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The Impeccable Path

William Dubin, Ph.D.

Despite their repeated relapses most people never develop sufficient respect for the challenge they face. Instead they believe their previous failures reflect their own defectiveness. If they appreciated what they were up against, they would not make shallow commitments.

man thinkingOnce you make up your mind to control your appetites, the only thing preventing you from giving in to a temptation is your commitment not to. Failing to honor a commitment sets the precedent that you can make a commitment and then violate it. This precedent weakens the ability of future commitments to influence your behavior. The critical error of making and then breaking a commitment can transform an excessive appetite into dependence. The transition is gradual and the individual is generally not aware of the process while it is happening.

The point of making a commitment is to freeze your motivation, so that your future behavior is determined by your commitment to follow your plan rather than by local temptations. A commitment is your guarantee that you will adhere to your plan even when it would be easier or more pleasurable to defect. If you fail to honor your guarantee you have made a liar of yourself, and future guarantees will be worth less. Making a commitment is like making a bet. If you adhere to it you win and your willpower is enhanced; if you fail, you lose and the strength of your will diminishes.

Odysseus and the Sirens

In a different era Odysseus had to sail within earshot of the Sirens. No sailor could resist their seductive call. The penalty for giving in to this irresistible temptation was death by drowning-the fate experienced by all who had come before. Appreciating the danger, Odysseus filled his men's ears with wax so they would not be able to hear the Sirens. Odysseus wanted to hear what the Sirens sounded like, but he knew that if he did he would be unable to resist their pull. The heroic solution: Odysseus pre-committed his future behavior by ordering his men to tie him to the mast of the ship.

The plan was successful-when the ship sailed past the island, the Sirens called, but the men could not hear them and kept rowing. Odysseus heard the Sirens, but did not (could not) give in to the temptation, because he was bound to the mast.

Four Lessons

1. Odysseus made his plans in advance. He knew that once he heard the Sirens it would be too late to influence his own behavior-their call would have transformed him from a potent warrior to a helpless victim. You would do well to use Odysseus' humility as a model. Understand this: When you encounter a high-risk situation you will not have the strengths that are available to you now, and you are not likely to come up with an effective response during the crisis. To succeed you must have a well planned, well rehearsed coping tactic already in place.

2. Engineer your environment to minimize your exposure to temptation: avoid high-risk situations and people-at least until the healthy habits have strengthened.

3. Because no sailor had ever survived the temptation of the Sirens, some might take a defeatist attitude and passively accept the inevitable loss. But Odysseus was a hero (he had high self-efficacy) and so he approached the challenge as a problem to be solved. He devised a good plan and executed it well.

4. The most important lesson is, even though Odysseus experienced irresistible temptation, he did not give in to it. Before reading on, think back to the story . . . how did he do it?

Having respect for the irresistible power of the Sirens, he pre-committed his future behavior by having himself bound by strong rope. Likewise you can pre-commit your future behavior by being bound by your word. For example: "I am not experiencing temptation now, but I know that I will. So I give my word that no matter what the circumstance I will keep distance between me and the incentive." Willpower refers to your ability to adhere to your commitment despite the influence of local factors that would pull you astray.

Willpower-the power of your intention to influence real world events-is a creation of the Psyche and can be gained or lost according to how you actually perform.

Thought Experiment: Earnest promises. You announce that you need to move some bulky furniture. Ernest, who owns a pickup, offers to help. You point out that he often makes such promises and has let you down many times. He replies, "But this time I really mean it." He seems sincere, but he seemed sincere the other times too. The objective world demands that the furniture gets moved. Should you count on Ernest showing up or make your plans assuming he won't? Events in the objective world have not happened yet so we don't know for sure whether or not Ernest will show up. However, your expectations will be based upon what you have learned about how seriously Ernest has taken his previous commitment to you.

When you make commitments to yourself, are you earnest? Failing to honor your word weakens subsequent commitments-telling yourself: "But this time I really mean it" is not an effective rescue. On the other hand, each time you honor a commitment you enhance your willpower.

Understand this: Once you decide to change your ways, you must permit no exceptions to occur!

Note that the word "decide" is derived from the root "cide," which means "to kill," as in sui-cide, homi-cide, insecti-cide. When, for example, an alcoholic makes the decision to quit drinking, it is understood that (s)he means to kill, once and for all, the option to drink alcohol, and thereby lock out drinking in the future. (The requirement of absolute adherence to the commitment is equally important for those who choose moderation rather than abstinence as an outcome goal.)

Typically, one decides to control an impulsive behavior when its costs are more salient than its benefits. Your commitment is your promise to adhere to the plan in all circumstances. Willpower is the measure of your ability to deliver on that guarantee. Willpower is not static, and your capability of overriding the influence of the PIG can increase or decrease according to certain lawful principles. Local conditions such as negative emotional states or exhaustion can deplete this power. So, like an athlete, it is important to train hard to develop your strength and be vigilant for circumstances that would deplete it. Please click here for more about Will and Subjective Reality.