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The Recalcitrant Self


We all have bad behaviours - little habits that we would rather be rid of, but that stick around and persist despite our best efforts.

In the last post I wrote about my experiences of helping people to kick cigarettes and the techniques I saw working over and over again. Nietzsche himself outlined a number of approaches to eradicating undesirable drives in his book Daybreak. Let’s compare them to the approaches I used. He writes:

‘I find no more than six essentially different methods of combating the vehemence of a drive. First, one can avoid opportunities for gratification of the drive, and through long and ever longer periods of non-gratification weaken it and make it wither away.’

‘Avoiding opportunities for gratification’ replicates the removal of smoking paraphernalia from the home, in my example. We now know that behaviour is strongly related to environmental cues, so to address behaviour, changes to one’s environment are helpful. It is good advice to avoid not just objects, but also situations that you know trigger the behaviour. Even, sadly, people can be triggers. In drug treatment (an area in which I also worked) it is sometimes necessary to advise patients that they need to let go of old friendships or even relationships that are associated primarily with drug use. The social trigger is powerful.

‘Then, one can impose upon oneself strict regularity in its gratification.’

Nietzsche’s second method is essentially a case of rationing, which might be appropriate for something like dieting, but not so much for an addictive substance like nicotine.

'Thirdly, one can deliberately give oneself over to the wild and unrestrained gratification of a drive in order to generate disgust with it and, with disgust, to acquire a power over the drive.’

‘Fourthly, there is the intellectual artifice of associating its gratification in general so firmly with some very painful thought that, after a little practice, the thought of its gratification is itself at once felt as very painful.’

His third and fourth methods remind me of the smoke until you feel sick technique deployed in the stop smoking group - pure aversion therapy. Another infamous technique is to fill a jar full of cigarette butts and add a few drop of vinegar. When you feel the urge to smoke, open the jar and have a whiff of the foul contents.

The idea of associating negative thoughts or feelings with a bad habit is also the principle behind graphic warnings on cigarette packets – pictures of tumours or children being exposed to passive smoke, for example.

‘Fifthly, one brings about a dislocation of one's quanta of strength by imposing on oneself a particularly difficult and strenuous labour, or by deliberately subjecting oneself to a new stimulus and pleasure and thus directing one's thoughts and plays of physical forces into other channels.’

The fifth method is the replacement of the bad habit with an alternative obsession that can consume your attention. This can be substitution or compensation. I have seen strenuous exercise used as a substitute for smoking, alcohol use or excess eating (or all three!) Quitting smoking often results in compensation through the consumption of sugary treats, which is a different kind of problem. Smoking cessation advisers usually help patients to plan for avoiding this. The point is that bad habits, when dropped, need to be replaced with other less negative ones. It’s not enough to get rid of something. The gap must be filled if you are to resist relapse. Nature abhors a vacuum.

‘Finally, sixth: he who can endure it and finds it reasonable to weaken and depress his entire bodily and physical organisation will naturally thereby also attain the goal of weakening an individual violent drive.’

The final method is very radical. Nietzsche here is thinking of the Christian ascetic who mortifies the flesh so that, for example, they might extirpate sexual lust. A no doubt unhealthy means of procuring self-control. Not recommended (except for the most committed aspirants).

Though behavioural science has moved on considerably since Nietzsche’s day, most of these techniques have something to commend them, in some situations at least. But Nietzsche adds:

‘That one desires to combat the vehemence of a drive at all, however, does not stand within our own power; nor does the choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure of this method.’

What is clearly the case is that, in this entire procedure, our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us: whether it be the drive to restfulness, or the fear of disgrace and other evil consequences, or love.

While we believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect’

Here we see Nietzsche’s scepticism about free will. Can it really be the case that we cannot freely choose to make changes in our lives? What are the implications of this postulated lack of free will for us? Those of us who wish fervently to quit smoking, reduce our food intake, cut down on alcohol, get more exercise, be more mindful, control our anger, manage our anxiety, focus on our work, keep our homes tidier, be more creative, build greater confidence, earn a higher income, find greater meaning in life, achieve fulfilment and, even, attain some kind of self transcendence?

We will tackle this question of free will in the next post, before moving on to discuss what the scientific evidence tells us about what works when making big changes to our lifestyles.

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