What’s this ‘self’ we’re trying to help?

Read this thought-provoking piece on self-help in New York Magazine, which asks how self-help can work if we don’t yet fully understand what a ‘self’ is: what the mind is exactly, the nature of personality and character, who we are, what we are, how we operate in the world.

There’s much about the human brain (and by extension, mind) that we don’t know. We can’t fully explain why some people who struggle with an addiction to drugs for example fight it off successfully and remain sober for the rest of their lives, while other people – in spite of loving support and rehab and other life changes – relapse repeatedly. We can’t explain why, when faced with a 1,000-calorie dessert or a pack of cigarettes or a toxic but compelling person, we’re able to turn away sometimes, while other times we give in with seeming helplessness. What is this impulse towards self-destruction that persists even when we know that something is bad for us? What is it that drives our behavior at a “tipping point” when we can easily tilt towards one decision or another, harmful vs. beneficial?

Self-help guru cartoon

One thing I think is true is that the brain craves familiarity. It gets comfortable with certain modes of thought and habits, and it’s resistant to change. There can even be a kind of comfort in destructive behavior, thoughts and emotions, as long as they’re what we know; they’re our reality, and in some ways they feel right even when they’re horrible.

Much of the brain’s activity takes place beyond our awareness. For years and years our thoughts flow along familiar patterns; concepts and categories are fixed in place and cemented from the earliest moments of our life. When we fall back on what we already know and what we usually do, the brain doesn’t have to exert much effort.

So what pushes us to change? Knowing that we should change is not enough. We can spend hours reading books or combing through the Internet, where we will find a lot of information and ideas to contemplate. Some of that knowledge may be necessary for us to improve our lives. But it isn’t sufficient; furthermore, reading endlessly can serve as a procrastination tactic (keep reading the next website, and the one after that, and avoid actually doing anything). So what starts diverting our thoughts from their habitual channels? Even if you tell me that it’s necessary to impose new habits over the old ones – and that eventually those new, hopefully healthier habits will start to seem natural – where does that initial act of will come from that allows you to start checking your automatic thoughts and responses? Why does this will persist in some, in the face of repeated failure even, and why does it die away in others?

(Image links back to its source: Entrepremother blog.)

Keeping resolutions

Keeping a resolution is difficult in part because the act of making a resolution gives you the false sense that you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You’ve stated what you want to do, you’ve shown some degree of self-awareness, dedication to improvement, and strength… and I think this gives you a false sense of security. You can do whatever it is you’ve set out to do because you’ve said as much – you’ve written it down on paper or whispered it to yourself at midnight. You’re set, you think. You’re going to do it.

Only you don’t. Sometimes you don’t do anything beyond making the resolution; you forget about it completely or you put it off for too long, and then it starts to seem too troublesome, stupid or hopeless. Other times you get to work on it but slump back into your old ways before long and give up.

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I’ve set down resolutions before, and given up on them. Other times I kept to them and succeeded (or more accurately I am succeeding, because success has been a matter of changing various habits, and it’s an ongoing process and struggle instead of a fixed end-state). For me the successes are marked with these qualities:

I have a stake in the outcome
Giving up needs to matter. Maybe I’ll lose dignity, self-respect, money, esteem in the eyes of other people. Maybe I made a promise that would hurt to go back on. Something needs to be at stake. Beyond that, I need the will and conviction to follow through on the resolution. I need to feel that what I’m doing is right and necessary. Is it important to me? Really, truly?

I keep it realistic, concrete and specific
The resolution can’t be far-fetched and impossible to undertake. It can’t be couched as something like “I will adopt a healthier lifestyle” or “I will be a better person.” Those are admirable goals but they’re too abstract to work with on a practical level. So I need to get down to the practical details: list a few ways in which I can be better, and what’s required to accomplish those.

I don’t try to make too many changes all at once
Too much all at once might be overwhelming. Making change gradually also helps me evaluate my progress and adjust expectations or goals.

I make it a habit
Changes to thoughts and behavior are lasting when they become habitual. They replace older more detrimental habits that take time, persistence and vigilance to undo.

I’m aware of potential self-sabotage
As damaging as old habits may be, they’re tempting to fall back on. There can be something strangely comforting about misery if it’s familiar. And change is difficult and scary. So I might try to trip myself up by setting unrealistic goals and expectations that I’ll fall short of. I let the smallest setback make me skittish. I assume an all-or-nothing attitude that demands perfect progress and a 100% success rate and otherwise condemns my efforts as hopeless and worth giving up on. Success doesn’t mean perfection (repeat to self, ad infinitum: success isn’t the same as perfection). Failures and setbacks along the way are ripe opportunities for excuses – excuses to give up and sink back into the familiar unfulfilled and unfulfilling life, narrow and comforting as it is. I can backslide completely, wallow for a while, and then make new resolutions that I won’t follow up on. I don’t reach out to other people when I need to. All of this is self-sabotage.

UPDATE: Ongoing resolutions that I’m dedicated to (written here in a general way, and not with the concrete actions/steps associated with each).