Practice Self-Control (2)

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

– Carrie Fisher

Reading time: 15 mins

Delaying gratification

The late Hollywood star Carrie Fisher certainly knew about instant gratification. Known for her biting wit and satirical bent the above quote was a comment on her own weaknesses but also described the nature of culture in the 21st Century. Gratification, in all its guises has proven to be the primary channel through which the human family escape reality and the darkness within.

That drive for the instant “hit” gets ever stronger the moment it is satiated. This leads to the following statistics:

    • Obesity: About 36 percent of American adults are obese — more than 1 in 3. And, globally, more than 1 in 10 humans are obese.
    • General substance abuse: Nearly 21 million Americans ages 12 and older had a substance use problem in 2015.
    • Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 88,000 deaths each year.
    • Sex: The National Council on Sexual Addiction Compulsivity estimated that 6%-8% of Americans are sex addicts, which is 18 million – 24 million people.
    • Pornography: More than 80% of women who have porn addiction take it offline. Women, far more than men, are likely to act out their behaviors in real life, such as having multiple partners, casual sex, or affairs.
    • Gambling: Over 80 percent of American adults gamble on a yearly basis. [1]

The above are extremes. But for every addiction that becomes full-blown there’s another one germinating in the wings. We don’t have to be a gambler or substance abuser to know that we have a problem with controlling our desires and impulses. Often it’s a very fine line between addiction and what is considered “normal.” Equally we can be addicted to all kinds of covert negative behaviours which cry out for limitations and order. “Think before you speak” might be the most obvious and applicable to most of us. Practicing self-control means that you’re able to delay ego-gratification without going into an emotional tailspin. Do this often enough and it becomes an asset, thereby improving the quality of your life.

Stanford professor Mischel has spent his life exploring this very topic and provided some very interesting data that proves self-control is a key component of individual mastery. His psychological studies date back to the 1960s and involved children with an average age of 4 – 5 years old. Mischel and his research team published their findings in 1972 as Cognitive and Attentional Mechanisms in delay of gratification and it remains the most influential experiment on self-control available. These experiments were refined and improved over the decades, but the basic format remained the same. Popularly known as “The Marshmallow Test” from the book of the same name, Mischel’s discoveries and conclusions make fascinating reading, so we’ll return to some of suggestions on building self-control later on. Meantime, let’s look at what this ground-breaking experiment was about.

A child is seated on a chair on front of a table in a private room. On the table is a marshmallow is on a plate. The researcher tells the child that she is going to leave the room and meantime, the child could eat the marshmallow. Or, he could choose to resist and be rewarded with another marshmallow on her return – but only if the child waited until she got back. If the child decided to eat the marshmallow before the researcher returned then he would not not receive the second treat. In summary, eat the marshmallow now and that’s all you get. Decide to wait and you get two marshmallows. The researcher left the room for 15 minutes. Nobody would be surprised to learn that some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room whilst many others fidgeted in their seats and tried to distract themselves before giving in to the temptation. And just a few kids managed to stay the course to be rewarded with two marshmallows for their 15 minutes of hell.

Mischel and other researchers conducted follow up studies, tracking each child’s progress in various aspects of their lives as they grew up. They found that the children who chose to delay gratification and opt for the second marshmallow had better self-control throughout their lives as shown by:

      • Higher SAT scores,
      • lower likelihood of obesity
      • Better tolerance to stress
      • Better social skills

Their parents also rated their children “…as more academically and socially competent, verbally fluent, rational, attentive, planful…” [2] The researchers continued to monitor and collect data from each child for over four decades. The studies proved beyond doubt that those children who chose to wait for the second marshmallow were able to exert the same self-control in other avenues of their life. In other words, the ability to delay gratification is of vital importance not only in the bid to better oneself but in the context of daily life.

