A personal change I’m working on these days is to make room for emotions as they come—feeling them and letting them run their course. In turn, I hope to banish my inner self-critic, a negative, anxious voice with little bearing on reality or what’s important to me. I’m motivated to do all this because my habit of pushing away undesired emotions has a lot to do with why I do certain things that are ultimately self-destructive.
Take my years-long habit of snapping irritably at my partner. For years, I’ve tried to resist snapping at him when I’m stressed. Yet try as I might, I can think to myself, “this time I’ll be different,” and find myself doing the same old irritable snapping not even five minutes later! It’s practically an automatic response.
Willfulness isn’t the same as willpower
The jury is still out on whether willpower is going to be enough for me to change this particular behavior. I haven’t totally written off willpower, though, despite my many years of failing to use it to end my snapping habit. Let me explain.
In the hopes of understanding willpower better, I looked it up. It wasn’t long before I realized that, all this time, I’ve been using willfulness, not willpower. I’d always thought of willpower as a matter of willing oneself to do (or not do) something—in other words, a feat of stubbornness. Well, that’s willfulness. Merriam-Webster defines willful as “obstinately and often perversely self-willed.” That definition falls a little short for me, so I kept digging. Reading further, I came across lot of people writing about a form of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a well-established way to help people tolerate distress so it doesn’t lead to self-injurious behavior. It takes people on a deeper dive into the concept of willfulness, defining it as trying to resist reality and bend the universe to your will rather than accepting reality for what it is. In DBT terms, willfulness is the opposite of what’s needed to drive change.
Willpower is more complicated than willfulness. The American Psychological Association defines willpower as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” There are a few additional layers to this definition:
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse.
- The ability to employ a ‘cool’ cognitive system of behavior rather than a ‘hot’ emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
And here’s how leading willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, breaks down what you need to do to make a change and how willpower fits into the picture:
- Be motivated to make the change and have a clear goal.
- Monitor your behavior toward that goal.
- Exercise willpower.
This approach worked for my family when we downshifted our spending. We decided to save money far more aggressively than we had been, and I signed up for a Mint account to track every penny going in and out of our accounts. Mint has kept our spending behavior on track and helped us make small corrections when we’ve deviated from the path toward our goal.
I’ve never tried to monitor my progress toward ending my irritable snapping habit. That’s been a missing piece all along, and I think it could be pretty helpful. So here’s the plan: I’m going to stick a notebook in my bag and tally in it the number of times I snap instead of sitting with my emotions and letting them run their course. Maybe seeing the data, and even knowing I’ll have to log each snap, will help this change take root.
Is willpower enough?
I’m skeptical that, on its own, simply tracking my progress will really work to change this long-standing habit. The leading research on why people do self-destructive things, like my snapping, suggests that making tough changes can be a lot hairier than simply exerting willpower.*
Some of the most well-respected research related to willpower centers on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are strongly distressing situations kids deal with in which they have little to no control. The specific ACEs that studies have measured range from parental divorce to parental mental illness and addiction to abuse and neglect; other experiences can also be ACEs, they just haven’t been studied. As the theory goes, kids develop strategies to maximize physical and psychological safety and then keep using the same tactics into adulthood—even if the situation is long gone and the tactics are therefore no longer needed, and even if the tactics undermine the person’s well-being. A once-helpful tactic becomes an ingrained habit. Here’s the key: trauma changes the brain. A brain wires itself differently if it develops in a context of trauma. That wiring makes it harder to change certain habits, even when a person deeply desires change. And the more trauma we’ve experienced, the harder it can be to make and maintain certain changes.
