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January 17th, 2020
Self-improvement is akin to playing chess with yourself. You can try to stack the moves in your favor, but fail to remember that you’ll remember the stratagem when the board spins it’s 180 degrees. Thinking you might be able to control the game from just one side and let the other side be blind to your own stratagem every time is no better than lying to yourself. Inevitably, you fall victim to your own mistakes again and again by such lying.
But let’s define the players a little more clearly.
Who exactly are we playing against when we think of the uphill struggle of improving ourselves and our life? What exactly are we battling? What creates so much resistance when we just want to make the better choice: eat the healthier option, save the money instead of spending it, be calm, cool and collected instead of lashing out in anger?
Who exactly is the little demon behind these undermining machinations?
Our “rational” mind constantly observes our behavior in frustrated astonishment as our reasonable plans crumble in the hands of some insidious double-agent that seems to exist within our own mind.
Those impulses, of course, arise from an emotional source. We can think of this split in our self-understanding in a neurologically overly simplistic way as the difference between our executive cortex and our limbic system. While this glosses over a lot of our understanding and lack of understanding when it comes to the brain, the simplicity is good enough to aid our aims for building a practical and effective strategy for changing our behavior, and ultimately the results of the behavior that manifest as our life.
The two players for this game of chess are the Rational executive cortex and the Emotional limbic system.
The Limbic system is that devious agent that seems to have a secret back door through which it whispers all sorts of seductive commands that override our better thinking and make us crush a box of cookies or turn on the TV instead of opening the blank word document.
Somehow, in these moments, the executive cortex is rendered silent, almost absent.
It’s almost as though these two structures are taking turns with our behavior.
But one of these players has an advantage the other is blind to. The executive cortex, that is our thinking self, the part that can give great advice that we never seem to follow, that narrating, problem solving self – it can make plans. This ability to plan is a superpower.
The limbic system is totally dumb to plans. It acts purely in the now. It’s completely myopic in this way. It can only see as far as the donut in front of the mouth and Netflix icon.
But the thing about chess is that a person can get very far with a strategy rooted solely in the now. That is, if you look at each iteration of the board as though you don’t remember how it got there, and you simply make the best move based on the current lay of the land, this will prove to be very effective.
Now enters a crucial point in this analogy. The limbic system is constantly trying to win. And frankly this has less to do with beating it’s opponent than it has to do with the fact that the limbic system isn’t even aware it has an opponent.
That impulsive, emotional part of our brain doesn’t really have access to the logic and the narration, and the advice constantly spun by the executive cortex. Meanwhile our rational, executive self is constantly going nuts as it sees us take action that isn’t in our best interest.
It’s a bit of a parent-child relationship. And we often devolve into the sort of negative self-talk that is reminiscent of very bad parenting.
Why do I always do the wrong things?
Why can’t I just eat properly!
Why can’t I just get stuff done!
I’m so stupid!
I hate myself..
Anyone who has spent any meaningful amount of time with children knows that children have an uncanny ability to get on our nerves in a way that is eerily similar. It makes sense from a basic neurological standpoint: children don’t really have much of an executive cortex. They are limbic system monsters and the executive cortex is the last part of the brain to finish growing, and that doesn’t happen until... our mid twenties. Long past the time we are considered “adults”.
The limbic system, however, never grows up. And the crucial switch that the executive cortex can make is to realize that while the limbic system will never stop trying to win at this behavioral game of chess. . .
the point isn’t to win.
The point is to play an infinite game. To play as long as possible.
With this new flavor of aim in place, we begin to look at the game differently. We know the limbic system is going to have it’s turn after we make our move, and knowing this, we can then begin to plan for it.
We can realize that we simply don’t take our own advice outright, but we can start to experiment with structural ways in which we design that advice into our daily life.
Discipline comes into the picture here, but not necessarily in a way that we have to dread. Discipline and willpower compose this milieu of cultural mythical power that only seems to be on offer to those who seem incoherently successful. The point is, we only need relatively small sprints of discipline and willpower.
We use discipline to set up a structure that is then powered by the limbic system.
What does this look like in a real, practical way?
Let’s say a person has a constant ambient experience of anxiety and stress. And they hear all the time that meditation reduces this anxiety and stress, but every time this person sits down to meditate, it feels like torture. There are so many thoughts, it’s overwhelming. It’s a disaster. This isn’t working.
The conclusion: This isn’t working.
That’s the limbic system talking. That’s an emotional response saying, this doesn’t feel good so it must not be something that works.
Meanwhile, we eat a tub of ice cream and our limbic system screams: this is amazing!
And yet an hour later our rational self pleads in horror: what was I thinking?
The lesson here is that the limbic system rarely has a reliable opinion on what’s going on. But it can still be used to our benefit.
As said before, discipline needs to be implemented for a short, effortful amount of time. Like working out, we don’t work out all day, we spend 45 minutes or an hour working out and end up feeling pretty good for the rest of the day. In the moment the limbic system is yelling: what are you doing? This isn’t fun! but later on in the day the limbic system is constantly noting: hey, today is great! while totally forgetting about the workout. It’s the executive cortex that can see the whole story. Workout enough and the limbic system slowly starts to make the connection.
The same goes with meditation. The executive cortex can read up on the scientific literature, realize that people generally don’t experience any sort of benefits for a few months and realize that it only takes a month for a habit to dig a solid root into our routine of behavior. Our rational self can then realize: Ok, I’ll put a solid month of effort into making this a habit, even if it’s uncomfortable, I know that eventually it’ll sort of feel good, and once that happens, the limbic system will take over where discipline was required.
In this way our “rational” self can plan life in a way that includes our impulsive, pleasure seeking, limbic system self.
The goal isn’t to dominate the limbic system, but to curate it.
This is the crucial part of the chess analogy. If you play to win, you’ve already lost. But if you play simply to keep playing, then you begin to look at your opponent more as a partner, one whom you can rely on to act in a certain way. You can then begin to experiment with the design of your life so that the limbic system makes predictable choices inside of that structure that ultimately lead to your benefit.
It requires tinkering, and that requires time, which means patience is a superpower in this respect. If, however, we can stop viewing self-improvement as a battle and more like a fun game that we can get better at, then the idea that things might not go according to plan becomes less tense. When things break down, we can analyze why and then try again.
Then slowly, like building sandcastles in the surf, we make headway, fully expecting that we haven’t perfectly designed things for our limbic system and the childlike monster inside of us will wreck things.
Given enough time though, we can build a near perfect playground for this part of ourselves, one whose natural flow of impulse that once undermined our goals, now fuels the effort to achieve those goals.
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