We Need To Change The Way We Think About Self-Control

"Just one more cookie...no, no, I can't. I have to eat healthier. Gosh, why am I so weak?"

"I need to start going to bed earlier. Why can't I control myself? I always end up watching way too many episodes on Netflix."

Do those thoughts sound somewhat familiar to you? If not, I'll give you a follow-up phrase that may make things clearer.

"I wish I had more self-control."

We've all said this sentence before, at one point or another, in a variety of different circumstances. As humans, we all fall to temptation every now and then. We look back and wish we had been a little bit more disciplined and strict with ourselves.

But why do we place such importance on self-control and this ability to regulate ourselves?

The answers might be obvious, but in this post, I want to take a different perspective on self-control and willpower. Hopefully by the end of it, we'll all be able to look at self-control in a different light.

Let's go!

What Is Self-Control?

We can define self-control as the way we manage our automatic impulses, emotions and actions in order to accomplish goals.

This includes goals like becoming healthier, cutting down your social media usage, or being more patient with others.

Self-control can be traced to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area controls planning, problem-solving, decision-making and impulse control.

Willpower is our ability to exert self-control, and we all practice it on a daily basis. When we exert self-control, we inhibit our normal, automatic or typically desired behaviour.

Getting out of bed in the morning, even when we really could use an extra hour of sleep.

Staying focused during a mind-numbing Zoom meeting (which totally could have been an email btw).

Eating just one brownie after dinner instead of two (or three).

Self-control isn’t a foreign concept, because we all have these tug-of-wars within ourselves. But we always feel like we can do more – be more restrained, more disciplined, exert more willpower.

We see self-control as a means to achieve our goals. But at what cost?

Self-Control - A Depletable Resource?

What we may not realize is that willpower is not an infinite resource that we should take for granted.

Exerting self-control requires energy, time and both cognitive and emotional effort. Depending on the behaviour, emotion or impulse we’re trying to control, the amount of effort can vary.

Ego Depletion

This brings us to the theory of ego-depletion. By continuously using up your reservoir of self-control, it will eventually run out.

Let’s look at an analogy developed by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, which compares willpower and self-control to a muscle.

So you start working out. In the beginning, you’ll be achy and a little sore. If you continue to work out without any kind of rest, that mild pain will become unbearable. It will prevent you from doing any more exercise and you'll take longer time to recover to get back to where you were before.

Self-control is similar. If you overwork and over-exert your self-control “muscle” on a certain task, you’ll eventually run out of willpower. You’ve used up all your energy and effort. You won’t have the same level of self-control to use on other tasks, leading to ego-depletion.

Like muscles, self-control can be strengthened and fatigued. Other factors also influence self-control and ego depletion, such as motivation, your expectations and emotions.

For example, if you’re feeling especially angry or sad, you may experience greater ego-depletion.

If you think that a task is going to be difficult or will require a lot of mental effort, you’ll find it takes a lot of willpower to complete.

If you’re forced to do something, you’ll have a lot less self-control than if you had the opportunity to make your own decision.

All this to say – self-control isn’t a straightforward or infinite resource that we’re all born with. So why do we see it as such a desirable and alluring skill?

Changing The Way We Think About Self-Control And Willpower

Let’s take a moment to step back – let’s think about the way we think about self-control and willpower.

As a society, we see people who have a great deal of self-control as more disciplined, accomplished and better than those who have less.

People who have “less” willpower and who may be more prone to giving into temptation are often seen as immature, childish and less capable than those with more willpower.

Sure, in some ways, this makes sense: children have less self-control than adults, and it’s a skill that we learn as we grow up.

But we’ve gone beyond seeing self-control as a skill that we can practice over the course of our life. We’ve come to see it as litmus test of morality and how “strong” a person is.

Unfortunately, we fail to recognize that this is not an accurate or reasonable measure of someone's strength of character. I mean, just cause I resist an extra cookie before bedtime, I'm a better person? Yeah, I don't think so.

The Conditions Of Self-Control

We also fail to see that the ability to have greater willpower and exhibit self-control is based in economic stability. Individuals who are wealthier and more economically stable find it easier to exert self-control, delaying immediate gratification for the sake of long-term goals.

However, for someone who is not as financially stable and is more focused on their short-term goals, often based in survival, exerting self-control is not as easy. In this way, the ability for us to delay our immediate gratification is a privilege. Having that choice should not be taken for granted.

Greater willpower was also seen as an ability that correlated with better performance at school and work. Those with greater willpower were seen as more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles, and less likely to act aggressively and to have a criminal record. Again, self-control was seen as a measure of a person's “goodness".

However research suggests that this is not true. Students who exerted more self-control were not necessarily more successful in achieving their goals. Instead, students exposed to fewer temptations were more successful. The students who exerted more self-control actually reported greater exhaustion and depletion.

What we need to realize is that our ability to practice self-control is just that – an ability. It’s not a mark of how good we are as people, or how well we’ll do in life. It’s a muscle that we can strengthen or over-exert. Depending on our mental capacity, emotions and the task at hand, our self-control will vary.

Do You Really Need More Self-Control?

If you were hoping for a fun list of ways to improve your self-control, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Instead of a list, I want to give you some general advice.

Self-control shouldn’t be seen as this incredible ability that we should all have. Having less willpower is not a moral failing. Self-control will not predict how well you will do in life.

To exhibit self-control in order to achieve our goals, we have to be in state of mind that allows us to do so. We have to actually want the long-term goal we're aiming for.

Do you really want to be healthier? Or are you doing it because everyone around you is tell you should be?

We should also think about our habits overall. Is exhibiting self-control a quick band-aid we’re slapping over a deeper problem?

For example, you may find that you’ve been very irritable lately. You’ve been snapping at your friends and family and you see this impulsive behaviour as something you need to control. So, you try to practice more patience instead of lashing out.

But have you asked yourself why you’re feeling irritable? What is going on in your life that may be causing you to feel this way?

Balancing Self-Control With Self-Indulgence

We also must balance our self-control with self-indulgence. They don’t have to be opposites. Self-control is not a punishment that should make us avoid indulging ourselves every now and then.

I know it can be difficult to engage in self-indulgence, as a lot of us feel guilt and shame for taking a break. But knowing when self-control is needed or when we need to indulge ourselves is important for our mental health.

Without self-indulgence and actually enjoying things, what's the point of self-control? In the long run, our lack of pleasure and happiness will only cause our willpower to deplete faster and more easily. We're going to get stuck in a negative loop of displeasure and unfulfilled goals.

In other words, practice self-control but don't forget to treat yo'self along the way.

Before You Go

Hopefully, this post gave you pause and made you think about self-control in a different way. Giving in to temptation or "slipping up" isn't a moral failing and doesn't make you a bad person. I think we forget that sometimes.

Instead, I hope you realize we all need to take care of ourselves so that we don't burn out our important reservoirs of energy. Willpower is important but it requires effort. Too much, and we'll end up feeling exhausted and depleted.

Like lots of things we've talked about before, balance is key. Self-control needs to be balanced with self-indulgence, even if we're not used to taking it easy.

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services