By M.K. Styllinski
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Reading time: 10-12 minutes
Let’s get the definition out of the way so we can get to the meat of the issue:
“Self-control [is] the ability to inhibit competing urges, impulses, behaviors, or desires and delay gratification in order to pursue future goals”
Self-control is probably the bane of everyone’s life to some degree of another – how to exert self-control and the faith that such a discipline can increase one’s quality of life in the long-term. There is the kind of self-control that most of us have in order to get through the day and exist as a functioning member of society. Without it, we’d end up in a psych ward or closely resembling many of our esteemed leaders…Many of the most repellent movers and shakers of our world are masters at giving the illusion of self-control in public, but allow all kinds of masks to fall once no prying eyes are around. Indeed, as they ascend the corporate, political elevator they don’t have to worry about controlling themselves, they live for the power to control others.
While many of us ordinary folk may not lust for power, we have are own mini-power differentials taking place everyday as we struggle to balance what we want with what we need, if not for our highest good then for a more peaceful life. We know that reciprocating the insistent charms of a sexy guy or girl at the office might be great for one’s sex instinct and appeals to our sense of adventure but not so good if you’re wife or husband trusts you implicitly. Our love for that person, our conscience and sense of responsibility will generally drown out that biological response – if it’s strong enough. If pre-disposed to alcohol as means to self-medicate, having that last drink will always end up being a binge session if we don’t listen to that memory and impose order as a protection against certain chaos (and a hellish hangover). Allowing another family member to push our buttons for one thousandth time so that we react in kind is similarly about adopting limitation and internal order in the face of emotional heat that would otherwise taint the whole household. Once the trigger point or hot button has been pressed with a background of stress and tension, other issues tend to come bubbling up and it’s next to impossible to put that fiery genie back in its bottle. Sure, you’ll make up and apologise (if you’re lucky) but such reactions over time tend to wear down the will to try.
The problems come when a sufficient amount of intrapsychic storms have been allowed to build up and begin to uproot what was once stable. A battle with a past addiction or the waiting shadows in a family with a history of repressed emotions can be released, seemingly from nowhere. Psychic carnage is just one step away should we relinquish that self-restraint. But that’s what usually happens because we haven’t been taught any preventive measures, nor had our parents. And our education system only manages to increase the level of ignorance when it comes to self-knowledge and mastering ourselves at the most basic level. Schools and their overdevelopment of intellectual rigour replaces emotional intelligence and social awareness. Since the process of thinking and expressing a thought is riven with emotion it’s hardly surprising that we end up in a boiling vat of reaction when under pressure from every quarter.
Let’s also remember that overt addiction is just an extreme version of more minor, covert addictions that go on every day, the repeated cycles of which continually interfere with our capacity to self-regulate and self-control. Yet, addictions of any kind are symptoms of the Official View of the root causes of its manifestations which are primarily due to a loss of meaning and purpose, social isolation and unhealthy modes of behaviour normalised by Official Culture. (See: The Rise of Narcissism And The Loss Of Meaning III) Without looking in the mirror and gauging the impressions people receive from us, reaction, denial, accusation and blame will leave the door wide open to regret. Too much regret and we slip into despair or depression and lock ourselves into the negative emotions of the past. Too little regret and we make the same painful mistakes over and over. We do this because humans have a short memory and an infinite capacity for redesigning our memories and excusing our mistakes. At the same time, we also have an in-built tendency to focus on the negative as opposed to happier times. Which means we go from extreme to extreme, never quite finding that fulcrum for balance. That’s destabilising whichever way you look at it. The good news is, once we have suffered enough and have a ton of regret to play with we are ready to do repairs and to seek that elusive balance. Perhaps also, it signifies the moment when we are open to learn our lessons and recognise that we need to do things differently.
Of course, we can find endless examples of a lack of self-control – some more serious, some less so, but they all have one thing in common: an inability or wilful refusal to harness discipline to exert control over one’s emotions under stress. In the case of food, drink and sex these often act as pleasure centre stimuli to offset discontent and inner pain. They help to deny the root causes and rationalise the reasons why controlling our reactions and going to extremes is habituated. Such pleasures eventually lose their lustre and we require bigger “hits” to reach that plateau. Setting limits over our emotions is one thing, but exerting one’s will over instincts and desires which have accessed the great chaos is a much more difficult beast to tame.
