Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of Two Minds

Why does a person who is otherwise prudent sometimes let go and indulge bad habits?

Why does a person who practices moderation lose control one day, suffer the consequences of his failure, and then go back to moderate behavior?

These are questions that Brett Steenbarger addresses in a recent post. He takes the example of a woman who decides to go on a diet. She follows the diet until her weight is normal. Then, as though normal weight were a trigger permitting self-indulgence, she goes off her diet and starts putting the weight back on.

Or, take the trader who buys a call option, sees the option increase in value, and becomes so thrilled with his brilliance that he cannot imagine that the market would ever turn against him. When it does, he is paralyzed into inaction, refuses to take a loss, and watches the option decline until it becomes worthless.

Steenberger's analysis: the trader who placed the trade and the trader who is managing the trade are two different people: "Quite literally, another self has taken over... another mind."

I agree entirely. The person who can do the right thing for a time but who then enters such a different mindset that he cannot but do the wrong thing has simply become someone else. His friends will say: I don't recognize you any more; you have become someone else. This is not a figure of speech.

Steenbarger's approach is ethical, not psychoanalytic. He does not mistake self-control for repression and does not value intoxication as an inevitable expression of a repressed impulse.

So, he wants people to learn to deal with the mental triggers that throw them off the wagon.

And that involves understanding how thought can lead to action.

The recovering alcoholic might start having thoughts about how much he misses his favorite pub or his favorite drink. He might dismiss them as trivial, until the time when they walk him into the pub and lead him to get drunk.

His twelve step program will be telling him that one way to control such thoughts is to avoid the venues that trigger them. If this is possible, it is surely helpful. When it is impossible, he must learn how to deal with this siren song before it deprives him of his free will, makes him into someone else, and leads him to drink.

Here a person swings between factitious self-control and complete self-indulgence, and back again to the same factitious self-control.

I would add here that we should also look at how much the culture contributes to this. After all, isn't Steenbarger describing a person who is living the Freudian mythology that places the human mind in an eternal struggle between repression and expression?

Or else, we can say that the dieter sees dieting as a form of punishment. After she has done her "time," she feels liberated... to go out and indulge again.

As I mentioned in my book "Saving Face," Freudian theory is a guilt/punishment narrative.

The culture has certainly induced people to make this mythology a way of life. We are commonly told to go for the gusto,to live life to the fullest, to follow our bliss, and to explore our sexuality. This precludes temperance and self-control.

We are induced to be uninhibited, to let go, to let it all hang out, to worship at the altars of Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and Aphrodite, goddess of sexual pleasure.

More than that, the therapy culture has lately been telling people to recreate themselves, not to become a better, more ethical version of whom we really are, but to become whomever we want to be.

It is a demented notion. It involves living a myth. And once you start living a myth is is very difficult to get yourself out of it. If you are two different people, how can you tell which one is the real you.

The woman who swears that she will never again get involved with Mr. X is not the same one who agrees to see him when he calls up at 1:00 a.m. and cries that he misses her. But, which one is really she? And, how can she tell?

Freudian theory says that the one who is letting loose is truly she. Steenbarger is recommending that the one who resolves never to see the abusive boyfriend is really she. Here, I agree with Steenbarger.

To tell the difference you need an ethical standard. If you dispense with ethical standards you default to the Freudian position.

Is it possible to heal the split? Surely, you can set out to do so. You can learn to identify the triggers that cause you to lose control and to counter them before them before they take you over. that is Steenbarger's approach, and it is surely a good one.

I would add that you can become one person by acting as though you are one. You can best start on that arduous journey is by keeping your word. Then, you should make it a habit, until it becomes your signature.

Make your word your bond, make it that when you say you will be there at that time, you are there at that time. Make it that when you say you are going to do something for a friend, the friend considers that your having said it means that it is done.

Surely, this requires some discipline. But it is surely better than veering between the person who makes commitments and the person who does not honor them... therefore, who does no honor to himself.

The goal is simple. The judicious mind that placed that trade should be the same judicious mind that is managing it. That mind will not morph into an exuberant ecstatic mind that becomes entranced with its gains and just lets fly. And that mind will nor morph into the befuddled, fearful mind that cannot sell out a losing position.

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