Building on Walter Mischel’s work, psychologists June P. Tangney and Roy F. Baumeister have conducted extensive studies into some of the benefits to practicing self-regulation and self-control, expanding the scope of these benefits to include:

    1. People with high self-control have better grades. This is probably due to the fact that people with poor self-control are likely to procrastinate on tasks, which can lead to poorer performance and lower grades.
    2. They show fewer impulse control problems such as binge eating or alcohol abuse.
    3. They show better psychological adjustment, including somatization, obsessive-compulsive patterns, depression, anxiety, hostile anger, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism.These people also show greater self-acceptance or self-esteem.
    4. They report more guilt and less shame than others. Guilt has recently been associated with beneficial outcomes, whereas shame has been associated with more destructive, divisive outcomes, the authors note.
    5. High self-control is linked to better interpersonal relationships, i.e. better family cohesion and less family conflict. More specifically, it is linked to secure attachment styles, better perspective-taking (empathy), and less personal distress. In addition, people with high self-control report better emotional responses (less anger/better anger management [3]

Benefits Vs “Can’t, “won’t”

Everybody can no doubt give a long list of temptations which regularly plague their lives, some fairly harmless but others more harmful to themselves and others. Without some measure of self-control and a developing ability to direct your will and focus, there’s little point in trying to adopt any genuine spiritual practice or formula for self-growth. At least, we must be prepared to work out the small stuff first before tackling more advanced forms of self-awareness. Otherwise, we are likely to fail quite quickly and quite spectacularly, putting a stop to that process before it’s even started.

We know that the body is a barometer of your mental and emotional health. If you push too hard, too soon, the body’s reflection of this over-identification will manifest itself in a variety of depleting ways such as brain fog, mood swings and basic fatigue. Ditching anticipation (see no. 10) is a prerequisite as it will contribute to further stress due to your belief that things aren’t moving fast enough and the reward centres aren’t flashing. Which is why exercise is so vital to get those endorphins flowing and to restore proper motivation. [4]

yet, the process of self-growth and transformation is not a race. You have nothing to prove to anyone and except yourself. And the “proof” of potential comes in slow, methodical steps up that staircase. And no step can be skipped because there are no short-cuts. (No. 5) If you jump ahead too fast that makes it more likely you’ll take a tumble and succumb to that “resource depletion” mentioned previously which is really just a case of inner mismanagement. Then it’s very easy to fall into the waiting program of self-pity and laziness; how impossible it all is; woe is me..etc. And for many people who have difficulty in regulating and modulating their emotional self its much easier to attempt control of someone else. The fact is, if you can’t control your own impulses then you don’t have much justification for claiming to know what’s best for someone else. If that’s the case, it logically follows that the absence of self-control is selfishness dressed up in the bright colours of rationalisations and avoidance. And that’s just the way our culture likes it. Indeed, you can expect all kinds of self-erected road blocks to a more balanced life such as:

      • I’m uncomfortable asking for help.
      • I can tackle this on my own – I always have.
      • I don’t have the time. Do you know how many mouths I have to feed?
      • Can’t stand all this psychobabble bullshit.
      • I’m all alone. No-one cares about me anyway

These defensive maneuvers must be worked through if we are to get anywhere.  You can still be sensitive and caring and develop more assertiveness; you can still be a tough individualist but open to support and advice; you can always re-organise your time as a reflection of re-organising your mind. An aversion to inner work due to “psychobabble” and pseudo-“coaching” is not without truth. But we don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water either. And wallowing in self-pity will only extract a finite amount of energy before people get tired of your manipulations. Then you’ll find you really have something to complain about. Why not the more constructive approach? Emotional autonomy is far better than an emotional body of pain that responds out of all proportion to the perceived “attack.”

We are all let go of self-control various degrees.  We all “skin-ecapsulated egos” looking for the next high. But we can change that program. To quote the excellent film Trainspotting “You’re an addict so be just addicted to something else.” Self-regulation and self-control shift the goal posts to something that nourishes you, where it’s not necessary to be in a continual loop that never gets you anywhere running to find your next pseudo-nourishment to replenish your psychic tank that always feels empty.

So, if we were to focus on self-control only, rather than the rest of the 31 suggestions in this series would that make any real difference? Would that effort provide real-world benefits? Unquestionably YES from a scientific [5] and a metaphysical or religious viewpoint. What’s more, you’ll find that with a modicum of self-control/regulation the other suggestions for growth become that much easier. To reiterate, without this quality we might as well give up now.