For ordinary folks like you and I who might be interested in self-evolution we must admit that controlling our instincts and desires is a fundamental part of that process. Practicing control with an awareness of our different weaknesses is, in the beginning extremely challenging to the point that most of us give up and place our heads in our hands. This may be in part, due to a misconception about the nature of self-control.
Self-regulation and gently does it…
Firstly, self-restraint and self-control are pretty much the same and are used interchangeably. To exert restraint means you exercising control in any given circumstance. It means you recognise the that all life demands rules and limitations undertaken voluntarily. In other words, restraint is exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires which leads to self-control and the accomplishments of longer-term goals. Like anything worthwhile, one needs discipline to make sure practice isn’t ad hoc and haphazard. Discipline has a certain structure of intention to abide by. But the latter is only sustainable if we continue to exert self-discipline and accrue will power, which is really just another word for: self-control!
To ensure that control is effective when we need it most, we must practice. But here’s where self-regulation comes in, and is more in line with modern neurological discoveries. Controlling ourselves isn’t about gritting our teeth and beating ourselves with puritanical sticks. It’s about regulating stress and fear before it becomes a chronic problem giving rise to desires and impulses which by that stage, are uncontrollable. If we self-regulate, we practice restraint and incremental control so that we do not experience that vicious circle of conditioned response and reaction.
Recognising when we are becoming stressed and fearful, insecure and anxious means we are open to decreasing the power of that vicious circle of conditioned responses and hot-button reactions. Restricting the opportunity for those harmful patterns of behaviour is key to heading off that negative cascade and improving our daily life. We need to fully understand why we react in certain ways, to certain people and situations and trace those eruptions back to their source. More often than not, something needs to be healed and released so that we can go from from survival mode to learning mode.
Once we gain some knowledge on that score we are much less likely to try and enforce an impossible requirement onto a neurological and biochemical substrate that has been enmeshed in our limbic and nervous systems since we were children. No amount of will-power on its own is going to work in the face of such complexity. What’s more, when our limbic brain switch is tripped then the whole mind-body goes into reaction mode, letting loose of all kinds of negative emotions that take a while to subside. If you have issues of trauma then this further complicates an already oversensitive nervous system. In conjunction with neurofeedback and self-regulation we can begin to bypass that confrontation and foster the right kind of attention where it counts. Self-control then becomes possible.
Psychologists have posited however, that there may be a “resource depletion” associated with attempts to regulate our desires. This presupposes that there is a finite energy related to these efforts, which, in my experience makes sense, but also suggests there is something missing in the process of self-growth undertaken.
If you are used to living life in a way that promotes negative behaviours and channels enormous amounts of psychic energy to that end, it stands to reason you won’t have a lot left over for discipline and will. (See no.7 “Strive for simplicity, economise on energy”). This is especially true regarding conflicted thinking assigned to maintaining various “masks” which requires a lot of effort that is diametrically opposed to a natural flow or a more authentic self. In other words, unconscious, robotic living on the one hand, and living according to conscience and truth on the other is exhausting because the stress induced during such a battle depletes your mental, emotional and physical reserves. And the correct regulation of our resources equals proper nourishment of our mind-body system such as good quality sleep, food, people and access to nature.
Provided you access and obtain the correct ration of psycho-nutrients for mind and body, thus proper regulation, resource depletion shouldn’t be an issue. But that takes time and a lot of experimentation. Similarly, when we attempt to self-regulate and control this imbalance without primer steps, then we are asking for this “fatigue” to be increased, leading to “self-regulatory failure.”
The solution – as I made clear in the series Why Young Lives Are Losing Meaning and Purpose I and at the beginning of this present series – TAKE IT SLOW. This is how the brain likes it. It has time to assimilate new information and constructive habits. So, don’t overload your mind. This applies as much to an intellectually focused person to a more instinctive, emotionally centred individual. A less punitive regime that is gentle on yourself and not too demanding will work better in the long run. The roots of our mini-addictions run very deep and if we don’t gently eradicate those roots and make the system sterile for their growth then the process of betterment we have initiated will also have the seeds of its own destruction sown within it.
Another way to think of it is by honouring the two System 1 and System 2 brain functions as outlined by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. As I wrote in another post: “This is a partnership between two sets of unconscious thinking: system1 (instinctive and emotional) and system 2 thinking (logical; deliberative) and what Daniel Goleman called the “high and low roads” which form the rich pathways of the unconscious mind. According to psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, these roads are “highly adaptive and not at all like the Freudian one of old and more mysterious than even Carl Jung may have imagined…” Thus it requires time, a commensurate re-ordering of its structure and a thorough analysis of what contributes to the attainment of your overall aim and objectives. (no. 4) Logic, structure, deliberate practice meets, instincts and emotions.
