Self-Control is an Anti-Virtue

When we’re young, we often get scolded for self-control issues.

If you talk too much, you’re told to “hold your tongue”. If you cry in public, you’re told to “control your temper”. And so on.

The logic is something as follows:

  1. You often want to do things that offend others.
  2. If you offend others, they won’t like you.
  3. If others don’t like you, then you’ll be miserable and lonely.
  4. You can use self-control to offend others less often.
  5. Thus, if you don’t want to be miserable and lonely, use self-control to avoid offending others.

It’s not very formal, but I actually think the logic is sound enough — if you want to be likable, then don’t do unlikable things!

But I’m starting to think that there are unintended consequences from living this way.

The Downsides of Social-Restraint

Don’t get me wrong — it’s good to be considerate of others. But if you frequently supress your true feelings with self-control, when do your “bad” desires ever get addressed? I know that there’s a camp that says “fake it ‘til you make it”, but I’m not so convinced anymore.

Many of my friends and family are a bit more than mildly racist. When I hear implications of deeper, darker feelings, I coax them into being explicit: “…and what exactly do you mean by that?” (but not in a judgemental way). When probed enough, most people find fear and self-hatred in that tangled ball of feelings. And they didn’t want to talk about it in the first place because they were trying to be “politically correct”. With enough practice, we move from “Mexicans are taking our jobs” to “I’m scared that my grandchildren won’t have job security”. But to make this jump, most people need to be unabashedly “politically incorrect”. In order to change, they need to be honest with themselves and others. Otherwise, all contradictory evidence gets labeled as “irrelevant” or as “fake news”. If you are truly convinced that Mexicans are The Problem, then any intention to help your grandchildren directly will seem misguided.

And so here’s the pickle: we show social-restraint to avoid criticism. But with enough constructive criticism, we wouldn’t need to restrain ourselves. But criticism is uncomfortable for everybody involved, so we continue restraint.

Short of threat of physical force, all beliefs are fair-game. If you don’t test your thoughts against others, then how will you know which ones are wrong? And if you know it’s wrong, then maybe saying it out-loud will force you to discover how bad it feels to say it, and how terrible it feels others. Sometimes seeing the consequences of a bad belief inspires change.

But I don’t know — what if all your peers are impressionable and your bad beliefs spread and mutate and become terrible monstrosities? Oof. Maybe I overestimate people’s ability to change. Tell me I’m wrong, I guess 💁

I suppose this advice is more about listening than speaking. Become someone who others can expose bad ideas to. Most people will provide enough self-criticism — just be there.

Never Do Things You Dislike

Self-control also has weird affects on long-term goal-planning.

When you consistently do things you don’t like, why would you expect to end up somewhere better?

Most medical students loathe medical school. But they endure medical school because one day they’ll get to be Dr. LastName. But many of them discover — surprise — that they hate being doctors! If you hated the training, why would you expect to love the outcome‽

If you dislike the training, the outcome is unpredictable. If you practice violin for 25 years, you may enjoy being an accomplished violinist. But why on earth wouldn’t you take the time to learn to love violin‽ Or just choose a different instrument‽ If you practice something you enjoy, you are guaranteed to like the outcome.

If you dislike it, here are your choices:

  • Learn to love it.

    • You will love the outcome.
  • Find a lovely alternative.

    • You will love the outcome.
  • Change nothing.

    • You may love the outcome.
  • Abandon it.

    • You may love the outcome.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of trouble going to the gym because, well, I hate it there. So let’s plot out my options using the guide above:

  • Learn to love it.

    • I love learning and science and challenges! I would probably enjoy weight-training a lot more if I reframed it as an experiment.
    • I could also post constant reminders around my apartment to remind myself why I wanted to do weight-training. But human-minds are really good at filtering out reminders. I should really figure out why I stopped caring about my goals.
    • I could pair weight-training with things that I already love, like podcasts and close friends!
  • Find a lovely alternative.

    • Rather than lifting weights, I may really enjoy something dextrous and skill-based like rock-climbing or swimming! Unfortunately, my goal is to gain mass, and I think it will be particularly difficult for me to gain weight with that type of training.
    • I could find new, interesting exercises! I’ve been really focused on barbell exercises, so maybe I focus more on machines? It’s something to consider.
  • Change nothing.

    • I may actually learn to love weight-lifting if I keep doing it! I really enjoyed it when I started. The problem is, what if I don’t start loving it? What if I could spend my time bulking up faster on an activity that I actually enjoy? Seems stupid to me. I should change something.
  • Abandon it.

    • Nah, exercise is important. But maybe I should stop wanting to bulk up so badly? Maybe I should change my goals? Maybe I’m more of a marathon-type person? Seems like an unsatisfying option.

Anyway, it’s actually kind of fun exploring yourself this way! I learned a lot about myself just writing that simple list.

Life is like a bunch of forking roads. If you apply judicious self-control, you may end up where you want to go, but you may hate the entire journey there. Or even worse, you may hate the entire journey there, and also hate the destination. Take some time to look at other options!

Self-Flagellation

I have a lot of things to say about Christianity, but I guess I’ll save it for another time.

Feeling Bad About What I Do All-Alone All By Myself

I don’t remember what I was originally going to write here, but I love this subtitle 🐸

TL;DR

  • Self-control is weird and sometimes bad.

    • Knock down others’ social-restraints — give everybody safe spaces for bad ideas.
    • Stop doing things you dislike and you’ll probably be happier.