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Self-Discipline Exhaustion: A Charlie Story!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

We had Charlie out cross-country skiing yesterday. Off leash, of course. Here, DH has just called him. Have you ever seen a dog who looks more eager to please than Charlie? More self-disciplined?

But: yesterday, Charlie ran out of self-discipline. With pretty horrifying results.

It was a progressive self-discipline breakdown.

Early during the ski, he tried to leave the golf course to check out a neighbouring property. They have dogs. Charlie wanted to snuff around, maybe leave a calling card. Or two. He looked at me, seeking permission. And a quiet word from me was enough. "Over here, Charlie. Stay with me." And he did.

Then there was a greater trial about halfway through our ski of some 4 km or so. One of the ponds is not completely frozen. There was a sole Canada goose swimming around, honking derisively. Canada geese are definitely wily enough -- and malicious enough -- to taunt a dog into the icy pond, swim him around to exhaustion, and watch him drown when he cannot clamber out. Charlie wanted to chase the goose. He tried to enter the pond from one angle. I told him "No, Charlie." And he obeyed. But he was ready to try from another angle. Just checking to see if I meant, "Not at all", or just "Not from the steep part of the bank." It took further negotiation, but he accepted it. My answer was, "Not at all." And he trotted away from the pond.

However, on the final uphill slope to the club house we encountered a temptation which proved completely overwhelming for Charlie. What was rippling the snow? A muskrat, far from the water, burrowing rapidly. Charlie saw it. He smelled it. He located the muskrat. He tossed it into the air repeatedly. And yes . . . he broke its neck. Not pretty. Gruesome, actually. Really upsetting.

It wasn't that Charlie was refusing to obey me. He simply did not hear me at all. I could not get his attention, no matter what. He had completely lost it.

We had to put Charlie on his leash, take our skis off, and wade up to our car through deep snow.

So: the point of all this? Charlie, no matter how angelic, is a dog. Yes he is. His hunting instinct is strong. It's true that in the summer he often sits on our verandah at home and watches the rabbits and would not think of chasing them, if we tell him to stay. But: the muskrat under the snow was just too intriguing. Just too much.

What all of this made me remember was a recent article I'd read about exhaustion of will-power or self-discipline. It's pretty generally accepted now that there are multiple kinds of intelligence. But apparently MRIs demonstrate that there is only one kind of self-discipline which "fires" one area of the brain, no matter what occasions the need for a particular instance of self-discipline. And if we wear out or use up our self-discipline (maybe biting our tongues rather than lashing back at an annoying child; or keeping cheerful when a client is rude and unappreciative; or enduring endless frustration in a long line-up at the grocery store: whatever) then we'll be much more vulnerable to "losing it" at the end of the day. Including, of course, in the food context.

That's why for me the most difficult time to avoid overeating is when I walk in the door after a long day at work.

That's why I have a big pot of soup waiting for me in the fridge, to heat up a bowlful in the microwave as quickly as possible. Rather than diving into the peanut butter, the cheese and the granola bars!! Rather than stopping on the way home and buying the kettle potato chips!!! (Yup, did that regularly when I weighed 230 pounds).

For Charlie, that muskrat was the equivalent of a bag of kettle potato chips. Large size. He'd simply used up all the self-discipline of which he is capable.

And: sometimes I do too. Sometimes I do!!
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Very interesting blog. I never thought about using up my stores of self discipline before.
    I'm sure it's true. Now that I am retired I am freer to speak my mind, and I think that helps me to be more disciplined in other ways.

    I have two cats. They don't practice self discipline at all. Saying "no" to a cat is generally a waste of time.
    1808 days ago
  • NANCY-
    You are right sometimes sometimes there is that last straw.
    What impressed me the most was your awareness of your difficult time of day and that you found a solution by preparing for it, insuring your success.
    You are...
    1808 days ago
    Here's to not 'losing' our balance, being aware and able to 'listen' to our bodies.
    1808 days ago
  • BRIAN36
    I'm not sure why this reminded me of this joke.

    If you stuff your spouse and your dog in the trunk of the car, when you open it an hour later, which one is still happy to see you?

