Memo to Future Dating Self: Screen for Self-Control

a set of 4 hand embroidered brains
Image by Hey Paul Studios / CC BY

Empathy and Self-Control Are Linked

The Atlantic recently did an exciting piece on a new study by Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich. The results demonstrate that empathy and self-control both originate from the same area of the brain, suggesting a link between them. As Ed Yong of The Atlantic writes:

Press your right index finger to the top of your right ear, where it meets your head. Now move up an inch and back an inch. You’re now pointing at your right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). This area has long been linked to empathy and selflessness. But Soutschek, by using magnetic fields to briefly shut down the rTPJ, has shown that it’s also involved in self-control.

Which makes perfect sense. Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.

This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy.

Okay, well, that’s hella cool. Self-control involves considering Your Future Self as a separate entity and respecting their wishes? Neato. Memo to Future Self: Don’t worry, I won’t spend money on this new shiny — you’re gonna need it to pay your bills.

Screen for Self-Control When Selecting Partners

Soutschek’s study provides more evidence that it’s smart to look for poly partners with self-control — it’s linked with empathy, i.e., the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. And altruism, too. So empathy is linked to a supportive and giving nature. Y’know,  all the stuff that makes you good to have a long-term relationship with.

I’ve also found that compersion makes poly run a lot more smoothly – and compersion is a kind of empathy, related specifically to feeling positive feelings in response to the positive feelings of others. Contagious joy.

Just as I wrote in “If You Can’t Control Yourself, Don’t Be Poly,” self-control is a crucial skill in all relationships but especially so in polyamory. If you can’t exercise self-control, then there’s no fucking way you should be poly. All that lies down that path is drama, bad behavior, heartache, and disappointment. Because, sure, there may be more opportunities to indulge, but this means that there are also more opportunities to completely screw up. And when you do, the damage can easily spread throughout your network (for those looking to build their self-control, I recommend this resource).

So while a bit of spontaneity can be fun, and I like having people in my life I can go on adventures with, I’ll be paying extra special attention to new partners’ ability to control themselves in situations where it will result in negative outcomes.

A lack of self-control really is a giant red flag.

They say that you should look to how a person treats their mother or father to see how they’ll treat you in a relationship. Maybe instead we should look to how they treat themselves — do they have self-insight? Self-control? Self-compassion?

Do they try to understand? To take the perspective of another? To forgive?

 

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2 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating read. Thank you for sharing the research. I’ll be digging into it. 🙂 I have long held the belief that what makes a sociopath is that their lack of empathy is so complete that they lack the ability to practice empathy to their future self. This is why a brilliant and intelligent sociopath (or narcissist) will sometimes do things that are completely foolish and destructive to their own future happiness. They literally lack the ability to care about their future self in the same way that they don’t care about you and your needs. They want gratification right now. This research goes hand in hand with that. Cool stuff!

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