Self control gone too far

On the opposite side of the control coin, there is the “control freak”. Some of us may be so intent on controlling all outcomes to ensure ultimate security against the unknown that to have someone speak of acquiring more self-control is to place ourselves into an even tighter vice on emotional freedom. Similarly, to be a perfectionist means you are placing enormous pressure on yourself and resisting any hint of failure and mistakes. Yet we simply can’t avoid errors and to pretend otherwise is placing ourselves at a huge disadvantage. How many of us know of those who are dreadfully hard on themselves; as though nothing they ever do is good enough? They are their harshest critics and fully consume themselves in a fruitless quest to be perfect, which is, of course, impossible.

Putting a new bolt on the door of trapped emotions is not a great idea. Puritanical guilt trips and mental self-flagellation as to how unworthy and pathetic you are is to deplete our reserves further and to increase the likelihood of intrapsychic seepage. i.e. your unconscious shadows will decide to escape in rather creative ways. Too much unacknowledged psychic pressure and the damn will burst. Compulsive inflexibility only goes so far before the structure snaps. Yes, the ego needs to be reined in and we need to see ourselves as we really are in order to progress. But if self-control is the primary driver of your imbalance or even turns pathological, then it pays to start there, in order to achieve a healthy development and where you need to exert your will and how.

Most of us have been confronted with an excess of impulsiveness or its “control freak” opposite at some point in their lives. Or it may be that it is a continual oscillation between the two depending on the circumstances. With a lack of self-control, will-power is weak or absent and in too much control, strategies have been employed to make up for an equal lack of will by creating repetitive restrictions and suffocating barriers to free expression. These behaviours are seen as trusted defence mechanisms to protect oneself against fear of past pain and the unknown. Such perfectionism and compulsivity tends to squash any hope of pleasure and creative potential. Too little control or too much – each imbalance is are sourced from the same lack of will expressed through different personality traits.

This excessive self-control – sometimes called “maladaptive overcontrol” is a significant problem for many individuals. Anorexia nervosa, chronic depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are all examples. Less pathological symptoms include rigid, black and white thinking, an all-or-nothing perception and an abiding perfectionism. (Narcissistic traits may feature heavily but not always). By using unrealistic standards the individual pushes himself extremely hard (and others) then thinks the world has ended if things don’t go as planned. Meaning and purpose is granted only through being what he considers the best which is subjective and often deeply personal appraisal of what success means. Such rigidity is often a result of the fact that people actually feel more drawn to indulgences and temptations than those who are highly impulsive. But both suffer an equal absence of long-term pleasure.

One form of therapy addressing excessive self-control is Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) which targets a spectrum of disorders using new evidence based treatment, 20 years of clinical experience and translational research. RO DBT characterises maladaptive overcontrol using four core deficits:

      1. Low receptivity and openness: manifested by low openness to novel, unexpected, or disconfirming feedback, avoidance of uncertainty or unplanned risks, suspiciousness, hyper-vigilance for potential threat, and marked tendencies to discount or dismiss critical feedback.
      2. Low flexible-control: manifested by compulsive needs for structure and order, hyper-perfectionism, high social obligation and dutifulness, compulsive rehearsal, premeditation, and planning, compulsive fixing and approach coping, rigid rule-governed behavior, and high moral certitude (e.g., there is only one right way of doing something).
      3. Pervasive inhibited emotional expression and low emotional awareness: manifested by context inappropriate inhibition of emotional expression (e.g., exhibiting a flat-face when complimented) and/or insincere or incongruent expressions of emotion (e.g., smiling when distressed, showing concern when not feeling it), consistent under-reporting of distress, and low awareness of body sensations.
      4. Low social connectedness and intimacy with others: manifested by aloof and distant relationships, feeling different from other people, frequent social comparisons, high envy and bitterness, and reduced empathy.

RO DBT claims to be different from other treatments by linking “…the communicative functions of emotional expression to the formation of close social bonds and via skills targeting social-signaling and changing neurophysiological arousal.” This approach derives its meaning from what RO DBT therapists consider to be the confluence of three core, transacting features: openness, flexibility, and social connectedness. The goal is to gently illicit these qualities in individuals suffering from overcontrol and to allow free expression of emotions and emotional awareness which leads to a greater flexibility and openness within themselves and in relationships. (To find out how these are developed as a therapeutic tool visit their website here).