Although my ACEs score isn’t especially high (it’s 3 out of 10), I think this ACEs business helps explain why I’m a bit stuck. I’d encourage any stuck person I know to see a therapist to gain additional skills to get un-stuck, and it’s time I took my own advice. So one avenue I’m taking is to see a therapist who understands trauma. I’m excited about her interest in Bessel van der Kolk, who researches and writes about how the body stores trauma and what to do about that. I’m sure it’ll be hard to disentangle the effects of tracking my progress toward not snapping from those of seeing a therapist, but I’ll try…
Willingness to accept reality
The form of therapy I was talking about above, DBT, focuses quite a bit on helping people shift from willfulness to willingness. I covered willfulness enough earlier. Willingness is the opposite: accepting reality as it is. A blog called Mindfulness Muse gets into the idea of willingness at length:
It is natural to want to push away things that hurt and cause suffering. … Consider that reality doesn’t change just because you deny it exists. It is still there, waiting for you to deal with it. When you open yourself up to accepting the present moment precisely as it is, with no judgments, you are free to look at all of those puzzle pieces of the present moment and start to piece them together. When you deny reality, it is like choosing to take away pieces of the puzzle, then wondering why you can’t make things fit. Allow yourself to see things just as they are, with radical acceptance, then allow change to happen.
This one word, willingness, is exactly what my emotion-embracing, anti-snapping mission is about! But how do I make the leap from reflexively snapping at my partner to slowing down enough to make room for willingness? There’s a blog called Racheous, about intentional living, respectful parenting, and unschooling, that sometimes comes onto my radar because one of its posts gets shared by someone I know on social media. Just as I was writing this post, a friend shared a new Racheous post about parenting respectfully when triggered.
She suggests concrete tools I think will help me work toward willingness:
- Identify what “triggers” me. What happens before I have a reflexive, negative response?
- Understand why I’m triggered. How do I feel, and what does it remind me of?
- Attend to unmet needs. Am I tired? Am I lonely? Am I getting exercise? Etc.
- Re-parenting yourself. Am I giving myself the room, empathy, and validation I need in order to sit with my full spectrum of emotions? I strive to give my kids these things, yet I struggle to allow them for myself. What I tell my kids can apply to me, too: “You didn’t get that, and you deeply wanted it. You feel sorrowful.” “It can be tricky to learn something new. It makes sense that you feel frustrated right now.” And so on. Now that I’m grown and my parents are officially off the hook, I think of this one as picking up where they left off.
- Take time. Is the situation at hand as urgent as it feels? Can I ask for a break because I’m having a hard time?
Do specific triggers lead me to snap at my partner? Can I tie them back to past emotions I haven’t yet dealt with? What if I accepted those emotions instead of fighting them? I feel compelled to explore these questions because they weave so beautifully with my realization that my snapping habit stems from unprocessed emotions.
Welp, that notebook I mentioned earlier is sure going to come in handy! My plan is to pay more attention to, and keep a journal of, what leads up to me snapping at my partner. I don’t have a track record of paying close attention to or even thinking about this, so I find it helpful that Racheous lists several common triggers in her post. Some of her many examples include lack of personal space, children being unkind, and feeling tired or overwhelmed. Her list will help me jog my thinking as I pay closer attention and build awareness of my own triggers.
I bet I’ll notice some pretty clear patterns. And the more I learn these patterns, the more I can watch for them and recognize when I’m more likely to have a reflexive, self-destructive response. I’ll think of these triggers as little “yield” signs for myself—signs to help me slow down and tune into what I’m feeling and let those emotions happen.
A final note on taking time
In the spirit of taking time, I’m going to give myself time before adding more posts to this inner self-critic series. Everything I just wrote post involves a major pile of homework, and I need some room to get it started. A lifetime, maybe? So stay tuned because I’ll report back…but don’t hold your breath!
* I don’t mean to conflate self-destructive with self-injurious. I think the terms self-destructive and self-injurious fall on the same spectrum, but the stakes are different. In my case, snapping at my partner is a fairly mild deal, considering my partner has zero abusive behaviors when snapped at. I’d feel hurt if he left me as a result of my behavior, but I would not be harmed psychologically or physically. Examples of self-injury might include snapping at a partner who will then hit or berate you (not blaming victims—there is no excuse for hurting someone—but domestic abuse is complicated, and self-injury can be a factor), cutting, burning, etc.
Another consideration is that some people feel distress much more acutely than others. I’d guess I’m maybe in the 60th percentile on that, closer to the sensitive end. So what I suggest for myself in this post—attempting to ride out my emotions as they occur—may work for me. However, this may not be the right first step for you if you feel distress so intensely that it sends you down the road of self-injury.
If you deal with any of the above, I urge you to seek therapy as a first step. You may even want to check out the type of therapy I wrote about here, DBT, which has helped many people who deal with self-injury.