Thursday, March 28, 2013

Self Control, Part 2


I thought that a discussion about self control was a good place for me
to share this picture of these teeny tiny ice cream cones I found at the store. ADORBS.
Self Control, Part 1 here (if you aren't going to click the link, at least read this: Basically, his premise is that self control is a loaded term that might not be or mean what you think it is or means.
[describing the spectrum of self control] Those who are undercontrolled are impulsive and distractible; those who are overcontrolled are compulsive and joyless.  The fact that educators are more irritated by the former, and thus more likely to define it as a problem, doesn't mean the latter is any less troubling...a tendency toward overcontrol puts young women at risk for the development of depression. A preoccupation with self-control is also a key feature of anorexia.
The fascinating thing about Alfie Kohn's break down of self control is that, in addition to exploring the psychological components, he also explores the religious/philosophical and political implications. Obviously I'm obsessed with the intersection of parenting/psychology/religion/politics, so this was pretty much the most exciting thing I've read in a while. He even had a whole section on the marshmallow test. I mean, there are very few things I love more than a good marshmallow test discussion. And if you know me, you know I'm not even joking.

Two kinds of self control.

Basically, his point is that there are two kinds of self control: the "internal police officer" kind (where you just swallow other people's rules or values whole) and the kind that you own (where you've thoughtfully and freely chosen it and fully integrated it into you values system). Guess which one sort of sucks? Yeah, the first one. And here's why:
  1. Excessive "self control" (any references to self control here are referring to the internal police kind) is clinically dysfunctional. it is the root of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, compulsive thoughts and behaviors, and perfectionism (which can contribute to depression).
  2. It often backfires. It's called "disinhibition." It is like the "oh f@#$ it" phenomenon in dieting, where people make strict rules of what they "should" and "shouldn't" eat, and once they have a "forbidden" bowl of ice cream, they think "game over" and they just eat the whole carton. That is why anorexia often cycles into bulimia. And disinhibition happens in all aspects of life, not just with food.
  3. When you do something to get a prize or someone's approval (instead of doing it because you want to actually do the thing) then you usually end up less interested in doing that thing.
  4. The scariest reason to me: it can cause people to suffer from the "tyranny of the should." When your life is so defined and controlled by these arbitrary lists of what you should and shouldn't do, it can escalate to the point that "you no longer even know what you really want, or who you even are."

OMG, this is bad.

Let's talk about number four for a second, shall we? I mean, how sad is that? The thought of somebody's entire personality and happiness being eroded by expectations of others sounds awful. This reminded me of a common and effective treatments for eating disorders that was originally developed for borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder is sort of like the leprosy of the psychological world. Nobody wants to touch it (like all axis two disorders, it is not really something you "cure"; and these patients are notoriously difficult to treat or even be around). The disorder is characterized as having an insecure sense of self that changes easily and rapidly. I had never really understood the overlap between that and eating disorders before. But now I do. People with eating disorders are notorious people pleaser/perfectionists to the point that, as Alfie said, they no longer know what they want (e.g., to eat) or who they are. I mean, YIKES. That is basically the exact opposite of what I want for my children. Or anybody I care about.

What's God got to do with it?

Getting into the religions part of the paper, it TOTALLY reminded me of Elizabeth Esther's blog. Raised in a  fundamentalist church and now a practicing Catholic, she talks a lot about how to recognize abusive religions/churches. Like in this post: If it feels good, it’s sinful. The stuff she writes about sounded a lot like what Alfie Kohn said:
In the sin-centric assumptions on which the gospel of self-discipline rests...our preferences are regarded as unworthy, our desires as shameful, that we must strive to overcome them.  Taken to its logical conclusion, human life is a constant struggle to stifle and transcend ourselves.  Morality consists of the triumph of mind over body, reason over desire, will over want...What’s interesting about all this is how many secular institutions and liberal individuals, who would strenuously object to the notion that children are self-centered little beasts that need to be tamed, nevertheless embrace a concept that springs from just such a premise...it isn't the same thing as helping them to develop their own values, and it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of helping them to become independent thinkers.  (emphasis is mine)

Yikes. I sort of like the idea that our whole purpose in life is to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Not to squash and kill everything that makes us uniquely us. But hey, maybe that's just me. {on a religious note, I like to think that this was Jesus intention when he said: for the whole law can be summed up in this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." He was saying, stop trying to swallow the law whole, and start trying to own it. And also, stop being jerks, guys.}

The political

And in his discussion of the political aspect, Alfie brings up the Fundamental Attribution Error. Where we over emphasize the individual's role in an outcome, removing all blame on the circumstances or other contributing factors. Like how the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was launched by the American Can Company, and basically used PR to shift the blame of litter onto individuals/litterbugs, glossing over the fact that individuals aren't the ones profiting off "the production of disposable merchandise and its packaging."

This section reminded me a lot of If I Have to Tell You One More Time's emphasis on controlling the environment. If we structure stuff in a way that is more accessible and empowering for kids, they will act a lot better and be a lot happer. Soooo, maybe they weren't acting out because they are bad kids but because we weren't doing such an awesome job of structuring their environment. Same with disruptive kids in the classroom. Maybe we are shoving round pegs into square holes and cursing the peg instead of our own stupid inability to play with a shape-sorter.

The Marshmallow Test

I'll leave you with an interesting quote from the marshmallow test section:
Finally, most people who cite these experiments simply assume that it’s better to take a bigger pay-off later than a smaller pay-off now.  But is that always true?  [The author of the study], for one, didn't think so.  “The decision to delay or not to delay hinges, in part, on the individual’s values and expectations with regard to the specific contingencies,” he and his colleagues wrote.  “In a given situation, therefore, postponing gratification may or may not be a wise or adaptive choice.”
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