Core Strategies

So, returning to the more common lack of self-control some of the following directors might help. Walter Mischel and his team probably know more about self-control research than anyone else. From his 2014 book unsurprisingly entitled The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-Control and How To Master It, Mischel offers some “core strategies” for harnessing will and the practice of self-control. I’ll list these below and paraphrase the findings for brevity, but I encourage you to read the book for the full context.

The Fundamental Principle: Cool the “NOW” heat the “LATER”

We have to instruct ourselves. No one else can do it. When it comes to resisting temptations it happens in the here and now and tailored to our specific personality and upbringing. Because they operate in the present moment and are deeply seductive they provide an instant (or very close) form of gratification. The present is where it’s all it’ it’s where the action happens…Which is where the hot and cool systems of the brain come in.

The hot system is rooted in the limbic brain responsible for the regulation of basic emotion and drives essential for survival. The hot system heats up through stress and reacts accordingly. Closely connected with the hot system is the cool system located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It is high order cognition, complex, reflective and slow to act. (This is another way to describe Daniel Kahneman’s model of system 1 = emotional instinctive = hot and system 2 = logical, deliberative = cool).

The idea is to encourage the cool system in times of temptation and modify the hot system so that it works for you rather than making your life awash with hormones and hyperarousal leading to prolonged and habitual stress. As we know, chronic stress impairs the cool system, the architecture of the brain is re-modelled. The problem-solving of the prefrontal cortex is impaired, likewise the hippocampus responsible for memory and the amygdala at the core of the hot system begins to increase in size as if inflamed, all of which prevent normal emotional reactions.

Although it served our ancestors well, if the security alarm and impulsiveness of the hot system dominates then temptations will always win our attention. This is one reason why so many intellectually able people can behave so stupidly. One step is to push the temptation in front of you in time and space and bring the distant consequences closer in your mind. In other words, allow the present to cool like pouring water on hot metal, and heat up the consequences of the future should you succumb. Once the consequences are detailed sufficiently, then you’ll able to see how those flames will slowly consume everything worthwhile.

So step one: COOL the NOW and HEAT the LATER. But how to activate automatically?


© infrakshun


IF-THEN Implementation Plans Make Self-Control Automatic

The trick to making the cool and heat technique automatic is to plan and prepare for those temptations that’ll come looking for us. Instead of meeting them with open arms and rationalising why we should indulge, set limits before that fateful meeting and rehearse an If-then implementation plan. We need to develop our attention by looking out for threats in an entirely different way. This time it is constructive rather than a symptom of fear or denial. This time our attention is devoted to the goal of planning for better self-control. For example,  “If I approach the fridge then I will not open the door.” This is what kicks in the cool system and prevents the hot system from engaging. Not underestimating the power of the hot system and all those hot buttons floating around out there ready to trigger you, is to set yourself up for guaranteed failure. With proper pre-emption through the If-then formula the cool system is activated and the self-control response is triggered, with habitual planning acting as the stimulus.

For example:

If Joey arrives at the party then I’ll leave.” (Joey used to be your dealer.)

If he reacts that way again then I’ll not engage.”

“If I see an off-licence when I’m jogging then I’ll cross the road.”

If I fill up at the gas station then I’ll pay at the pump.” (They sell cigarettes in the store)

“If Cindy watches X-Factor then I’ll read a book.” (Instead of complaining throughout her favourite program thus ruining it for her)

“If the desire to watch porn comes over me then I’ll watch a movie on Netflix instead.”

Preparation and planning.

One problem: how do find the “If”?

Plans Sure To Fail

Problematic behaviours are contextualised and depend on specific types of situations. The hot button triggers will be different for everyone. You might be the Angel Gabriel himself in certain situations and a salivating werewolf in others. We need to identify precisely what those hot buttons are and when they trigger the hot system, because once it kicks in you’ll be powerless to stop it. Keep a journal and monitor closely what person, environment or situation trips your hot switch. If you don’t develop that self-knowledge then no amount of planning is going to make any difference. Once you know, then you can strategize and plan so that you will be in a much better position to cope.

