[This feels like it is a missing piece of Nate Soares’s Replacing Guilt series. As such, it has a lot of similar themes. It starts off with a ritual to reorient following a failure. It’s followed by a series of questions to ask yourself to peer deeper into the problem. It ends with two potential techniques to use after having gone through the above.]
I recently broke a commitment I made to myself. Needless to say, this also wasn’t the first time. Yet, after I broke my promise to myself, there was a general feeling of deflation as I realized I’d failed myself once more. This feeling was accompanied by a vicious cycle of a downward spiral of negative emotions.
In the midst of this, I realized that I really need a stronger way to recover from failures.
For me, my broken promises most often happens in cases of time-inconsistent preferences, where the internal weighing of short-term and long-term rewards gets messed up.
For example, say that I’ve decided to avoid playing video games because I know it leads to unhealthy reward associations in my brain. Still, some part of me craves the gaming experience. So one day, I end up violating my self-imposed injunction and play a bunch of matches. At the end of this, I may say, “Never again! I made this mistake again, and I’m terrible for doing so, but I won’t do it again!”
Still, I might very well do it again.
Clearly, then, there’s an important conversation to be had about why I found myself violating the commitment. Perhaps it’d be good to have an in-depth examination to which one of my needs are being satisfied when I break a promise to myself.
But before all that happens, on a level higher up, there’s a conversation to be had about being able to both take failure in stride and have a philosophy for trying to minimize future “self-failures”.
Thus there’s two things happening here:
1) Making sure I don’t fall into a negative spiral following a self-failure.
2) Figuring out how to solve time inconsistency problems in the future.
A good solution to 1) is figuring out what sort of response pattern would be most conducive to moving forward.
First off, look at the whole of things. Unless you’re consistently breaking commitments, it will be the case that, more often than not, you’re doing the right thing. You’re not trying to have a perfect streak; you’re trying to maximize your total impact, over time. A single failure in this point in time is not a signal to fail with abandon.
When you’re playing the long game, nothing matters except moving forward and improving your ability to keep doing things.
If anything, failures are to be expected. You should anticipate messing up because it’s ridiculously unlikely you can maintain a perfect streak forever. Still, that’s not a reason to try and less hard.
You can both say, “I was very sure this would happen because base rates said they would,” and also say, “I am going to take this in stride and continue improving.”
Take the initial suckerpunch of negativity, and end the spiral right here. If you have a well-developed response to failure, there’s no reason to let these negative emotions overwhelm you. The dark feeling of self-loathing is merely a preset function your body comes with that attempts to put you in a better position. If you have a better response than your body’s default, then screw your defaults!
Skip to the end of your negative emotion cycle and keep going.
But also don’t lie to yourself. You can’t just pretend that your self-failure didn’t happen—something somewhere is wrong. The truth is important. Look at the stain and know that you will see many more stains in the future, and this is what it is.
You don’t have to accept it, but you do need to acknowledge it.
Humans are inconsistent. You are inconsistent. We don’t yet have the ability to make binding commitments. If we’re inconsistent, we can hold commitments and yet break them. But we can also break commitments and yet strive to do better.
Keep a combination of cold resolve and self-compassion. Remember that your goal is to keep surging on, but burning out this early helps no one. Instead, keep a cold flame that you can consistently draw on. Give yourself space to look at yourself as a human, trying to achieve a higher standard.
For the moment, gather your virtues and goals around you. Gather them around you and remember that there are things worth fighting for.
Once you’re suitably oriented and strengthened, we move to the question of rebuilding a broken promise to ourselves. We’re looking to see what happened to go wrong to try and patch 2).
I think a crucial part of starting this process this is knowing when you’re lying to yourself.
Back to the video game example, imagine that I think to myself, “Man, how great would it be to play a few matches today?” I could then say things like, “Nah, that’s not a good idea, let’s study some machine learning instead.” But even as I list out those alternatives, I can feel myself already drawn to the video game idea.
Then what actually happens is that I realize I had absolutely no intention to study machine learning in the first place. I already knew that I was going to play some video games, and the other alternatives were generated half-heartedly.
That’s what I mean by lying to yourself.
By the time you violate your own commitments, the shift to violate them has already happened somewhere earlier along the line. You’ve already made your internal decision to break the promise. Any number of metacognitive safeguards might flare up—like that nagging voice that asks, “Hey, but didn’t we just agree not to fall for temptation last time?”—but they’ll be useless.
In effect, what’s happening is that you’re already determining the bottom line. If you already made your decision internally, then any attempt to figure out “alternatives” is just paying mere lip service to the idea that you “have yet to make up your mind”.
