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Research Suggests Self-Awareness Helps Maintain Willpower

The human mind

I’ve extolled the virtues of mindfulness here on in a number of articles, such as “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness” and “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” A 2011 article  by Hugo Alberts, Carolien Martijn, and Nanne deVries in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (“Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness“) offers some insight on why and how mindfulness–specifically self-awareness (which we might also call “mindfulness of self”)–may aid willpower.

You may well have heard the ideas of Dr. Roy Baumeister and others, who describe willpower as being a resource that can be used up. Although this idea is popular, I’m inclined to think it’s off the mark: some of the concerns are described in my article “The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains.” Alberts, et al’s work seems to support the idea that willpower isn’t used up so much as misplaced.

In their study, the authors had participants work at a task that required willpower: holding an exercise handgrip closed for as long as they could. They would test a subject with this task once, then have them perform a slightly tedious task or else a highly annoying task that according to previous research should cause them to have reduced willpower on their next attempt. However, before that second attempt, they had one group unscramble sentences with the word “I” in them and another group unscramble sentences about other people, reasoning that the people who unscrambled the “I” sentences would think more about themselves–i.e., be more self-aware.

What happened? The group that unscrambled sentences about other people, as expected, had reduced willpower on their second attempt in holding the handgrips–the normal result. The group with the “I” sentences, however, did just as well as they had the first time: their willpower wasn’t diminished.

How cool is that? Paying attention to yourself, it appears, can help you maintain willpower. This is good news in situations, like dieting, where exercising willpower repeatedly is essential.

Thanks to Dr. Art Markman, whose post about this study brought it to my attention, and Vince Favilla for tweeting about that post.

Photo by _ado

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Getting Past Our Own Uncomfortable Silences

Handling negative emotions

Unfortunately, these days I do a lot of driving. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons: the environmental impact (although I drive an extremely eco-friendly car, as cars go) and because the driving means more time spent away from my family.

Driven to think
But there are benefits from my drives, and one of the biggest is the chance to sit and think, alone and uninterrupted. I’ve come up with any number of writing ideas–books, stories, articles, blog posts, forum topics, and so on–plus solutions to mundane life problems, ways to attack complicated tasks, insights into my personal relationships, and so on. Perhaps most beneficially of all, I often use time alone in the car to think through my own mental and emotional state, as a way to reflect, clarify, understand, and transform.

This kind of thinking doesn’t have to happen in a car, of course: I can talk with friends, family members, or mentors; write in journals or word processing files; reflect while out walking; or take other steps (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation“). But I have to admit that being alone in a car has been better than any other method I’ve yet found for getting through the uncomfortable business of really looking at my thoughts, my problems, my baggage, and my bad habits.

The uncomfortable silence
I’m used to getting started thinking about my life. Sometimes it comes automatically, as when something’s been bothering me and my wandering mind seizes on it and begins to tease out the contributing factors. Other times I have to dig in intentionally, either to try to address a particular problem or to find out why I’m feeling the way I am at that moment.

The hard part is the uncomfortable silence. You may be familiar with it: it’s when you’ve had the first glimmers of self-reflection but haven’t yet really dug in, so you’re tempted to turn on the radio, listen to an audiobook, call someone on a cell phone, or do anything else to stop the quiet. My thoughts at these times are usually along the lines of “I’m too tired to deal with that right now,” “I wonder what’s happening in the news?” and “I should probably finish up with that audiobook so I can bring it back to the library.” There are clues that I’m about to think about something that isn’t ego-gratifying or fun, and my gut instinct is to avoid delving.

But I’ve done this kind of thinking enough to recognize those moments, and the discomfort itself these days stands out to me like a blinking red light: “Oh,” I think. “Looks like I’ve got a bite!” Then, most of the time, I sit and wait for it to really come out. There are times when I give in to the urge to go to the radio or to listen to my current Kindle book or to call someone, which is fine in its way, even if not ideal, but when I steer clear of those distractions, I’m usually rewarded.

Why it’s worth pushing through the uncomfortable part
My reward for outlasting the uncomfortable period is that I often get to whatever’s making me uncomfortable in the first place and have a chance to first recognize it, then do something about it. For instance, I might realize that I’ve been acting in a way that I don’t like, or that I need to put more time and effort into something neglected.

What’s especially great about this is that digging into something that’s causing me pain and making me uncomfortable tends to make the pain and discomfort go away. I start feeling I’m on top of the problem and get to experience some optimism that things will be better with it in future.

But if habits were easy to change and thought patterns were easy to fix, our bad habits and patterns of negative thinking wouldn’t occur in the first place. The discomfort around difficult issues is one of the reasons those issues can continue doing us harm: it prevents us from digging in by scaring us off. If we get in the habit of pushing through that discomfort, then we have much more power over our own emotions and hang-ups.

Comfortable silences
Of course, there are times when reflection pays off without any discomfort. One especially useful form of this is spending time thinking about goals paying off: in effect, we can live in a future in which something wonderful has happened, simultaneously getting joy out of the future event and increasing motivation for working toward that future.

For more on that subject, see “Motivation through visualization: the power of daydreams.”

Photo by John ‘K’

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Using Body Language to Change Our Moods

The human mind

While most people know that facial expressions and body language can tell others something about what we’re thinking and feeling, there’s a less well-known use for body language: changing our own attitudes and moods.

Follow the smile
Take smiling, for instance. According to research, a person who is unhappy but who tries smiling will tend to become happier. Strangely, while our brains send signals to our bodies to broadcast the mental state we’re in, our bodies also send signals back that our brain tends to obey. While a forced smile will feel awkward (and often look fake) at first, our brains can soon begin to catch up, transforming the smile into a genuine one–as long as our intention is actually to be happy rather than to try to fool someone else into thinking we are.

Opening up
Another good use for changing our body language is to become more open and confident. Typically when we feel threatened, defensive, or resistant, our bodies reflect this by closing off and turning away: we’ll find ourselves pointing a foot toward the door instead of the person who’s talking, or cross our arms in front of our chests, or turn our bodies away, or clasp our hands. If we want to feel more open and receptive–and to broadcast that to the person we’re talking to, even if they have no conscious knowledge of body language–then we can turn our bodies and feet to face the speaker, spread our hands, and even turn our palms up. This conveys to the speaker that we’re listening and keeping an open mind, which may help that person relax–at the same time that it helps us relax, be open, and pay attention.

Reading our own body language
Mindfulness of our own body language also has a lot to offer us. Just noticing that you’ve crossed your arms or clasped your hands, for instance, can help make hidden discomfort conscious so that something can be done about it. Or you might say something and then notice that you’ve touched your nose–a classic signal that a person may not be telling the whole truth, that something’s being held back. Realizing what we’re broadcasting with our bodies offers the chance of noticing the undercurrents of our own moods and thoughts and of trying to change them if we want to.

One shark does not make a feeding frenzy
One final note that’s worth considering whenever we talk about body language: a single gesture is not a reliable indicator of a person’s mood. If you want to read body language, including your own, it’s important to take in the whole person. For example, sometimes a person’s nose genuinely itches while they’re talking–no matter how open and truthful they’re being–and crossing arms can mean that a person feels cold instead of threatened. Reading body language can provide terrific hints toward what’s going on as long as we avoid taking a single gesture as ironclad proof of anything.

The book I recommend on this subject, if you’re interested in learning about it in more depth, is The Definitive Book of Body Language.

Photo by Marco40134


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