You can even activate a system of “cooling” distractions from what triggers those hot buttons. Maybe you have colleague at work who drives you crazy or your girlfriend has some very annoying breakfast habits. They shouldn’t irritate the hell out of you – but they do. Getting to the heart of why these irritants cause you to blow a fuse is important. But meantime, you could cool things off by counting to ten (or one hundred) which may give you just enough space to create a more constructive opening for dialogue so that you can reach a compromise and/or resolve these irritants. Outbursts of anger from a long suppressed set of feelings are likely to worsen the situation. And it precisely these types of seemingly small aggravations which can accumulate over time and cause major breakage to a relationship. The underlying issues are further buried by a million irritations. Learn self-control but also dig deep to find out what these feelings are pointing to, if anything.

Who you choose to hang around with, your peer group or work colleagues, club members or long-time friends, it’s very important to evaluate the nature of your connections. If you associate with people who constantly tempt you into harmful habits then change your “friends.” If it’s a particular family dynamic that always makes you react and leaves you angry and hurt, plan ways to pre-empt it. That could mean compromise or gaining a greater understanding of the root causes. It may also mean removing yourself from a family tradition that’s unhealthy for everyone. There are no rules that say you stick with family or a marriage if it is deeply harmful.  Similarly, if you are deep in the well of addictive behaviours and toxic relationships, this may necessitate moving away from an environment that continually dangles temptation in your face. If hot buttons are literally everywhere then it’s time for a change.

However, all that careful pre-emption and planning will fail unless you have sufficient committment. You have to really WANT to master self-control.

In which case these preparations and plans will have multiple back-ups. If Plan A fails then fall back to Plan B. Enlist people to help you. Gain the support you need to do this successfully. You won’t necessarily be able to do this on your own initially, depending on the intensity of the habits. With proper planning and committment the dividends will be well worth it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be particularly useful in this regard as it re-programs negative thinking towards more constructive outcomes. Try to see this cognitive reappraisal as means to create a future reward that blossoms firmly in the present.

This inevitably goes back to no.1 on the list: Heal the Past. If we don’t attempt to do this then we re-live the pain everyday which becomes a huge part of the hot system. By turbo-charging the hot buttons and extending the sensitivity of the triggers, fear and stress become the overriding intermediary between yourself and reality. When the hot system dominates the cool system is deactivated as Mischel illustrates in the following vicious cycle:

increased stress > hot system dominance > negative emotions > long-term distress > deepening depression > loss of control > chronic stress > increasingly toxic psychological and biological consequences > increased stress.

The eventual outcome is to become part of the waiting chaos that’s always there, leading to an auto-immune disease and/or mental breakdown; psychosis etc. Those breakdowns as we have discussed, can also prove to be a transformative turning point – a rebirth if you will. But we want to avoid such dramatic calamities if we can possibly help it. Positive disintegration is necessary but that doesn’t mean we have to automatically lean on the internal dynamite and blow ourselves apart in the process. Learning to observe our past from a bird’s eye view, with detachment and cold-blooded examination will also help. Again, self-control takes practice and it often includes a radical change from anything and everything that feeds unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Correct attention will fine tune our aim and objectives in this regard. This is a re-attunement to what matters and what matters is the real YOU not what your memories or your social milieu dictates. What will you give your attention to as you go forward?

As we cover more of the 31 suggestions to grow your life, we’ll find plenty of other qualities to cultivate which will directly help to delay gratification, de-centralise the self and build restraint and control in the face of daily temptations that you know are eroding your potential. And I believe that potential, is truly immense, whoever and wherever you are.


[1] | | |
[2] ‘Delay of gratification in children.’ Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI. 1989 May 26;244(4907):933-8. | | ‘The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification.’ Mischel W, Shoda Y, Peake PK., J Pers Soc Psychol.1988 Apr;54(4):687-96.
[3]’High Self‐Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success’, by June P. Tangney, Roy F. Baumeister, Angie Luzio Boone First published:09 October 2008 | | Quoted in ‘8 Scientific Facts About Self-Control’December 30, 2013.
[4] ‘The Strength Model of Self-Control in Sport and Exercise Psychology’ Front Psychol. 2016; 7: 314. by Chris Englert, Published online 2016 Mar 2.|
[5] ‘Does Self-Control Training Improve Self-Control? A Meta-Analysis’Malte Friese, Julius Frankenbach, Veronika Job, First published August 28, 2017 Research Article

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