I can resist everything except temptation.
Oscar Wilde (Irish poet and playwright)
Gratification is important for our psychological and physical equilibrium. However, gratifying some desires or the way we do so may not actually be desirable. Furthermore, immediate gratification is not always appropriate. So this area will focus on how to be more in charge of this aspect of your life.
Allowing the urge for gratification to control us has many negative consequences (e.g. reduced freedom, distorted priorities, disregard for others). As external and internal factors can be implicated in this, we need to maintain some control over both:
- Circumstances: our gratification urge can be affected by circumstances or others. While stable availability and proximity (not available, easily available and always available) do not add to a desire, uncertain availability and proximity can intensify already existing desires, which makes it harder to remain in charge. For example, if somebody you desire is not available at all, easily available or always available your desire is likely to remain the same or even decrease. This is because in the first case you sooner or later give up on them and in the latter cases you can satisfy your desire before it builds up. However, if that person is close and then distant, is sometimes available and sometimes not, your desire may intensify. So, to remain in charge, it is better to reduce uncertainty. For instance, rather than waiting for such a person to turn up or call, make alternative plans (just in case) and get on with life.
- Internal state: greater control is secured if you are fully aware of what you are doing and why. So remember to step back for a moment just before you plunge into satisfying your desire. As well as a sense of control, this will also give you some time to check if you really want something and to what extent.
Moderation is an important part of gratification control. It means avoiding extremes, being able to sense when enough is enough and stop. Gratification itself rarely causes problems, but excesses often do. They are a sign that you are not in charge in these situations. Even positive features, when taken to an extreme, can become negative: respectfulness can become submissiveness, modesty inferiority, assertiveness aggression, and so on. Pleasure too ceases to be a real pleasure when pushed too far, (the quantity can destroy the quality). This is why moderation is natural, while an excess usually indicates an underlying issue: a self-destructive tendency (see Relating to Oneself and Self Discipline), trying to prove something to others or oneself, insecurity; dealing with the past, a compensation for an unacknowledged need, or a compulsive response to denial or suppression (below). Check if any of these apply to you, but overkill can also be simply a result of inertia. The following can help if this is the case.
Reconnecting with moderation
- When tempted to go over the top, check if more is really better. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need more of…?’ ‘Would taking more of… (or continuing with…) really be worth?’
- Slow down: the brain receives a message that you have eaten, for example, a few minutes after your last bite, so you can still feel hungry although you are actually full (for alcohol it is about 30min). So, if after the third slice of pizza you still want more, have a break and see if you still feel hungry later.
- Gratification gets easily out of control when we are excited, bored, nervous, or down. A lot people feel like snacking, smoking, or drinking when experiencing the above, but these things makes us feel even worse when their effect wears off! When you catch yourself acting on auto-pilot, try this instead: before you do anything stop for a moment, focus on your breathing and bring to mind an affirmative view of yourself and your life. This combination of calming down and positive feelings should make regaining self-control easier.
Some desires can be real and adequate, but it may still not be possible, appropriate or convenient to satisfy them straightaway (a desire to relieve oneself is a simple example). The ability to delay gratification seems central not only for desire-control but for success in general. Research shows that an early development of this ability has a far-reaching impact on competence, confidence, effectiveness, self-assertiveness and coping.(1) It also increases a sense of self-control and autonomy.
For instance, in the famous marshmallow experiment(2) kids were given a marshmallow. They had a choice to eat it straight away or wait for a while, in which case they would get another one. The follow-up studies showed that those who were able to delay gratification were more competent and successful years later. This was a better indicator of future success than their ethnic or social background, for example. We should not be surprised by these results: what successful sportspeople, artists or scientists have in common is the ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of a greater one in the future. With some practice anybody can develop this ability.
Time delay: experiment with delaying gratification for a certain period of time (e.g. 15min). The most helpful hint for this is diverting your attention to something else. If you make it, try next time to extend the time delay. If it happens that you give in to a temptation, at least take responsibility and do it with full awareness to maintain some control.
Sometimes it is necessary to curb certain desires. Always giving in to them limits our freedom and can be harmful. Moreover, not all of them reflect our genuine needs. For example, some forms of gratification are simply habits conditioned by previous experience (e.g. smoking). On the other hand, denial and self-deprivation can create an inner conflict and lead to excesses to compensate for what has been ‘missed’. To avoid a conflict, it is not enough to stop doing something – you need to get rid of the desire to do it too. This requires reprogramming your thoughts and feelings. Before you start though, try first to find out if there is a real need behind your desire and a constructive way to satisfy that need. Also, be aware that the unwanted desire initially may intensify before starting to subside. Don’t worry if it happens, it will pass. The following intervention may help you free yourself from the tyranny of unwelcome desires:
Reprogramming: getting rid of unwanted desires may have to involve several facets of your life:
- Prepare that you may be tempted, and have a plan.
- Remove items that remind you of the desire (e.g. ashtrays) and reduce exposure to tempting situations (e.g. hanging out with other smokers).
- Ask those who are willing to support you, and learn to say no to those who would rather tempt you.
- Associate a desire with unpleasant rather than pleasant feelings (e.g. tobacco companies have programmed many people to smoke by associating smoking with being ‘cool’; you can do the opposite: cigarettes smell and taste bad and are not cool).
- Challenge those thoughts that encourage your desire (e.g. ‘I need a cigarette to calm down… Is it true? What else can really help me to calm down?’)
- Use positive images about yourself (e.g. being strong) and negative images about the object of your desire (e.g. slime covering a cake you fancy).
- To maintain motivation, keep thinking about benefits and counter-desires (e.g. to be fit and healthy) rather than a temptation.
- Move the focus (not only in tempting situations, but in life generally) from the object of your desire to something else you enjoy, such as a hobby.
(1) See Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, p.80-83.
(2) See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX_oy9614HQ