    My willpower definitely wanes in the evening. Heck, wanes is an understatement. I have none. I never really thought about how I could be using up all my self discipline during the day. I have a pretty stressful job and have to deal with office politics daily. I hold my tongue ALOT. Maybe if I can find a way to vent during the day, I can save some willpower reserves for at home.
    1808 days ago
    Good reasoning about using up the self-discipline. Charlie is beautiful!
    1808 days ago
  • DEBRA0818
    Charlie sounds like an excellent, extremely well-trained dog but there is a point at which any dog becomes so saturated with instinctual cues that he literally cannot hear you. Mr. Muskrat was Exhibit A on that front. It's a very good analogy to the ways in which we allow ourselves to be weakened by the various vicissitudes that life hands to us daily which is why I am focused not just on the diet and exercise but on the inside job of staying disciplined. Great story and great story telling!

    1808 days ago
    Poor Charlie, that muskrat was his chocolate. Poor muskrat, though. And poor you, being there - having dealt with cat "trophies" I know how it can be.

    But yes, too many times of being disciplined often leads to a binge. (I know that all too well.)
    1808 days ago
    Great story telling! And I completely agree on the 'using up your will-power'. Been there, done that.

    1809 days ago
    Barking good blog! Sounds way too familiar, both dog-wise and human-wise. Whenever I get over-confident that Memphis will stay by my side, something gets his interest and off he goes. I almost lost Memphis last night and cursed myself for taking off his leash when we got close to home. After 20 minutes, he came towards me. I know never to scold him when he comes back, as dogs will be dogs. So I ate cookies to calm down. They were yummy!
    1809 days ago
  • _LINDA
    LOVE that photo of Charlie!! You have one awesome dog there!! After being so good, I can certainly forgive poor Charlie for finally reaching his saturation point! Unfortunately, our Bendix had no discipline what so ever. He was a good dog up until he spotted any fur bearing creature, then the chase was on. Sometimes my poor stepdad was able to hang on, other times he was doing a face plant watching Bendix running madly away on the chase. He killed a gopher once, totally unintentionally. He went after them in their holes and would take a leap up into the air and down onto the hole and just got lucky one day. He didn't even know what to do with it. Was kind of puzzled, like, did I do that? He was a strong, active dog and we took him to the off leash areas so he could expend his considerable energeries, but there was always the risk he would take off after a deer, rabbit and coyote and never give up until he lost them. Had a couple of over nighters doing that :P He even chased a beaver for two hours in the fast flowing river. Yes, the beaver was trying to drown him, but he didn't realize Bendix had such strength and perserverance for a dog who rarely swam! The beaver finally gave up and swam away. Oh if only I had a camera for Bendix's amazing feats!!
    That is all too true if all the stressors build up and you finally crack. Like my lack of sleep and barely being able to function and getting my work done and wading through all the errors has been trying to say the least, never mind the constant pain and difficulty exercising and getting chores done. Unfortunately for me, Costco brought back Kettle chips after a long absence :( I only buy my snacks on sale or at a good price and only Costco gets them at the price I am willing to pay. Yes, I did buy them. Not good.
    Good for you finding an alternate way for unloading your stress. You make such great soups, that would be really inviting to come home to!
    This is just one more reason you are a successful maintainer! Yes you are!
    1809 days ago
    Some temptations at the wrong moment can just be one step too far. For Charlie three in a row was just too much. I totally understand.
    1809 days ago
    Poor Charlie, there are just so many interesting and exciting things out in the wide world...

    Give him a hug for me and tell him I understand.

    Thanks for the great blog. Ramona
    1809 days ago
    Our old dog Stripe could not control himself sometimes too. He killed a couple of squirrels and a river rat during his time here on earth.

    We remodeled our kitchen, including building in a corner desk where this laptop is. I am finally mastering being in the kitchen and not eating constantly. It has only taken about nine months...
    1809 days ago
    Perfect blog for me to read today after my yesterday! Thanks so much! And be kind to Charlie... like I'm being kind to me! emoticon
    1809 days ago
    Excellent comparison and I've seen it from both sides too. Great post, hope Charlie has his self discipline back in good form soon.

    I like your soup idea too. I need to find a few more options like that for the same reasons.

    Thanks for the post on my blog too. CJ
    1809 days ago
    What a really good blog. A joy to read!!
    1809 days ago
    I love Charlie and I haven't even met him!! He's beautiful and as good as you can expect a dog to be!!

    Great blog! When we use up all our self-discipline in other situations it is difficult to face food with discipline. Somehow or another I knew this, but in a funny kind-of-know way. Thanks for stating it so clearly. Another part of the puzzle I needed!
    1809 days ago
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