The Means/End Dichotomy
Is there something you want to change about yourself but are continually stymied in doing so? For example, maybe you want to quit smoking or overeating, but haven’t had the willpower to break the habit. Each time you try, you find yourself giving in to powerful cravings and, afterward, feeling remorseful or ashamed. You’re probably blocked by something below your level of conscious awareness. Such blocks can cause a great deal of anguish, but they don’t need to. With some critical thinking and honest acknowledgement, you can completely change how you view your “bad” habits. In so doing, you can empower yourself to do what you really want and free yourself from feeling bad forever.
A few years back, I was talking with a friend about her messy apartment. She was agonizing over why it never stayed clean and beating herself up for not being a better housekeeper. “I really love cleaning,” she told me. “I don’t understand why my apartment is so messy all the time.”
“You mean, you really love having a clean apartment,” I said.
“No, I mean I really love to clean,” she answered.
“But if you loved to clean,” I said, “You’d have a clean apartment.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
“I mean, there’s a difference between wanting to have a clean apartment and wanting to clean. You want to have a clean apartment, but you don’t want to clean.”
“But I do want to clean! I really like cleaning!” Her tone was defensive, but I stuck to my guns.
“No you don’t, honey. If you liked to clean, you’d have a clean apartment. Wanting a clean apartment is not the same as wanting to clean.”
Silence ensued for a few moments, and through it I could almost hear the gears grinding on the other end of the phone. “Oh my god,” she finally said. “You’re so right.”
I later realized I’d discovered a powerful truth about human nature, one that has since helped me in my ongoing quest for ever deeper levels of self-awareness. I call it the Means/End Dichotomy.
The Means/End Dichotomy is the distinction between wanting something and being willing to do what’s necessary to get it. For example, you want a clean house, but you don’t want to clean. You want to lose weight, but you don’t want to diet and exercise. You want to be a non-smoker, but you don’t want to quit smoking. It may seem obvious that wanting and doing are different things, but looking at them separately can be extremely helpful. Doing so can eliminate all sorts of muddy thinking that gets in the way of seeing the root source of a problem. It helps you:
- Understand your motivations
- Be honest with yourself about what you really want
- Acknowledge that agency for your actions lies only with you.
Let’s look at each of these.
Understand Your Motivations
If you’ve set a goal that you just can’t seem to accomplish, it’s probably because you don’t want it as badly as you think you do. For example, you’ve tried several times and just can’t seem to quit smoking. You have several compelling and rational reasons to quit. You see yourself as a rational person, so you know you should quit. Yet you’ve tried many methods, and all of them have failed. Why? Are you too weak, too lazy, too depressed? No.
You’ve failed because you don’t understand your motivation (or lack thereof) very well. The truth is that you want to smoke more than you want to quit. Period. So the motivation is just not there. You know you should want to quit. But there is a world of difference between wanting to do something and doing it. It’s like the difference between admiring an Olympic athlete and being one.
If it’s true that you don’t really want to quit, then why do you believe that you do want to quit? It has to do with your self-image, which, in this regard, is inaccurate. You believe yourself to be a health-conscious, rational adult. You think that being health-conscious is important, and people you admire are health-conscious, and it’s also the popular cultural view nowadays. Therefore, you want to see yourself as a health-conscious person who is actively working on quitting an unhealthy habit. If you told yourself, “Well, I guess I just enjoy cigarettes too much to quit,” you would have to see yourself very differently, as someone who isn’t terribly health conscious, isn’t like people you admire in this regard, and goes against the cultural smoking trends. Ouch.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty involved in facing up to an inaccurate self-image. It can be quite painful to see yourself as you really are rather than how you want to be. It’s one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. Yet do it you must, and many times over, if you want to grow.
By looking at your motivations honestly, you are much more able to see the truth behind your actions. You smoke because you want to. You enjoy it. You don’t want to quit, even though you know you should. Accept it. It will make your life much easier. No more wondering why you can’t seem to accomplish this “goal” you’ve set for yourself, and self-flagellation becomes completely optional.
Be Honest with Yourself About What You Really Want
If you accept that the reason you can’t accomplish a goal is because you don’t really want to, then the next step is to be honest with yourself about what you really do want. Let’s continue with the smoking example. You don’t want to quit, but you wish you wanted to quit. Or, maybe you don’t even wish you wanted to quit right now, and that’s just fine, too, even if it bothers you to discover this about yourself. The important thing is that you’ve been honest with yourself, and honesty in any form is better than dishonesty. You have moved forward, empowered yourself, and brought yourself that much closer to accomplishing your goals. It may not seem that way; it may seem that you’ve given up and given in to your impulses. But acknowledging them honestly is always the first step in moving past them. Without such acknowledgement, change is nearly impossible.
The more honest you’re able to be with yourself about what you really want (and everything else), the more at peace you’ll be in the long run, even if such honesty causes short term pain.
Acknowledge That Agency for Your Actions Lies Only With You
There is a lucrative payoff for being dishonest with yourself: you get to keep doing what you secretly want to do, and you get to do it for free, that is, without taking any real ownership for it (“I don’t know why I can’t seem to quit! I try and try, but nothing seems to work!”) Such dishonesty denies agency and makes you a victim. And when you are a victim, as we all know, it is not within your power to change your circumstances. You are stuck, and if you’re very good at framing it, people might even feel sorry for you. Thus, the inaccurate self-image and all that goes with it is a very convenient way to keep doing what we want to do without taking any responsibility for it.
But there is an even more lucrative payoff in being honest and not being a victim, and that is a sense of agency over your own actions, thoughts, and desires. It’s nobody’s fault you smoke or drink or overeat or don’t clean or don’t finish college or aren’t doing what you really want to be doing. Nobody is telling you to do these things but your internal voice. Therefore, once owned and admitted to, you are free to do what you want. Maybe you want to continue with the behavior and maybe you want to change it. Either way, there can be no more dodging the issue.
Owning all of our actions takes courage. It’s a job for adults, requiring a high level of emotional maturity. It can be scary, as it gives us nothing to hide behind and nowhere to escape from difficult decisions and unpleasant situations. And yet, there is a tremendous sense of freedom in it: Thank god it’s all up to me! That means I have the power to do something about it!
If you want to grow, there can be no avoiding personal agency. So embrace it as the wonderful tool it is, and get on with the business of doing what you really want.
My friend didn’t suddenly start cleaning her apartment any more than usual, but she did stop beating herself up about not doing it. She found some peace and self-acceptance in her new, more accurate self-image, and she felt less guilty about doing other things, the things she really wanted to be doing. M. Scott Peck, in his now classic book The Road Less Traveled, said that we spend time doing what we love. Pay attention to how you spend your time. You may find out a lot about yourself.
The Means/End Dichotomy is a great tool for determining how honest we are with ourselves. You don’t have to remember the term, though, just the principle: be honest with yourself about your motivations, and take responsibility for them. Accomplishing your goals depends on it.