Conventional wisdom when thinking about developing self-control dictates that gaining strength when facing a personal temptation is the path to success. That is, say I am a person attempting to gain control over my anger. Conventional wisdom says if I gain strength and ‘become the stronger one’ in an instance I am wrestling with my anger I will have ‘won’ in that particular instance. Repeat that process often enough and I will have developed self-control when it comes to my anger.
Brute force, therefore, is thought of as the pathway to victory on the road to self-control.
Brute Force is Not the Way to Self-Control
The reality is quite different. To uncover the right way of thinking about the path to self-control, we turn, surprisingly, to the world of the animals.
Cesar Millan is a man the world refers to as the Dog Whisperer. He spent his life around dogs and somehow figured out their body language to such a degree that he seems able to communicate with and control even the most aggressive of canines. His encounters with unruly pets (and their owners) are captured on the National Geographic channel’s show ‘The Dog Whisperer’.
One of the key tenents of Millan’s philosophy that he repeats week after week is that when it comes to human-canine interaction, in order for the human owner to prevent the dog from entering a frenzied, out of control state, the owner must catch the dog before it enters the state, at the moment when the dog first starts out on a path to ‘out of control’.
For example, say there is a dog that goes beserk, barking and pulling on its leash when it encounters another dog. Millan points out to the owner that in the moments before it goes beserk, if a frame by frame progression was examined, we would see the dog:
- Notice the presence of another animal. This is marked by an intense ‘noticing’ where the body stiffens, and the gaze becomes fixed on the other, to the exclusion of everything else around him
- Next, the body leans forward, moving gradually toward the other dog, building the energy to a point where it can no longer be contained.
- The dog explodes with mania, barking and pulling on the leash
Millan repeats the process several times, intentionally putting the stimuli in front of the affected dog, pointing out to the owner how the animal gradually escalates into the frenzied state. After sufficiently demonstrating the phenomenon to the owner, Millan again repeats the exercise but this time, as the animal enters state 1 and intently ‘notices’ the stimuli but before it progresses to full-on ‘beserk’, he gives the dog a small correction with his hand (which the dog experiences as a ‘bite’ from a litter mate), delivered with a sharp “psssshhhhtttt” noise.
This correction acts as an ‘interruption’ in the emotional escalation process and diverts the animal from the fixation and he can then direct the animal to relax. Surprisingly, this seems to serve as a relatively permanent interruption in the circuit and with some coaching, the owner learns to deliver the correction as needed and the change seems to take hold in the dog permanently with it no longer being affected by the presence of other dogs.
So we learn from the animal kingdom that early intervention is not only critical to self-control, it is the only way to true self control. This is because in recognizing that even an unparalleled expert like Millan struggles to control the animal once it has entered an ‘escalated’ state, we understand that the brute force approach which requires taking on the mind when it is in its most emotional state is not the path to success. Rather, early detection is the key.
Human Biology Offers Insight
Human biology supports this thinking. In the last 50 years or so science has begun to learn more about the progressive processes that the human body experiences as it enters emotional states.
By now, we know that the body-mind goes through an escalating series of chemical and physiological changes on the march toward anger. First chemicals including catecholamines are released. Body muscles tense, the heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up and additional chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are released into the bloodstream as the individual moves down a progressive arc from a calm to excited, unapproachable state. Indeed the end result of this biological process is often a place in which the human is in a state of no-seeing. This is how phrases like ‘blind with anger’ came into being. Crucially, once in that state all bets are off and intervention becomes difficult to impossible.
The Point of ‘No Return’
So the animal kingdom and human biology tells us early intervention is key. In fact, arguably, we have demonstrated that is the only path on the way to self-control.
Another way of crystallizing this concept, is as the Dog Whisperer teaches and the graphic to the right illustrates, there is an escalating process that occurs, during which time, in the ‘green and yellow zones’ intervention is possible. But, once past the point of no return it becomes a ‘brute force’ struggle and becomes increasingly difficult to intervene.
What Do We Mean by ‘Early Detection?’
Now that we have defined the path to self-control, what do we mean by ‘early detection’ and how do we implement this as a self-control strategy?
I think what it means is, if we do in fact buy in to the progressive, ‘point of no return’ framework, then we must start to learn to sharply recognize the early signs that broadcast we are headed down a progressive path toward the ‘point of no return’ signpost. That might mean things like noticing my jaw clenches when I walk into the bedroom and find children’s bath towels all over the floor. Or my breathing quickens when I find the back door wide open and the bugs flying happily into the house.
These are the kinds of early indicators that should be telling me I am headed down a path of no return. From there I can test the specific methodologies that work for me such as breathing deeply, reminding myself that its not worth getting angry about etc.—testing and finding the methods that resonate most with my unique makeup.
Importantly, the earlier in the progressive escalation I can catch my own personal early indicators the greater my chance of gaining control over myself. This early intervention approach is in direct contrast to the conventional wisdom ‘brute force’ self-control methodology many of us have been operating with until now.
Equally as important is the understanding that making progress in early awareness and intervention can be hard. Back breakingly hard. If you want to really and truly understand the feeling we call ‘Frustration’, work at and repeatedly fail at not finding yourself on the other side of the point of no return. Many of us will spend a lifetime working to master this in many areas of life.
But, in the end, giving up is not an option. Because early detection is the key to self-control.
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- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran