I used to have excuses: I wasn’t as clear on what would make me happy, on the difference between happiness and pleasure, or even on whether or not happiness was what was really important. Even when I understood what the best things were to do, in the past I often couldn’t figure out how to care and act on that.
These days I don’t have those excuses. I understand how central happiness is and how it’s different than pleasure. From researching and writing about habits over the past years, I have so many available ways to get and stay on track, it’s not so much a bag of tricks as a chase van full of them. I have a clear sense of how to be a deeply fulfilled, effective, and compassionate person.
So why aren’t I doing a better job? Sure, I’m doing pretty well, but why aren’t I closer to, you know, perfect?
It’s true that knowing isn’t enough, but if we understand the process of bridging the gap between knowing and doing (see the link for details), that’s not much of an excuse. No, I think what gets in my way those times that I could do the better thing and end up doing the worse thing, is the little lying creep that lives in my head.
I’ll call him “the Creep” for short.
Meet the Creep
Let’s say I come across a plate of doughnuts. I might say to myself, “Yeah, those doughnuts look good, but you know what would make me feel better and happier? A round of push-ups.”
The Creep will respond “You know what would actually make you feel better? A freakin’ doughnut, that’s what. Push-ups don’t make you happier than doughnuts do. Push-ups just make you a joyless, self-righteous exercise junky. Doughnuts make you somebody who’s eating a delicious doughnut.”
Or I’ll have an hour or two available and think, “Why don’t I spend this time going over my task list and reorganizing items into updated categories so that I have a better handle on what I need to get done over the next couple of days?”
The Creep will respond “Or you could not do something stupid and boring and instead install World of Warcraft. Then you could spend the next six months playing that. Come on, it would be fun!”
I am pleased to say that these days, the Creep usually loses. I’ve been waging a long and exhausting battle against him over the course of years, learning to be more reliable, more productive, more self-aware, kinder, and a lot else.
Yet he’s still a major daily obstacle. I know he’s a big fat liar, but he’s so convincing. He emerged when I was very young, and I’m used to following his instructions.
Sometimes he’s even partly right. “Wow, this doughnut is good,” I might say, and he’ll say “I know, right? Now let’s get you some kind of candy to go with that.”
Later I’ll point out how the Creep’s advice has created problems or squandered opportunities, but he’ll be unavailable for comment.
Keep on Creepin’ on
These days, I try not to fall into the trap of fighting the creep. You can’t win an argument with him: he keeps coming up with more “common wisdom,” more “obvious truths,” and more justifications. “But you’re tired,” he’ll insist. “And you had that thing with the water spraying all over you, which wasn’t fair and was annoying, and anyway who are you trying to impress?”
Even if we get past all that, he doesn’t stop. “Yuh huh,” he’ll say. “Nuh uh,” I’ll point out. “Yuh huh,” he’ll rebut. He can go on like that all day … and sometimes has.
Still rummaging through the toolbox
So what’s the cure for the common Creep? I don’t have a single, easy answer: now that I’ve identified him, I have to see what mental tools I can use to get him to settle down. I take heart that I’ve been making headway, that he’s become a weaker and weaker influence over time.
I’m also interested in this idea of the Creep as a character or a mode in my head. This connects well with the schema therapy concept of modes, nine different roles that people take on mentally, for example the Healthy Adult and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child.
Seeing the Creep as a mode or role, as soon as I identify him as being the one behind an idea in my head, my perspective shifts. I can say to myself “Well of course the Creep wants to do that. But what does the part of myself who actually has a clue think?”
Actually, I didn’t even realize that the Creep was a mode until I started writing about him here, and with that realization I suddenly have access to the Schema Therapy tools that apply to modes–dialog between modes, for instance, where the healthy part of me asks the Creep what’s going on.
What about you? Do your worst impulses have a personality? What tricks does that character have up its sleeve? Got a name for it? I’d be interested to hear your stories.