Delaying Gratification to Master Appetites

Delaying Gratification: Key to Character

Abundant research attests to how crucial to character the ability to delay gratification is. In fact, the ability to delay gratification may be the single most important indicator of a person’s overall psychological health. But in our hedonistic, gluttonous age, cultivating the will to forestall immediate gratification is a real challenge. That’s why it’s so important to start teaching and reinforcing this all-important character quality early on. The “fifth commandment” of sound character is about mastering our appetites and aversions. But we can’t possibly become the master of our appetites unless we first learn to delay gratification. And we can’t be masters of our aversions unless we’ve cultivated the will to bear discomfort. (I’ll have more to say on this later).

Delaying Gratification for the Right Reason

Developing good character is not just about forsaking immediate indulgence. Even the most character-disordered folks among us can do that when it serves their purpose. A seasoned thief, for example, might wait until just the right day and hour to pull off a heist. Real character is about replacing our primitive and primary allegiance to the pleasure principle itself with a true reverence for and commitment to the cause of life. It’s not that we have to abandon the “pleasure principle.” It’s more that we have to subordinate it. We must remove it from the position of primacy it occupies since the day we were born and give it a back seat to the greater cause of life. This momentous, voluntary, and life-changing choice is a true re-birthing in spirit. The person who enjoys to live as opposed to lives to enjoy lives on an entirely different plane.

The Will to Bear Discomfort

I remember vividly the moment our youngest son entered this world. He emerged from the womb kicking and screaming. He wailed so loudly and for so long everyone in the delivery room was chuckling. One nurse half-jokingly commented: “He must have been really comfortable where he was, because he’s sure not happy about where he is now!” My wife made a pitch to get her arms around him quickly, knowing he must simply be cold, afraid, and in need of reassurance. But the nurse responded: “I’ve delivered hundreds of babies and there’s a difference between fearful cries and angry cries. Trust me, this guy’s pitching a fit right now. But he’ll be okay once he gets used to things.”

Fortunately, the nurse was quite right. And our child would turn out to be one of those who early on acquired a capacity for something that some of his friends and acquaintances still, to their detriment, haven’t cultivated: the will to bear discomfort. And it’s that willingness on his part that’s enabled him to endure some of life’s toughest challenges. It’s the biggest reason he’s such a responsible young man.

Endurance and Character

To become master of your appetites and passions you have to learn to tolerate some pain. Learning to endure the unpleasant and deal with it in an adaptive manner is crucial to character. Unfortunately, I’ve known far too many individuals who failed to acquire the this capacity during their formative years. Some were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder because of their apparent inability (i.e. unwillingness) to sustain their attention, on tasks they didn’t find sufficiently interesting or stimulating. Others were diagnosed with various disorders of impulse control, largely because they couldn’t tolerate a moment of boredom. I’ve also known many — both children and adults — who unfortunately fell into problematic patterns of substance use, because they were attracted to avenues of quick and easy discomfort escape. When I looked carefully beyond both the symptoms they presented and the various diagnoses that could rightfully be conferred, one thing disturbingly stood out: their intolerance of feelings or circumstances that were distressing and an excessive readiness for quick relief.

The will to bear discomfort is so crucial to character development that I’ll have much more to say about it in next week’s post. And I’ll have even more to say about it in my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead: The 10 Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life. And you’ll find more on this and related topics in several other articles on the blog as well as in my books.

Character Matters will be a live program this Sunday, August 28 at 7 pm EDT, so I can take your phone calls.

17 thoughts on “Delaying Gratification to Master Appetites

  1. Dr. Simon,

    How do children raised in an abusive family have a say so in this matter. At least the ones that have no reliable loving adult to nurture them. Where the only place they know of is is a place of beatings, violence fear and rejection. Where the children aren’t even taught about God so at least they could feel loved and accepted by something besides what the boob tube feeds them.

    How do so many of these unloved people know what a real sense of self worth is, when they are treated as a number and treated like a dirty dog. How can children be expected to focus when all they go home is to utter chaos and rejection.

    How can you expect these individuals to live with more pain than has already been intolerable to finally satisfy what they consider needs. How can we expect so many to forgo gratification when they have never felt it or to know there is a responsible way to go about it.

    1. the problem if they are taught about God (in an abusive home) is that there abusive father becomes their model for who God is..
      They begin to see an earthly version of their heavenly father; or is it the other way around…(in a nutshell, The father or mother is the first demonstration of who God is, especially if the father or mother is using God as a model. The child looks to the mother and father who demonstrate What God does. The character of a child and even an adult who is still teachable begins to shape hinged on what they see demonstrated, not what they hear to do or not to do. Further if a parent tells them(with words) that it’s good to love God and that God is loving then a child looks to the parents outward actions to see what God is like. I know that a lot of parents make sure to tell kids that God is bigger than themselves but the only time a child realizes that is when they are allowed and taught that they can talk to God when their parents confuse them. Still, this concept is often not one that a child is able to grasp. Therefore if they have an angry, abusive, unforgiving or prejudice parent, they learn of a God who is very angry, abusive, punitive & of one nationality, for example. If a parent slaps a child or is abusive they learn that God is not caring but inhospitable. They are then motivated by fear of God (not reverence) Reverence comes from feeling authentic love and then illuminating that. Children (especially in early years) learn to demonstrate what is modeled. If the parent claims to have God but does not illuminate God then the child may even see God as an enemy!

  2. Dr James Fallon in an interview states that he has the warrior gene. This had the potential to make him a serial killer. BUT he is a doctor. This is because of his childhood. He was raised in a good family. I have posted before on his THREE LEGGED STOOL hypothesis..

