I love the brain. It’s beautiful in its complexity, but, down at its depths, it’s the same bits you’d find in a lizard or chicken or chupacabra. Our cerebral cortex, with its billions of neurons and trillions of connections, sits atop a bare-bones, eons-old structure, like a mansion built atop an old workshed. This situation, my friends, is why we tend to suck so much.
You see, these old structures are built solely to keep us alive, whether that means breathing, pooping, or making you eat three plates at a buffet. I’m kind of lumping a lot of brain structures together, but it’s to emphasize a point: The parts of our brain that have dreams and hopes, that have standards for what we eat or who we date, the ones where romance and love and symbolism arise; these all have to contend with a big subcortical jerk.
We all deny that our inner jerk exists, which is why we’re consistently surprised when we fail to meet our own standards.
- Why did I drink so much? [Because it activated parts of your brain in a way that you find subjectively pleasurable]
- Why did I stop at McDonald’s? [Because your stress levels were high so your brain found a way to reduce them]
- Why do I keep dating losers? [Because you’re turned on by something about them, and that clouds your judgment]
- Why do I treat people so poorly? [Because you’ve been rewarded for it in the past]
- Why am I so afraid of clowns? [Because they’re terrifying]
Your inner jerk exists beneath the rich inner world of your mind, convincing you to engage in old behaviors that have helped it get its way in the past. It’s insidious, it’s persuasive, and we’ve got to stop being surprised by it.
Ideal Self vs. Real Self
We have this idealized version of ourselves that we’re pretty damned convinced is the “real me,” which becomes rather distressing when it doesn’t fit our behaviors. While I invite you to keep this ideal self around (mine is named Enrique), you’d be doing yourself a favor if you stopped putting yourself in situations as if you were this perfect saint.
Story time. I struggle with some anxiety in social situations, so I tend to ameliorate it a bit with booze. That’s fine, Enrique has no problem with that. It’s probably not the healthiest response to stress, but man has been using “social lubricant” since he first discovered that serving fermented fruit juice made his parties more popular.
The problem comes when I put myself in social situations where the booze is unlimited and I fail to anticipate what a dumbass I am. “I’ll limit myself once I’m drunk,” I say to myself, as my kidneys and liver just look at each other, shaking their little heads.
The night starts fine, I enjoy the sudden lack of stress and the activation of feel-good areas of my brain, and I have a jolly good time. 3 hours later I’m singing Creep with no sense of tone or rhythm, encouraging people to take shots out of my mild pectus excavatum (I’m not sure where my shirt is at this point), and just generally being a sloppy, sticky sack of crap. The next day, certain folks are annoyed with me, I’m ashamed of myself, and dammit if the hangover isn’t excruciating.
How did I screw up so badly? I’m better than that, aren’t I? Why did I let it happen again? Well, I failed to account for my inner jerk, and I put myself (rather than who I wish I was) in a situation where my inner jerk could have free reign. I’m not my ideal self, and even if I became him, by then I’d have a new ideal. Time to change strategies.
Anticipating Your Own Shittiness
“Next time, I’ll…” is a dangerous phrase. “Next time, I’ll just stop after three drinks!” “Next time, I’ll take half of the meal home in a box.” “Next time, I’ll express my anger by way of beat poetry!” No, next time you’re in that exact situation, you’ll probably act in the exact same way. If you could somehow turn off certain parts of your inner jerk, yeah, you might be able to resist temptation. Until transcranial magnetic stimulation reaches the point of being integrated into fashionable headwear, however, you’ve got to live with the fact that you find certain things tempting, and certain situations make you vulnerable to temptation.
This leaves you two points of attack: the temptation, and the situation. Avoiding the situation is the easiest option, as it prevents you from encountering the temptation in the first place. Don’t want to eat too much? Don’t go out to eat, or to the store, or to your kitchen. Don’t want to yell at your kid’s soccer coach? Stop going to your kids’ soccer games, and maybe their piano recitals too.
I’m mostly kidding about my suggestions, but it does show one weakness of avoiding situations: It can lead to one limiting their own life. While this might be necessary in the case of someone with a genuine addiction, we still generally want to leave our respective houses.
So, if you’re going to be in a situation where you misbehave, do what you can to alter the situation itself. Rather than relying on willpower to kick in once those drinks start flowing, or someone offers you a cigarette, or that syringe of horse tranquilizer starts getting passed around, anticipate your own weakness, and figure out how you can prevent it from being a factor.
For me, that means talking to a friend at the beginning of the party to have them cut me off if I start getting drunk/shirtless. I know that drunk Ian will stop drinking when a friend says to (drunk Ian tends to just want everyone to love him), and that the idea of someone having to cut me off might be embarrassing enough to keep me from being a shithead in the first place.
For some, it might mean setting a hard and fast rule: Setting a time when you have to leave, or only having one plate, or only having water to drink. Rules work where willpower doesn’t. Make the rules clear to your brain before the tempting situation arises, and consider telling your rule to a friend (social pressure is an incredibly strong motivator for us humans).
Be Kind to Yourself
Finally, consider forgiving yourself. We all screw up, and sometimes we have to screw up 20 times before we start implementing sensible changes. Don’t give up on making those changes, but do give up on all the self-abuse after you mess up. Ask yourself, “would I be this hard on a friend?”
That’s it, have a nice new year’s, consider situations and temptations beforehand, and start 2014 with a heaping helping of self-directed kindness.
Hit me up in the comments section to let me know strategies that have worked for you! Or write me a limerick.