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Taking Control

(November 1982)
University of Toronto Medical Journal
Volume LX, Number 1, pp. 30-31

There is a saying, "The proof of the pudding is in the tasting." I say, "The proof of the philosophy is in the living." So many people are dissatisfied with the way their lives are unfolding. They see themselves as automatons, as pinballs ricocheting aimlessly. And somehow, the plethora of pop psychologies, from cults to seminars, from ancient books of wisdom to contemporary best-sellers, fails to ameliorate.

If the proof of the philosophy is truly in the living, then it is clear that shallow psychological and mystical double-talk is not the key to enlightenment and peace of mind.

Who is "I"?

Life is most confusing when we feel that things are out of control. Although we all expect there to be circumstances around us that we must accept, it is most aggravating when we are handicapped by a loss of internal control. For example, we may think to ourselves, "I want to do this, but I am tempted to do something else... I know what I should do but I can't make myself do it."

A thoughtful analysis is called for. What forces are at operation here and how can we gain control of them? We notice that some people seem to have "gotten it together", but what exactly have they got? And how can we get it?

Let us start with what was implied by the statement I made above: the inability to initiate purposeful effort. If you examine the quandary that I expressed you will notice that there is more than one "I". There is an "I" who wants to do something, an "I" that wants something else, and yet another "I" that feels the pangs of conscience.

All of us have a choir of voices on the inside — parts of us that beg to be noticed, and sporadically offer their opinions. It is as if the decisions we make are by consensus. We can divide the parts of our minds into those that are the seat of our basic instincts and desires and those that act as our conscience. These two divisions were described by Freud who named them the Id and the Superego respectively.

Freud also described a third part of the mind which he called the Ego. The Ego exists as an agent to act for us in the outside world. It is the Ego that we identify as being "Me". The Ego is constantly balancing the demands of the Id against our external environment and the moral code of the Superego (literally, "above the Ego").

We are now in a position to understand our quandary. Often, the Ego decides to do something (like write a poem) and it immediately must come to terms with the Superego (which tells us that we really ought to be washing the dishes), and the Id (which would rather eat an ice cream cone). The distinguishing feature of a person who has "gotten it together" is that he has developed a strong Ego, one that can negotiate wisely with the demands of both the Id and the Superego, and when necessary, take control. (Note, having a strong ego is not at all the same as being egotistical.)

That is the skill that you must develop if you are to "get it together". During those board meetings of your mind, when all the voices are arguing and demanding their way, you (your Ego) must be firm and look out for your interests as a whole.

An important measure of your maturity is how well your Ego has developed. You started life as a completely self-centered baby, concerned only with meeting your basic needs and feeling good. As you grew, you encountered opposition to your various needs from different sources, including other people. You had to learn the principle of long-term gratification — that you must be able to plan for more than just the present moment. The overriding trend of maturity is from dependence to independence. This corresponds to developing and then strengthening your Ego.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have run into trouble somewhere along the way. If you think and observe carefully, you will notice how desperate and nervous most people are.

If you are to enjoy yourself in this life, then somewhere along the line you are going to have to invest your Ego with psychic strength — that is, you are going to have to take control. I will show you two ways to do so.

How to Take Control

The first is by the use of habit. A habit is a behavior plan or tendency that we develop from repeated exposure to certain types of situations. One benefit is obvious: there are many times when by following the dictates of habit we are spared having to devote conscious energy to a task (for example, choosing what to eat at a restaurant).

Habit also has another important quality: it allows your Ego to take control in a situation where it would otherwise have a difficult time. For example, if you have formed the habit of eating a small piece of cake when it is offered, you will be able to enjoy desert more than if you suffer from pangs of conscience (from your Superego which might want you to forgo the cake completely), or from unrealistic desire (from your Id which wants to indulge).

Habit can be a lever which allows your Ego to exercise control beyond its usual strength. However, as we all know, habits can sometimes act against our long-range self-interests (for example, smoking cigarettes).

