Fall Plowing, by Grant Wood

words can be swords. they can cut deep into our hearts instead of our flesh. leave scars that will not heal, or heal on the surface and still fester, deep below.

there are many such words. some have been used to us by others – you will have some of your own, which I will not presume to touch. perhaps we echo words spoken to us in our pasts and repeat them to ourselves in the phrases that we all use to lash ourselves when we wish to cut, to wound, to hurt.

these are words like failure, weak, hopeless, no good.

and then there are those pointed words with which we jab ourselves, trying to prod ourselves, cattle-like, into desired behaviours.

these are words like will-power and self-control.

I’ve been looking at these last two words, trying to see if I can pick them up and use them to serve me in the future. but like shards of broken glass they still slice my tender fingers with the cargoes of self-blame and regret that they carry. I cannot use these words. they still carry too much power to wound me. because I have used them to myself in sentences beginning,

“…why can’t I have more…if only I had stronger…why is it only me that can’t seem to summon up any…”

because, the thing is, I don’t believe in them any more. because every time I have tried to use them as tools, they have been as much use as a sodium submarine. they have failed me, like keeping firing a revolver with a stuck bullet.

and actually, I need to re-cycle these words. re-shape them into new tools that will help me clear new ground, plant seeds of a new life. because I do need to do that. all of the insight into how I used alcohol to look away from discomfort is empty, unless I can find tools to help me deal with discomfort.

to find words that mean less ‘power-over-me’ and more ‘power-of-me’

and is this merely semantics? nit-picking over vocabulary? I don’t think so, for me. for me it cuts to the heart of how I wish to live, which would be to have my outer life align with my inner values without coercion or self-castigation. and that alignment comes about via motivation, I think, perhaps? what do you think?

inner value -> motivation-> behaviour -> outer life?

there will be a sciency bit now. and I’m going to use the terms will-power and self-control here interchangeably, to describe the mechanism by which we make ourselves do what we don’t feel like doing at the moment because it is in accordance with our higher longer term priorities.

there are lots of studies about how willpower is a finite resource. ones involving bowls of radishes, plates of chocolate cookies. and the basic premise is that our supply of will-power in any one day is finite. that if we use more of it up by resisting the chocolate cookies, we will give up on a later mental agility test earlier.

one lot of white coated folks calls this ego depletion. here’s a rather lengthy but entertaining article summarising this theory. a couple of key paragraphs:

‘Today, scientists are still slicing away at the problem of consciousness and the ego, or what we now call the self, and that brings us to Roy F. Baumeister and his bowl of cookies.

In the 1990s, Baumeister and his colleagues spent a lot of time researching self-regulation through the careful application of chocolate. Self-regulation is an important part of being a person. You are the central character in the story of your life, the unreliable narrator in the epic tale of your past, present, and future. You have a sense there is boundary between you and all the other atoms pulsating nearby, a sense of being a separate entity and not just a bag of organs and cells and molecules scooped out of the sea 530 million years ago. That sense of self cascades into a variety of other notions about your body and your mind called volition – the feeling of free will that provides you with the belief that you are in control of your decisions and choices. Volition makes you feel responsible for your actions both before and after they occur. There are a few thousand years of debate over what this actually means and whether or not it is an illusion through and through, but Baumeister’s research over the last decade or so has been about learning how that sense of self-control can be manipulated….’

when we are trying to regulate our consumption of alcohol we are subject to a vast array of very specific urges and cravings, some of which subside within a relatively short space of time. so I am not disregarding these alcohol-specific urges in this post – rather trying to understand our underlying tides which govern less specific, not necessarily addictive behaviours.

a big take away from that article is how much self-control is regulated by glucose. yes, that 5pm slump in the ability to cope with anything whatsoever – the Hungry in HALT.

The current understanding of this is that all brain functions require fuel, but the executive functions seem to require the most. Or, if you prefer, the executive branch of the mind has the most expensive operating costs. Studies show that when low on glucose, those executive functions suffer, and the result is a state of mind called ego depletion. That mental state harkens back to the way Freud and his contemporaries saw the psyche, as a battle between dumb primal desires and the contemplative self. The early psychologists would have said when your ego is weak, your id runs amok. We now know it may just be your prefrontal cortex dealing with a lack of glucose.’

so we can help our brains be good at self-control by ensuring they aren’t running on empty. and there’s more we can do to conserve our willpower. the website The Art of Manliness ran a series of three posts on willpower, but this final one focuses on how to conserve will-power, and has twenty suggestions many of which are relevant both to getting sober or to making any other life-enhancing but demanding change, including:

  • only work on one goal at a time
  • set up things on auto-pilot
  • set up an accountability system

and, critically, tackle tough things first in the day when your tank is full.

well done for getting this far! this is me trying to summarise, primarily for me, what I’ve  been looking at on this…. but what about my new word? how do you feel about the words will-power and self-control? do they press your buttons too? I am trying to do for my motivation what I wrote here about hope: to treat it as something within myself I can nurture and use to carve out a new life.

and I think I may have found it.

my new word, fresh and fluffy like a new chick: self-determination.

self-determination theory (SDT) deals with intrinsic motivations: those arising within the individual, rather than those being externally imposed.

SDT is centered on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, that it repeatedly shows effort, agency and commitment in our lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies.” People also have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration.

the researchers Deci and Ryan describe it as follows:

People are centrally concerned with motivation — how to move themselves or others to act. Everywhere, parents, teachers, coaches, and managers struggle with how to motivate those that they mentor, and individuals struggle to find energy, mobilize effort and persist at the tasks of life and work. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.’

there is a lot more out there on SDT but it’s late and I want to press publish – based on my inherent human need to go to bed 😉  this has been rather a long post with only one pretty picture! thanks for reading and, please, any thoughts on these ramblings would be most welcome…