way to attain true intimacy is to willingly expose our imperfections, to be vulnerable and transparent about our growth edges, to forgive ourselves for our flaws, and to be unapologetic about who we are – warts and all.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and that’s where balancing comes in. While avoiding procrastination and delaying gratification so we can get the hard stuff out of the way first, there are times to indulge in instant gratification. While it’s important to avoid shirking blame, stop making ourselves the victim, and accept responsibility for our behaviors and circumstances, it’s also important not to blame ourselves for every unfortunate outcome. While it’s important to make ourselves vulnerable in front of our children, it may be inappropriate to expose certain truths if their young minds aren’t mature enough to handle the whole truth.
According to Dr. Peck, even discipline needs discipline – and the discipline of learning to discipline yourself is to know when to break these rules and when to follow them.
Rx for myself: Discipline need not be an all or nothing phenomenon. I don’t have to choose between following all the rules and throwing all caution to the wind. As with everything, moderation is key.
Are You Disciplined?
Where do you fit in when it comes to these 4 characteristics of living a disciplined life?
Tell us your stories in the comments.