    1. Joey,
      I agree with Dr. Simon on his rational, however, I think there are other factors at play. It takes a lot of discipline to adopt the above standards without a foundation to build from and I do many have succeeded, unfortunately, more have failed due to generational sin passed on consistently from one generation to the next. They simply believe there are no other means or have become so delusional and caught up in what they lived and learned, their hearts become so hardened there is no hope.

      I have watched the Fallon Youtube’s and will re-watch. I remember you writing I think that you have made this part of your life’s mission or work to warn and teach everyone you can about the narcissism sickness, I think it may have been when you broke free. (Please correct me if I am wrong)

      I have gotten a lot out of your contributions and thank you. Through your pain and suffering and your sharing you have effected my life.

      This country America was founded on our so called “Christian” not religious values and I don’t want to get into the wrongs that were committed either. There used to be family values and love of God our creator. (Spirituality?) Where has it gone to, who are we as a Nation?

      Love of materialism and the feeding of a self seeking nature are on epidemic proportion and we have lost all sight of decency in a hedonistic society. The few who remain loyal are few compared to the many.

      The absolute greed of a few 63 have more wealth than the 3.5 billion people who live in squalid abodes, poverty and starvation and we call the 63 hero’s, intelligent businessmen or the American Idol. And, we the people, so many will give their last dime to the 63 to fill our desires. Idol worship in simple terms.

      So many not having a choice being raped by the rapist. God is the answer, read God’s Commandments and you will find they are in line with Dr. Simon’s thoughts and why is this? The greatest Commandment? Jesus said to Love thy neighbor as thyself and to forgive What a utopia this would be if we could do this one thing.

      I think this world is lacking and in turning our backs on the exact teachings that could save this world, we fail due to false pride and humility. I believe there are a remnant of truthful believers/individual’s, the only ones who are keeping this world together.

      Truth and honesty instead of lies and deceit. The truth will set us free.

      How are you Jean, we all worry about you. ((((HUGS))))

  3. Kind of off topic – what do you all do to relax yourself when you feel the anxiety level high? Today I did a short Tai Chi video. It helped somewhat. Deep breathing helps. The pressure when divorcing – or still living with a CD – is just constant stress and anxiety and I have to make an effort to stay well. Being pounded on day after day takes it toll and there has to be forms of release.
    Last night I took a long town walk with a friend, for an hour. I enjoyed it and it left me refreshed – so refreshed that I couldn’t sleep though.
    Alcohol can calm me but I know that’s a bad way of dealing with stress. Medications can help short term, but are just a bandage.
    Stress can kill and cripple. I want to be healthy. I worry about acquiring autoimmune disease because of the chronic stress.
    I was just wondering how everyone else handles it.

    Jeanie, I’m guessing you’re still reading the blog and living through difficulties of divorce, as am I. It’s a nightmare. The whole being married to and divorcing the CDNs is a long-term nightmare. Unbelievable. I have hope some day I’ll be free of this, as you will. We are at the critical point – trying to save ourselves to live somewhat of a decent life after divorce – trying to hold onto some of the money that’s left. It’s too critical now to weaken. I hope you’ve gotten somewhere with your attorney.

    1. To relax myself…

      For me it is music. Takes my mind off things.

      I read that running helps. I am not much of a runner. I do go for walks, but I have found they turn out to be fast and angry walks. Still I feel angry walks are better than a racing mind in an idle body at home.
      Office work also works well. I enjoy it enough to handle workplace kind of stress.

      Earlier I could read books, but it has been difficult to focus.

      Sometime I take simple paracetamol, but haven’t done that so in long time. I am considering taking sleeping pills as sleeping on time is difficult. But, that too comes with its own side effects.

      I think I will try running or something tiring in evening to take my mind off things and hopefully enjoy timely and long sleep. Only problem is alternative of just relaxing is always too tempting. 🙁

      1. Andy,

        I find that if I do exercise that forces me to deep breathe that some of the tension is released. Running would be that. I did do a run/walk routine on the treadmill the other day, walk 2 minutes jog two minutes, for a half hour. I felt really good after that.
        I’m finding talking about my problems with friends makes me even more anxious. I can feel the anxiety build and build and build as I talk. I get myself all worked up.
        I’ve done sleeping pills and for me they don’t work. I still awaken at night. Now I take Benedryl before bed and it seems to help. I do have allergies but I’m taking it to help me sleep. I know – pills are not good for you, but neither is prolonged lack of sleep.

        What does help is when I babysit my two year old grandson. My focus then is him and not me and my thoughts.

        1. AndyD,
          Have you ever tried a supplement called Melatonin? For many this supplement has worked well. You can purchase at any drugstore. Start out with 3mg. and you can go higher, but many are successful with just a small dosage.

          1. Thanks BTOV.
            I will keep Melatonin as an option.
            In general I avoid medicines, sometime trying to pass a mild fever without medication. But I started taking vitamin/mineral supplements after I had bit of problem with B12 deficiency. With age these kind of things pop up, metabolism goes down, activity level goes down, food intake goes down, calorie intake goes down, some of these vitamin intake goes down too but body continue using them at same level as before.

        2. Lucy,
          Benedryl is not good either. Some addicts use it for quick and cheap high, of course they probably need to drink several bottles to reach the high. I don’t know if it is addictive.
          Babysitting is good. Running is good… you can be role model for several people, me included. 🙂

      1. Anne
        I follow some Buddist teachings. Thanks for the site. I don’t read up on it near as much as I should. I do find peace in some of their philosophies.

  4. “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.” Stephen King. This, I’ll never forget. Lesson learned.

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