Mastering Self-Control

Take the reins! Here's what behavioral science tells us about breaking bad habits, kickstarting new ones, and recharging your willpower.

Post-Traumatic Stress Re-order

Even without PTSD, we're all changed by our traumas.

An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.
Philip Larkin

He who burns himself on hot milk blows on ice cream.
Turkish Proverb 

You fell in a hellhole and for a time couldn’t climb out to save your life. A physical accident, a mid-life crisis, an enormous loss you weren’t prepared for--there you were just stuck, pulled up short by one of life’s cosmic wedgies. Nothing seemed to work to get you out of it.  And then something did.

Maybe it was a long time ago.  What a relief it’s in the past! And is it really? 

Lately I’ve been interested in the milder, garden-variety, even healthy versions of the mental disabilities.  What if all the disorders have parallel orders?  Obsessive-compulsive order.  Post-traumatic stress order, or perhaps re-order.

My interest in milder versions was triggered in part by noticing how certain friends are actively insistent on staying happy and steering clear of discouraging words however wisely urged. One was in a terrible accident that laid her low for close to a year. Another talks of a time he almost committed suicide and the happy perfect, true revelations that he gained overcoming it. 

The image came to me of a hellhole’s rim made of sand caving in, and my friends paddling against the sand’s downward currents, scrambling to get and stay as far from the rim as possible.

I thought about my own life, its hellholes and whether they’ve shaped my behavior decades later.  Yes they have.  Much of what I write here is inspired in large part by what I think I’ve learned getting out of those holes.

I’m also reminded of that cartoon cliché. Someone blindfolded gets walloped and anxiously grasps at thin air in every direction. What hit him?  Where is it? “I must get my hands on it, and when I find it, I’ll never let go.”

By midlife you meet a fair number of folks whose post-crisis calling is the promotion of some doctrine they think was their salvation. I know many people who became deeply religious, spiritual or philosophically firm-minded, committed with unyielding intensively to a whole worldview including lots of elements that to me seem extraneous to the salvation they claim they got from it. 

I have a friend I visited when he was an editor at Yoga Journal where he received hundreds of review copies of new spiritual books.  I was writing one of my own at the time and scanning his shelves waiting for him to be ready for lunch, I thought, ‘yes this is what some of us do with our mid-life crisis. We write a book espousing the truth we declare we discovered, that maybe isn’t true, that maybe is just what we think was our salvation.

What exactly saved us? Was it the new friends, who happened to be fellow travelers on our new spiritual path?  The practical teachings? The simplicity of finding absolute rules to live by when we were otherwise floundering?  The surprisingly impractical cosmology about what some imagined higher power is rooting for or how the universe was created? What were the active and the inert ingredients in whatever medicine we claim cured us? 

Many of the saved don’t dare analyze what got them out of the hellhole.  Tampering could weaken the cure exposing them again to that dreaded risk of sliding down the caving rim back into the hellhole. 

We say we embrace but actually cling to the whole spiritual package, because if there’s one thing we know, we’re damn sure she’s not getting near that hellhole again.  The spiritual beliefs are our bulwark against sliding. We live in the fortress we’ve built out of these retaining walls. They’re load bearing. Don’t go tampering with a cinderblock here or there, or these walls make come tumbling down, and we’ll be lost again.

I’m saying many of us might have a low-grade version of post-traumatic reaction.  Being born again may not be just an Evangelical thing. 

Some of us, me included have post-traumatic stress distorter, an intense distorting reaction to anything that seems the slightest like the rim of the hellhole we’re at pains to avoid.

But then some of us get beyond the distorting effects too.  We experience post-traumatic stress re-order. That hellhole taught us something useful, not an over-compensation, blowing on ice cream after being burnt by hot milk, but some useful subtle refinement of our wisdom, the kind of wisdom that makes us sadder but wiser.

Climbing out of a hellhole about 20 years ago, I noticed three basic options for how to do it.

1. Re-assertion:  Yes I fell in a hellhole, but through no fault of my own.  That jerk pushed me. I was a victim of circumstances, just some unlucky anomaly.  Nothing to learn here.  No need to reinterpret my reality. My existing interpretations will work fine from now on.

2. I once was lost but now I’m blind:  Yes my interpretations were wrong, but not my confidence in my ability to interpret. So I’m going to do a complete swap. My prior interpretations were dead wrong; their opposites dead right. I was a dupe but never again. I’ve got the right interpretations now, and am going to promote them with same blind zeal that I had for my prior interpretations.

3. A life-long commitment to shopping for better interpretations and studying interpretation itself:  Rather than hold to the old interpretations or flip them for exact-opposite new interpretations, recognize that interpretations matter, and that we really want good ones. And then become a student of what interpretations are and how we shop for them, including, but not limited to the ways that former hellholes influence our choice.

If you’ve read any of my other 450 articles you can tell that since my hellholes, I’ve been working to promote that third option.  

Mastering Self-Control