As implied by the Roman numeral in the title, this will be the first installment to considering this idea.
So far, we’ve taken a look at the conditions that lead to “ego depletion.” It’s really very simple: throughout the course of a typical day we have to self regulate our feelings and our thoughts. You can’t act on every intention or desire that arises. You have to do something with each impulse that doesn’t seem reasonable at any given time. That takes effort. When you have a day with too much need for self regulation, you get tired. But not just physically tired, you get mentally tired. That’s ego depletion. It feels like a bit of brain glue. You’ve reached your limit. It’s time to shut down for the day.
Which leads us to “ego replenishment.” How do we retrieve our energy and our clear-mindedness? It’s not that complicated. First, if we can recognize the ego depletion, then we can recalculate our involvement in our activities and prevent a worsening of the mental and physical situation. Then replenishment can start. And it’s really quite simple: rest, a good meal, and some positive affect. When we’ve been worn down, stop doing. Enjoy a warm, nutritious meal. Share some laughs, or some smiles. Prepare your body for sleep. Take a nap if you can. Natural processes are restorative; let your body heal, it knows how.
Which leads to “ego resilience.” If we’re comparing ego strength to a muscle, then how do we exercise that muscle? It’s a good analogy. When the muscle is overused (too much self regulation) we get tired (ego depletion). Rest the muscle and it’s ready to go again. Exercise the muscle regularly and it gets stronger. I’ll start off today with one approach to building ego resilience, with more to follow.
Every year I teach an “Addictions Counseling” class to our Masters degree candidates at Wilmington University (MS Counseling program). And every year, for the duration (4 – 5 weeks) of the course every student must give something up. And it has to be something that they enjoy, something that brings them some modicum of pleasure. The usual suspects are donuts, sweets, coffee, cigarettes (the more adventurous students), even getting on Facebook. It has to be something that they enjoy AND that they do daily. If I was doing this exercise (and I’m not! I’ve had to do this before!) I’d give up my morning cup of Earl Grey tea. Every year the students curse me out a bit (and not always under their breath) but by the end of the period of abstinence they pretty much have all learned some important lessons about what it takes to “give up.” They have to go to a 12 Step meeting also, to begin to understand the universality of this “giving up” process.
But perhaps the most interesting outcome from this annual experiment is that students report they become more self controlled in other areas of their lives. The simple act of restricting themselves from a simple pleasure seems to make their “willpower,” the colloquial name for “self regulation,” stronger in most if not all areas of their lives. This is consistent with the research done by Roy Baumeister, the American psychologist I’ve cited previously.
So, if you want to build up your ego resilience, your ego strength, practice self discipline in some simple area that is pleasurable for you, but not entirely necessary. Try going a day without eating anything sweet. Pour a bowl of plain Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios. Or a glass of water or unsweetened coffee/tea instead of a latte or a soda (including diet sodas; no sugar, but plenty sweet!). Turn away from those donuts near the coffee machine at work; have a light snack instead. Don’t eliminate fruit, though; just avoid the hyper-sweetened foods that the food industry foists on us.
Try something simple like this on a day that you know will be a typical day, not the day that you will be facing a lot of difficult demands. Consider it a little exercise for that ego muscle. You’ll be delighted with the results but remember that it takes a steady dose of exercise to build up a muscle’s endurance. And more is coming in Ego Resilience II: break out the exercise equipment!
PS Your ego strengthening results will be enhanced by mindful acceptance of the impulse to eat the sweet. And mindful noticing of the impulse’s emergence and decline. Yes, increasing self regulation strength can be a spiritual exercise!