Self Discipline as Pleasure Man Repeller
The Discipline Trap: When Self-Control Is Your Drug of Choice
03.06.19

Nothing is more gratifying to me than downing a ginger shot in a single swallow, spicy and harsh the whole way down. It makes me feel evolved. Like the kind of person who would never spend a Sunday glued to her couch — my quickest path to self-loathing.

Pleasure, for me, is inextricably bound to pain, each curtailing the other in unsettling and familiar ways. I bemoan what I ultimately love and I restrict my most carnal desires. Because somewhere along the line, two wires got crossed and connected everything difficult with pride, and everything instinctual with shame.

Avi calls this my “Nahman mindset” or my “crypto-Catholicism.” My therapist calls it “my arrested sense of self-worth,” or so I imagine she writes in her little red notebook. But part of me still believes — even if most of me doesn’t — that I have it right. That anything worth enjoying must first take something from me.

My affection for hardship started early, when my dentist asked that I quit sucking my finger and I succeeded via a self-concocted weaning strategy, like a tiny, drooling accountant. The fixation blossomed when I started setting my alarm for 6 a.m. simply because my siblings had to and the rigor appealed to me. It took hold of me at 18, when I started counting calories on bright pink post-it notes, high on the sense of purpose it afforded me.

It’s unclear whether my fascination with self-discipline belongs on the spectrum of masochism or good old-fashioned anxiety; perhaps a little of both. But when I consider the environment in which it has flourished, I’m not surprised it did. I was raised on the ethos that success only feels good when you’ve earned it — a noble enough aphorism until I put it through a blender to mean: good things hurt a little. I live in a culture enamored with hard work and a country built on the fantasy that hustling alone can grant you freedom. I’m a member of the self-improvement generation, for whom good is not enough, living through a hyper-productive era, in which labor is considered a virtue.

I was raised on the ethos that success only feels good when you’ve earned it — a noble enough aphorism until I put it through a blender to mean: good things hurt a little.

My fear of hedonism, then, goes relatively under the radar in New York — and maybe America at large — because it’s built into our capitalist DNA. As Derek Thompson put it in The Atlantic, “No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year.” We sound really fun at parties.

The state of our country aside, it’s easy to see how “discipline” can get dumped on the pro side of one’s life evaluation list today. But such a perspective has an insidious edge, not just because it wrings a little joy out of simple pleasures (not everything easy is wrong), but also because it isn’t a scalable operation model. Happiness by way of control is so backwards it’s oxymoronic.

Self-discipline as a driving force may be powerful — and when I hang my self-respect on it, pleasurable — but it’s a pretty boring one, as far as life forces go. The further I get from those bright-pink post-its, the less motivated I am by perfect squares. I’d much rather do things out of joy or purpose or curiosity. And why shouldn’t I? My capacity for those things is infinite by comparison.

Still, I’ve been battling the self-disciplinarian in me for years; rewiring values is not as easy as deciding to. But the harder I try, the stronger my more forgiving muscles become. There’s nothing wrong with being glued to the couch — humans are not the sum of their productivity. There are plenty of good reasons to indulge in sluggishness and plenty good reasons not to, but none involve getting a twisted kick out of denying oneself pleasure. That just sounds like a bad time.

Maybe pleasure and pain will always engender a kind of symbiosis, but I’d like to think we have a say in how we metabolize them. I’m not prepared to give up my ginger shots, but I’d find great pleasure in letting go of diligence as the bedrock of my self-worth. There are more interesting traits to hang my hat on.

Gif by Madeline Montoya

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