Habits seem to have a strength of their own. To make or break a habit requires significant psychic effort. These two traits, that habits can be both helpful and harmful, and that they can, through effort, be formed or broken, leads us to our next important point: you must learn the skills of controlling your habits. And by controlling habits I mean not only breaking them, but forming them.

These skills are among the most important in life, and yet receive so little attention. Coming to terms with habit is a slow process. To do so, you need to realize that most habits are not unchangeable. Rather, they are patterns of behavior that you have learned. You can both learn new habits and break old ones if you want.

But habits possess great psychic strength and they are neither easily created nor easily destroyed. They are powerful and you must be prepared to devote time and effort to their cultivation. The way to form a habit is to practice repeatedly. There is no easy way. This does not mean that the process must be unpleasant, although sometimes unavoidably it will be so.

People often follow patterns of behavior that were set when they were young. It is important to identify habits that are not appropriate. You must set aside moments of contemplation and analyze your behavior, identifying those facets that are against your self-interest and those patterns that would work towards it. Then you must practice the behavior that you wish to become second nature. You must commit yourself to it.

I mentioned above that there are two ways to strengthen your Ego and take control. Controlling your habits is necessary but habits are not adequate to run your life. You are all the time encountering situations that are new, during which past experience can act only as a guideline. It is then that inner strength is most important because you don't have the ancillary force of habit to supplement your Ego.

For example, it is a warm Saturday afternoon and you decide that you would enjoy a jog around the neighborhood. But you are feeling guilty for not visiting your grandparents and, as well, you are tempted to indulge in potato chips and beer and fall asleep in front of the TV. What you must do in a situation like this one is to stand back and see beyond both short-sighted desires and the dutiful dictates of conscience. Look on this as an opportunity for practicing to take control.

As with habit, taking control is easy once you have practiced it. And it is important that you start to do so in easy situations. Inner psychic strength is like physical strength — you develop it by using it. There is no shortcut, no easy way out. Every time you exert influence towards your long-range well-being you add to the strength of your Ego. Just as with physical strength, psychic strength can be consciously built up.

Many people find, to their dismay, that when fate thrusts them into a situation requiring definite, purposeful effort, they are incapable of it. Committing yourself to the long-range goal of developing your inner strength will help you feel confident about handling the unpredictable vicissitudes of human affairs. You will have strength in yourself and it will be unnecessary to spend a large amount of your energy chasing all over the place, looking for "security". You will feel confident that, come what may, you will be able to look out for and care for yourself.

But a strong Ego and the inner strength it grants you come only with maturity and positive experience. As with habit, the key is commitment and practice.

Inner Harmony

Having discussed the importance of controlling your life, I would now like to make a suggestion about the manner in which you should consider yourself. I talked earlier of your mind as consisting of three families of psychic forces, and of these forces as if they were distinct entities. Actually, this is only a model. Realize that for your mind to function smoothly these forces must blend together and be constantly interacting and compromising with each other.

Although it is important to develop a strong Ego, it is also important to give the other aspects of yourself their due. Your Superego is not only your conscience but the seat of your ideals. It is the embodiment of the lessons learned from your parents, your teachers, and other keepers of authority. Although sometimes it may be overly strict and irrational, it is necessary to adhere, at least partially, to its recommendations if you are to get along in the world. And your Id, although it is the origin of basal, selfish desires, it also begs your indulgence. For it is only through the wise gratification of these irrational infantile urges that true happiness lies.

What is called for is harmony. You must take control when necessary but you must keep the peace with your conscience and your desires. Another way of putting this is that you must be kind to yourself. You must develop a strong love for yourself. Be considerate. You wouldn't be overly strict or overly indulgent with a loved one, and yet many people constantly treat themselves like a naughty or spoiled child.

Happiness and satisfying fulfillment come only from developing judgment, wisdom, and confidence. As tempting as it may be to believe so, you will not be able to cultivate these qualities by reading a book, attending a seminar, or having a divine revelation. Rather, they develop from a lifetime characterized by purposeful effort, thoughtful contemplation, and compassion.