What is Self Control? An easy example is the ability that even if you want it now, or want to express some emotion (which may be inappropriate), you can hold off, even when challenged. By holding off then things may work out better. For example, saying no to that second piece of cake… your waist will thank you tomorrow.
Self control can take an overweight sedentary professor to running 100 mile ultra-marathons. Although this may not be what you want, you can use self control to achieve your desire.
Self control is also your WILL POWER and self discipline.
It is related to Self Regulation, the ability to control our emotions, stress and body state, calm yourself down when upset or stressed, and cheer yourself up or get going, when feeling down or lethargic.
Self control can change your life and what happens in your life. It gives you the ability to make choices, rather than run on automatic. This becomes especially important in this modern age filled with technology, smart phones, social media, and marketing gurus, all trying to capture your attention, and react in automated ways. Who doesn’t automatically stop what they are doing when the phone beeps a new text…
What’s more, though these things occupy our lives, more and more research is revealing that they leave us feeling unsatisfied.
In contrast, working on something important over time in a disciplined way can leave you feeling joy, contentment & satisfaction. Self control is empowering and satisfying. New research has found that Self Control does not sit alone, but is part of something more… MRI studies have found Self Control has always been associated with the prefrontal cortex in our brain, the conscious part associated with restraint and planning. However another part also fires away: the part of the brain associated with empathy, the right Temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain which also helps to shift attention.
But what does empathy, your ability to place yourself in another’s shoes, have to do with self control? Self control is much like empathy, only related to yourself. Empathy & Self Control are on a continuum, which at the other extreme is Impulsiveness & Self centredness. Control your present self, so your future self will be better off.
And self control offers real advantages… Consider Walter Mischal’s research from the 60s and 70s. He found these advantages with his original ground breaking experiment into self control using nothing but marshmallows… Children were offered 1 marshmallow now, but if they waited, could have 2 marshmallows later on. Those children who waited and showed self restraint went on to have happier healthier lives!
In another experiment with Marin Seligman & Angela Duckworth, they found that self control was twice as important as intelligence in predicting children’s academic success.
So can you improve Self Control?
Research suggests YES, but how?
You need to treat self control like a MUSCLE! So Yes. You can train it to become stronger.
Like a muscle, self control can be built stronger.
The question often asked about Self Control: does it act like a battery – so it wears out over time, or is it like a snow ball rolling down a hill, getting bigger with practice?
Marco Palma and his team found the answer to this question was that both were correct. Doing self control once, even in an unrelated task, can improve future self control. However, if you try too hard you become fatigued & just give up any control. So like a muscle, practise a little & build up slowly, then your self control can improve. Take small steps. Do too much and you fatigue and your self control will fail.
For example, you want to get fitter & lose some weight. So you decide to exercise every day for 1 hour. This is a big ask, if you are not presently doing any exercise. Like more new year resolutions, it will probably end by week two. However, if instead you tried to just start with exercising 15 minutes 3 times per week, found this achievable, then you could gradually increase your exercise over time, so achieve your goal. One way over taxed your will power, while the other encourage your will power with small success.
Heartmath, an organisation devoted to optimal functioning function, has also found that the brain functions better when there is something called coherence in our heart & brain waves. Such coherence can be improved through slow rhythmic breathing of about 6 breaths per minute, and with meditation practices. Such coherence may aid self control.
Nathan DeWall describes how he used 5 skills to help him run 100 miles from nothing:
• The desire to do it
• The process to do it – how to train the body & mind
• The Self Awareness – to have self control you need to be able to observe & know yourself ie monitoring what’s going on, thoughts holding you back, incorrect training, etc
- Inner Strength – the energy you have to control your impulses, which can vary through the day, and according to your health & fitness. Will power can be low if you feel unwell or low.
• Help from others ie support from your friends & family.
Because emotions are fleeting it is also helpful to focus on what is important, what you value, not simply be swayed by how you feel in any given moment.
With time, self regulation & self control can lead you towards Self Mastery. What is unique about self mastery is that it is not an end goal, but rather a pathway; a never ending pathway toward self mastery. With self mastery you never say this is “good enough”, rather there is always more to learn, to know, to become…