Like any new skill, be it learning a language, public-speaking or getting fit – practice is essential. Short bursts of learning are best suited to self-growth, otherwise you will deplete not only your mind-body resources but your faith in the process itself. And if that sounds like your life is about to get dull and monochrome, devoid of fun and excitement, think again. Studies on happiness indicate that “…people high in self-control spend less time regulating themselves and making difficult decisions. People with high self-control are happier in the long-run and in the short-term.” 
It’s for this reason that psychologists and neuroscientists are moving away from using self-control as a descriptor to encouraging “cognitive competencies”. As stated previously, if you bring awareness of how your brain works and use modes of stress allevation, healing and knowledge of your personality weaknesses and strengths you’ll be in a better position to head off those addictive patterns and reactions; you will become competent in self-regulation thus self-reliance. It’s for this reason that voluntary self-control is deeply connected to how we heal, how we learn and quest for knowledge. Addressing all three naturally develops regulation of harmful behavioural dynamics. It also doesn’t mean you magically wish all your desires, needs and impulses away. They’ll still be there. The difference being they no longer overwhelm you; you are no longer a slave to them. Sure, you’ll still have to keep them in line, but it won’t be a battle with blood and bone flying. Once regulated and adapted, they become meaningful and assigned their proper place.
Our strength of will may vary considerably depending on the centre of focus: mental, physical or emotional. This relates to what type of person you are and the centre of gravity most dominant in your constellation of personality traits. If you are physically orientated and primarily find meaning in movement then you might find it more difficult to regulate your mental faculties. Perhaps you are too open and eager to please. High in empathy and compassion you tend to get overwhelmed by your own feelings and those of others causing you to lose self-control or your will to persist. If you are more intellectual, perhaps a lack of control appears when the “cookie jar” is presented or you give up half way through your exercise regime. These are obviously very simplistic examples and a varied mix of all three energies will no doubt feature. The point is: all three qualities: Self-regulation, self-discipline and self-control are an essential part of the process of self-growth and the development of will.
A side order of religious belief please
On a final note for this post, it may be worth mentioning the role of religious belief in community cohesion. It’s tried and tested efficacy is well known, as is the idea of self-control when it comes to observing rituals and rules, dogma and doctrine. What may be surprising is that while religious belief and its moral codifications do increase self-control, it’s not only through external rules of social control.
Psychologists Michael McCullough and Brain Willoughby of the University of Miami discovered it is the inner quality of strength and will-power that’s increased, which in turn, helps the individual delay of gratification and/or voluntarily focus on that which he knows will benefit him and his social grouping in the long run. Religious belief and piety does in fact promote self-control but not merely through external means. After reviewing several decades of research on the subject and even accounting for bias in the studies, the psychologists found religious belief to be overwhelmingly related to self-control.
So, external influences are not the whole picture. A moral code and compass has been the traditional province of religion and spiritual practice down through millennia. It may even be that religious beliefs are the deeply rooted maps of psychic survival created through narratives of archetypes, myth and therefore meaning. It is no wonder that this is a bio-social phenomena and part of our ancestral and genetic heritage. Religious people embody that integral binding agent that differs from those who have more humanist reasons for adhering to the group. The latter appear to lack constancy and endurance – the barriers are too permeable to allow continuance. Those with a religious belief in a higher power it seems, have accessed an in-built design to bind as an expression of their internal order. 
So, does that mean we should all embrace organised religion? No, but we would be foolish not to recognise that an open mind to myths, archetypes and a spiritual, mysterious dimension to our lives may play a much bigger part than we imagine. They allow us to build our own personal narrative to which the unconscious adapts, adhering to the new rules and regulations you set in place, while relishing the new oxygen of creative ability that will begin to arise from your economy of energy.
Aside from anchoring a natural morality it may be just the source of nourishment we need in order to make good on our promise to grow.
 ‘Self-control is the trait that can make people happier’ By Dr. Jeremy Dean, PsyBlog, 15 Jul 2018. | https://www.spring.org.uk/2018/07/trait-happier.php
 ‘For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It’ By John Tierney, Findings, New York Times,