One important skill, then, is being able to examine where this shift happens.
If you can notice the trigger where you make the true, internal decision (and begin to lie to yourself, pretending that you are still neutral), then you’ve identified a key step to intervene.
This is in line with the bigger idea of figuring out why you broke your own commitment, as I mentioned earlier. This means probing into your own thoughts and being honest with yourself.
Questions to ask yourself, then, might be with regards to:
Prior to the breaking:
- What physical and mental states lead to my thinking about the commitment in general?
- Under what circumstances do I feel such a compulsion to violate my commitments?
Moments before breaking:
- What are the direct thoughts that lead to my breaking?
- Are there any lies I tell myself when I consider breaking?
The actual breaking:
- What parts of me are being fulfilled when I do break a commitment?
- What feels good about breaking the commitment?
- What might my desire to break such a commitment mean about what I want / need?
After the above, you want to ask questions with regards to:
- What goes right when I manage to think about breaking a commitment and yet don’t?
- What other actions could satisfy myself in the same way that breaking my commitment does?
[META]: I’d really recommend you taking some time to answer even just a few of the above questions!
As an example, here are some of my answers to some of the above questions:
Q) Under what circumstances do I feel such a compulsion to violate my commitments?
A) Often, it’s when I just finished something large, and I feel like celebrating / relaxing. Otherwise, it’s when I feel bored / have nothing to do. Then, it slowly pops into my mind as an option. And at other times, it’s when I feel tired and want something that’s not very demanding.
Q) Are there any lies I tell myself when I consider breaking?
A) Yes. I’ll often tell myself that I won’t break the commitment all the way. Or, I’ll focus on how tempting it feels to fail with abandon (there, I said it! failing with abandon is a seductive option!) and part of my brain uses the strong emotional affect associated with the fantasy to overpower the other sides.
Q) What might my desire to break such a commitment mean about what I want / need?
A) I want a way to relax sometimes. It’s also about finding good breaks, of course, but part of this is that sometimes I really do want to have some good ways of relaxing…but maybe that says something about what sort of person I am? Maybe I want to work on changing how I see breaks?
Once you’ve got a feel for which things are affecting your decision to break the commitment to yourself, you can make a plan of attack on making a more robust self-commitment system.
Two skills that I’ve found to work well after having gone through the above are that of Generating Good Alternatives and Metacognitive Affordances.
Generating Good Alternatives:
If you feel the temptation to break a commitment and then pay lip service to generating other choices, you’re obviously lying to yourself—you’ve already determined the bottom line without doing any real reasoning. But now that you’ve got a more clear understanding of yourself in relation to your desires and commitments, you can hopefully start to actually take different choices.
By taking a more judgment-free attitude to your actions, when faced with the impetus to break your commitment, you can respond by actually suspending a decision for the time being. You can look to see what needs your body has and how different actions can satisfy them.
The skill of Generating Good Alternatives is to use this improved self-knowledge to fuel an improved search through the space of possible actions you can take. You do this such that you can actually find novel actions that both satisfy your hidden need and don’t compromise your values and commitments.
As an example, instead of seeing a desire to play video games as something about your inherent preferences, you can see it as your body trying to cash out some sort of need.
My internal dialogue might look like, “Hey, I notice I want to play video games. I wonder that this is a symptom of? I recall that I often feel like this when I need to take some time to just cool off…”
From there, I can try to feel out different actions which might also satisfy the need in a better way.
Your metacognition is that awareness you have inside your head that reacts to your thoughts. It’s the part of your brain about your brain. Often, my metacognitive safeguards, as I wrote above, will not work. They will flare and sound the alarm saying, “Alert! You are doing a Bad Thing! This will not pan well for your mind!”.
Of course, I don’t really listen that much to it.
Something that has helped me here is having the knowledge that following my metacognition is available to me. There’s some sort of weird self-fulfilling prophecy happening here where if I know that my metacognition will work, this leads me to expect that it will, such that when it actually fires, I find it useful.
It’s sort of like a meta-metacognitive awareness. I know that paying attention to my thoughts should work. Thus, then my internal safeguards now flare up, I feel the wordless impulse and think “Ah, yes! This thing! It works and is useful!”
You want to think of your metacognition as more of a lever that is available to you. It’s about making metacognition more of an affordance.
With regards to self-promises, I don’t think this resolve everything. I myself still have trouble; this isn’t a cure-all. But I do think that it’s an important key part of self-care and moving forward. The shift and reorientation feels like a key step, and I hope the ritual, question, and techniques help with the overall process.