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Self-Discipline: Can It Verge on Masochism?

Ultimate fulfillment may require you to make many painful sacrifices.

There are countless examples. Forcing yourself to exercise when not one cell in your body is remotely inclined to move. Making yourself take the time to prepare a well-balanced meal when you're fatigued and would much rather send out for pizza. Bearing down and studying arduously for an exam when the subject matter is indescribably tedious to you. Commanding yourself to be patient or gracious with someone for whom you have a deep dislike. And so on, and so on.

These instances are all about exhorting yourself to do what affords you absolutely no pleasure. But how about all the things you might restrict yourself from doing that might supply--at least temporarily--an abundance of enjoyment? Like consuming virtually lethal amounts of cheesecake. Or getting wasted to avoid confronting an onerous situation. Or going on a humongous shopping binge that could max out all your credit cards. Or succumbing to illicit sexual temptations (and thereby betraying your spouse). Or substituting for a not-very-gratifying exercise regimen (as comedian Phyllis Diller once called it) "a rigorous sit" (!).

Examples of self-disciplined behaviors seriously interfering with personal pleasure and excitement are virtually infinite. Comfort, amusement, delight, adventure, entertainment, titillation (you name it), there's no question that focusing on what, ultimately, will best serve your welfare entails all sorts of sacrifices--and repudiations, denials, and refusals that at some point may seem downright masochistic.

That said, however, almost always the eventual payoff of getting yourself to do what, frankly, you'd much rather not do (as well as abstaining from what might feel especially tempting) is well worth the effort. As has been said many times: "No pain, no gain." Besides, almost all of us would concede that a life of hedonism isn't one we'd end up feeling very proud of. So--both idealistically and practically--it makes eminent sense to exert substantial control over your natural tendency to pursue what's pleasurable. Surrendering to immediate, self-indulgent attractions or enticements inevitably leads to your becoming subservient to them. And as a consequence, the likelihood of achieving longer-term goals is seriously undermined.

There are times when it's self-discipline alone that keeps you from putting off something unpleasant, disagreeable, or even abhorrent. Self-discipline is what reflects your commitment to hold fast to certain values and priorities--whether it's a pledge to follow through on a promise, fulfill an obligation, or promote some personal or professional interest. At any moment your actual desire to do what you know should be done may be minimal. In these instances the only thing enabling you to drive yourself forward is your word to yourself, your core principles, and your determination to act responsibly--regardless of your present mood or disposition.

In this respect, self-control and self-discipline are indistinguishable. Without them, the behavior you might be prompted to engage (or indulge) in will almost certainly culminate in later regret.

This is essentially what maturity is all about. And unfortunately, at times the behavior that goes with adulthood may seem little short of masochistic. To deal with yourself in a self-denying, self-sacrificing way, and to renounce alluring opportunities for enjoyment, can in fact seem like cruel and unusual (self-) punishment. In fact, one definition of masochism is "gratification gained from pain, deprivation, degradation, etc., inflicted or imposed on oneself. . . " (Random House Dictionary). So even though I'm not addressing anything like sexual masochism or some really perverse form of self-torture, it should be evident that self-discipline sometimes requires nothing less than the "pain" described in the above definition.

As regards the "gratification" aspect of masochism, I believe it can actually be quite gratifying to deny yourself some immediate enjoyment in that you've demonstrated to yourself sufficient strength to "achieve" this denial. As ironic as it may seem, realizing that you were able to show really good judgment--and restraint--in refusing to pay the overly high price of partaking in a particular pleasure can be unusually satisfying.

Moreover, consider a second definition of masochism that goes even farther in this direction: "A willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences." (American Heritage Dictionary). Finally, is not this description exactly what I've been depicting as self-discipline? That is, a willingness to do whatever it takes to reach personally valued goals and objectives, independent of whatever challenges, or unpleasantness, may be linked to the process of attaining them.

Once you decide what behaviors best serve your fundamental, most cherished interests and ideals, the matter of how much you might enjoy the rigors of realizing them becomes almost irrelevant. On the contrary, allowing yourself to put off what in the present just doesn't "grab" you represents the very essence of procrastination--and ultimate defeat.

If there's a moral to this piece, it's that doing what you've pre-determined is best for you--rather than permitting yourself to constantly get sidetracked by what immediately seems more pleasurable--will grant you far more satisfaction and joy in the long run. So even though the decision to develop maximum self-discipline may at times border on the masochistic, do consider carefully where your greatest happiness lies.

Note: To read an earlier post of mine that complements this present effort, see "From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing."

© 2011‭ Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Right Reserved.

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