Why is it so difficult to struggle between the desire to act on a behavior and the desire to resist it? First, we have understand the concept of self-control.
Self-control is often seen as the ability to keep certain temptations or cravings in check and not to act on them. According to this view, the pent-up desire to do whatever it is you were trying to control is always there but having self-control means you're strong enough to resist the urge. That is, until you no longer can.
It's kind of like a Jack-in-the-Box, where cranking the handle makes the latch on the lid weaker and weaker until the clown shoots out of the box. And, as with losing self-control, no matter how much you might expect it, you're always a little surprised.
The problem with using that analogy to describe self-control in human behavior is that it
doesn't always work like that. For example, why are people who feel they have a weakness for something not always craving it? You would think that if the desire is always contained just below the surface, then at least when it's
available, it would always be a struggle to restrain yourself.
But as we all know, it's not. You have a thing for chocolate chip cookies and you generally try to avoid eating them because you know you tend to go too far. Usually when you see a plate of them you can't resist taking a few. But there are times that
you're just not in the mood for it, even if it's right there and nothing is stopping you from having one. That would be like a rather unreliable Jack-in-the-Box.
There's another way of looking at self-control, however, that I think explains it much better, and most importantly, can help you learn how to better control your behavior. This way of looking at self-control sees the object of desire not as the thing that you do, whether it's eating cookies or buying shoes. That will be different from one person to the next, and even for the same person from one day to the next.
The real object of desire is the act of letting go. It's about abandoning restraint, not about eating a pint of ice cream. We have expressions that we use all the time to describe this idea. When you've been under a lot of pressure, you "just need to let off some steam." When you're feeling tense and under stress, someone may suggest that you "just need to let yourself go." If someone is too uptight, she "needs to let her hair down." The behavior may vary, but the need to let go does not.
What causes us to feel that need? The idea of letting off some steam gives a hint about why we feel that need. The expression refers to a closed container of boiling water, like a pressure cooker. As the water gets hotter, the steam pressure builds, which is necessary for it to do its job. But if the pressure increases too much, you have to let out some steam so it doesn't explode. In other words, a moderate amount of pressure is necessary to be effective without causing damage. Not too much, not too little.
I think this applies very well to human behavior. We need to have some stress to motivate us to focus on our work and to be effective. But too much stress can be counterproductive and harmful to our health. When that happens, we sense the need to blow off steam and we look for ways to do it. Sometimes we choose good options, like getting a massage or a vigorous workout. Other times we just act out on that need in whatever way our impulses guide us, often self-destructively. We may regret it later, but we do it anyway, because the need to let go is too strong.
The Jack-in-the-Box analogy is still useful, but the problem isn't that the latch is too weak to hold the clown in, it's that we're too willing to stuff it in to begin with. The drive to succeed, compete, and excel may be strong, but it can become too much for our bodies to handle.