I meant to do that.

Kia and I noticed a new behavior on the part of our daughter, right around the time she started to walk and carry things.  If she was carrying, say, a glass of milk, and she spilled a little bit, she would immediately dump the rest of the milk on the floor.  At first we thought this was accidental, but it soon became clear the action was deliberate; if a little bit was going to spill, then all the milk was going on the floor.

She’s just turned two, and this all-or-nothing reflex is still in effect.  She and I were playing with Duplo blocks (the oversize Legos), and she had just constructed something she wanted to show Mommy.  Running into the other room, she dropped the creation; it broke into its constituent parts.  Instead of crying, she ran back to the table where we were working, dumped the box of Duplos onto the floor, and then swept the remaining Duplos from the tabletop onto the floor, until every last one lay underfoot.  The entire time she wore a look of grim, dire concentration; knit brow and pursed lips.

OK, I get it.  It’s unsettling to think that you’re not in control of life (randomly dropping things), so you reconcile your physical environment so that it feels like you’re in control (I meant to deposit all the Duplos on the floor).  Child Psychology 101, right?

What I found unsettling, after thinking about it, was that I still do this.  As do most adults, I think.

Why not break all of them?

The illusion of willpower is a rickety contraption, prone to constant breakdowns.  We do what we can to bolster the sense that we control ourselves and our lives.  Human beings are in the uncomfortable position of being 100% responsible for our own lives (whether we accept the responsibility or not), while not being 100% in control of our own bodies and minds.  We say things we don’t mean to say.  We eat things we don’t mean to eat.  We’re sometimes nice to people we don’t like, and mean to people we love.  We make plans and then do something else, or do nothing at all.  In every way the ship is big but the rudder is small; we want to control ourselves (and, even more frustratingly, others), but the best we can do is nudge.

Examples of the all-or-nothing reflex:

  • altogether quitting a new diet or eating plan after a few cheats
  • quitting an exercise plan after missing a few sessions
  • not going to class or stopping studying after falling behind in coursework
  • never calling a friend because you’ve owed them a call for a little too long
  • abandoning a creative project after hitting a difficult patch or getting stuck

We’re all familiar with these behaviors, right?  All basically equivalent to dumping your milk on the floor …

There is always a motivation for self-destructive behavior.  How do we subconsciously benefit?  The benefit of the all-or-nothing reflex is that we maintain the illusion that we’re in control, that we’re calling the shots.  We also avoid the burden or willpower expenditure of following through with the original plan (rebuilding the Duplo creation, literally or figuratively picking up the pieces).

This picture adequately represents the warring motivational subcenters of the human mind.

Zooming out, it’s worth analyzing our own self-destructive behaviors — even the minor ones.  If we consistently sabotage our own success in any particular area of life, there’s probably something we fear about change in that area.  What burdens do we imagine success will bring?  Are those fears realistic, or can we preserve the things we like about the status quo?