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Dealing with a powerful temptation

Handling negative emotions


A note: Most of my posts are based directly on findings from psychological research or other tried and proven sources. This post, while it owes a lot to these kinds of sources, has much more of my own ideas and observations than usual. It’s also missing the funny parts, for which I apologize.

In most cases where we want to cultivate willpower, it’s possible to make progress a little at a time, and a certain amount of failure is a natural part of the learning process. But what about when losing the willpower battle even once would have dire consequences, like an alcoholic who is struggling to stay sober?

Major temptations that keep cropping up may point to unmet needs, and ultimately the answer to getting over such a temptation is a matter of finding a constructive way to address those needs.

Before we continue, I should explain what I mean by a “need.” A “need” is a basic requirement that leads to suffering if it is not met. We shouldn’t confuse this with a desire, which is some specific thing that we think (sometimes rightly) will give us pleasure or help us avoid pain. Having enough food to eat, keeping the children safe, and having fulfilling work are all needs of one kind or another. Having a piece of the world’s best cheesecake, getting a child into a prestigious school, avoiding a conversation with someone unpleasant, or becoming a movie star are all desires. Desires can generally be dealt with by looking at the underlying need, which means that the cheesecake or the school itself isn’t necessarily the only answer.

Long-term temptations often seem to arise when a major underlying need is not being met. Unmet needs are also the drivers behind interpersonal conflict (see for information on an approach to solving interpersonal conflict that is successful specifically because it focuses on underlying needs). In a way, we can look at long-term temptation as a serious conflict within a person. The ways to address such a conflict are similar to the ways we address conflicts between people: both sides in the conflict need to be able to express their needs and then get their needs met. Until this happens, the conflict cannot be resolved.

As an example, let’s say there is a man called Don who is constantly tempted to spend a huge chunk of his and his wife’s retirement fund on an expensive sports car. (Let’s say he and his wife have agreed that they each have full control over their respective retirement funds.) Don daydreams about the car, looks at models online, and has gone for test drives. Deep down he knows that he doesn’t want to screw up their retirement just to own a sports car, but he can’t stop thinking about it.


If Don wants to resolve this problem, he has to dig deep and fully and truthfully answer the question of why he so desperately wants the car in the first place. Maybe it symbolizes a level of financial accomplishment that is strongly associated with having proven himself–in other words, Don believes that having the sports car means that everyone will see him as successful. Or maybe Don associates having the car with being young, and is scared to death of becoming old.

But let’s say instead that the sports car represents to Don a kind of indulgence for himself that he has never experienced before. All day, every day, he’s putting his time, attention, effort, and money into taking care of customers, superiors at work, family members, friends who need help, and so on. He has felt for a long time that he doesn’t really have any opportunity to focus on himself and do things that he would like to do.

At this stage, it’s essential for Don to untangle his needs from his desires. The car is a desire, but his need is to feel as though he’s had a chance to explore who he is and do things that are important only to him.

So what does Don do? The details are complicated, but the most promising way to deal with the problem is at least simple in concept: Don needs to find a more constructive way to meet his needs. This might involve him taking early retirement or stepping down from some of the responsibilities he’s taken on, or taking a vacation by himself, or blocking out time for some new activity in his life that’s driven solely by his own inclinations and doesn’t directly benefit anyone else.

The other thing that may help Don (in addition to understanding his needs and finding a constructive way to meet them) is to put his desire in perspective. An expensive sports car would definitely represent doing something just for himself–but would it meet his underlying need to feel like part of his life is his own, or would it just give him a short-term burst of satisfaction that would soon fade as he realized his life was exactly the same as it had been, just with a cooler car? The things we are often most tempted to do, if they are harmful to us, are very often not successful in even meeting the need that gives rise to them. Addiction to a variety of drugs falls under this heading, as a desire for satisfaction or pleasure drives a person to use a drug, but the drug provides only temporary relief. Gaining material things, however appealing they may seem, very often supplies a limited amount of pleasure over a short period of time. Pleasure is not a need, though happiness can be. (See my recent post on the difference between the two for more information on that.)

Understanding the need underlying a powerful temptation is a nearly unavoidably important step, but as to addressing the need, there are some alternatives. One reasonable alternative, as undesireable as it might sound to most of us, is becoming resigned to suffering. It’s not as passive as it sounds: in the example above, Don could decide that though he has a deep-seated need to have some part of his life for himself, his obligations are too important for him to make enough room to really answer that need. In that case he could spend his effort in becoming reconciled to his situation through avenues like support from his family, therapy, and meditation. It’s even possible that over time his needs might change and his old need to have some part of his life for himself could go away: after all, the human mind is capable of many kinds of adaptation. If this change didn’t happen, though, Don could still find ways to adapt to the continuing pain of not addressing his need, and if he did a very good job of managing those needs, his feelings of temptation would be likely to wane. This approach is similar to approaches one can take to deal with chronic physical pain.

Yet another approach is to change some part of the situation so that the object of desire is no longer a destructive goal: it becomes either neutral or positive. This generally means some kind of sacrifice or at least great change. In Don’s case, the car is a pretty questionable goal: research seems to suggest that material goods aren’t very effective at making people happy. But we could imagine a situation where Don could get a job that paid better but involved a lot more local travel, and so not only allow him to get the car without wrecking the retirement fund, but also give him more of a chance to drive in it. More realistic situations where a life change might help address a deeply-felt need might include giving up a good income to work in a job that offers more personal satisfaction or ending a relationship that has been stable but ultimately doesn’t provide the support someone needs.

In all of these cases, the important thing is to recognize the temptation as a symptom of the problem and not the root problem itself. Translating that temptation into the need that is driving it opens up possibilities and provides much-needed perspective. In some cases this alone might be enough to suggest a solution, and in others, it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Green grass picture by Dawn Endico.
Ferrari picture by
Simon Lieschke.

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