The Universal Principle of FID – Better Understanding Ourselves and Each Other

I recently spoke with a woman whose husband was diagnosed with cancer years ago, who had recently gone into remission.  As we were talking, she relayed that despite the good news, every future scan brought worries in advance about the possibility that it would show the cancer had returned.  Even weeks before each scan, she noted that her husband’s anxiety was palpable in thinking about this, and that this tension permeated the household and impacted each other and their relationships as a whole.  At times, he would relax, only to again find himself worried about what might be uncovered days or weeks later at the doctor’s office.  Although entirely understandable, and others including her also shared worries at times, she noted that the cycle was draining and that it often compromised his and the family’s enjoyment for experiences that occurred during this waiting period. 

Years ago, I published an article detailing the three key elements that we as parents most need to focus on when it comes to improving behaviors in our youth:  frequency, intensity, and duration (FID).  Despite all of the books and treatments that promised “no more tantrums”, the reality was that we had often been fed inaccurate and ill-conceived ideas about what was reasonable with our kids.  Instead of thinking that we can somehow erase all of the noncompliance and emotional dysregulation (which research indicates that even the most amiable of kids are only compliant 70% of the time), we should rather focus our attention on improving specific FID variables that pertain to a particular skill, like emotional regulation.  As an example, a tantrum that happens only every other day for ten minutes with stomping and crying is much better than a tantrum that happens daily, and lasts an average of thirty minutes and is accompanied by screaming, throwing objects, and a few choice words. 

As often happens in the world of psychology and medicine, a principle in one area often applies in many others.  And no doubt the FID is one of these.  Consider the opening situation as it pertains to anxiety, and how this happens countless times in our lives about issues big and small.  While having anxiety is to some extent just being human, how often we experience it (F), how intense the anxiety is (I), and how long each anxious episode lasts (D) goes a long, long way in determining many variables in our life, such as feelings of contentment/happiness, stress, somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomachaches), relational satisfaction, and even our overall sense of peace and joy (or uneasiness and misery).

There is a chasm of difference between someone having periodic worries of mild intensity compared to someone having what feels like incessant anxiety that impairs functioning in many primary domains.  The former might be reasonably manageable; the latter can be downright debilitating. 

But here is the even more striking thing about FID.  It’s not just about behavioral issues.  It’s not just about anxiety.  And it’s not just about every type of emotion (or state of being) that is either undesirable (anger, envy, bitterness, loneliness) or desirable (love, peace, admiration, trust).  It actually provides a framework for some of the most impactful circumstances that happen across our households, communities, and our world.  Consider this simplified example as it pertains to violence.  For countries who have intermittent (F) situations of violence in which the uprising is largely civil even with scattered atrocities (I), and which lasts for month or even years (D) only to return to some state of reasonable civility and operation, these countries often can weather this dissension in a way that actually can provide for formative, needed change.

But for another country, in which the internecine violence is incessant (F) and involves acts that repeatedly cause harm to people and property (I) and continues on decades after decades (D), with few extended periods of ceasefire, these countries not only struggle to maintain a reasonable infrastructure and climate of safety to support the well-being of its citizens, they also struggle to maintain a reasonable relationship with the rest of the world.

Yet even closer to home, literally in our houses, it might be the FID renders its greatest impact.  It has long been known that households high in EE (expressed emotion) are at significant risk for psychological difficulties and abusive relationships.  When it comes to EE and conflict in the home, it is going to happen to a certain degree in every home, and in certain situations, it may actually lead to positive growth for individuals and the family as a whole.  But when verbal and/or physical violence, or even the stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, frequently occur at intense levels, and disagreements and bitterness linger long after a shouting match or an icy silence has ended, each member and the household as a whole struggle to maintain a sense of well-being and healthy relationships with each other.  In these situations, any improvement in FID as it relates to this type of conflict would ultimately provide for improved outcomes for all. 

Politicians and leaders of many kinds like to preach in absolutist ways when it comes to the war on drugs, poverty, and whatever ills society just as authors, athletes, and astronauts often like to “shoot for the stars.”  But often, this is a false god.  And not just because it might not be realistic, but even more because it can be distracting and demoralizing.  When we make promises or pleas that aren’t possible (i.e., no more poverty, no more conflict), we disempower the tiny, yet critical opportunities to take small FID steps each day to improve our lives and that of others, some of which occur in the recesses of our minds. 

Instead, when we believe that FID change is possible, take time to focus on small steps that can improve any or all of these variables, and we develop a vision, with others, of a particular pathway that can take us along in the process, our capacity can begin to grow even in a few short minutes.  Over time, these seemingly small changes, in the context of a broader focus on improving decision-making and willpower, can make a dramatic difference in our lives and that of others.  But it never happens if we don’t pay attention to the opportunities replete in each day. 

As CS Lewis once said,

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

For more information about the science, theology, and experience behind FID, and key frameworks to improve willpower in a positive way, check out my new book entitled Turning Free Will Into Willpower:  The Opportunity of a Lifetime 

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