How To Develop Self-Control When You Have None

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Good habits are the key to success in life. And the only way to build good habits and eliminate the bad ones is to develop your self-control.

Self-control is an essential tool to build the kind of life you want because making meaningful change takes time.

The other beneficial aspect of self-control is building peace in your personal life. It’s hard to have a peaceful, happy life when you’re always getting pulled into conflicts or reacting to circumstances that do not require a reaction.

The more emotion you throw at things that do not deserve your time and attention, the less emotional energy you have to deal with the bigger things and enjoying your happiness.

By the end of this article, you’re going to have some simple strategies for developing self-control – both in the short term and the long term.

Learning Short-Term Self-Control

To help you understand what short term self-control actually means, consider the following examples.

Example 1:

You’re driving down the street, and another driver cuts you off. A flash of anger washes over you. “How could that jerk just cut me off like that? Don’t they know how dangerous that is!?”

You hit the gas and try to catch up so you can give that person the finger and yell at them.

In that flash of anger, you’re not thinking straight…

You’re not thinking about the kids strapped into the backseat of the car.

You’re not thinking carefully about the drivers that might be in your blind spots.

You’re not thinking about the consequences if you lose control of the vehicle while you’re standing on the accelerator to try to catch up with that jerk.

The lack of self-control at that moment can potentially end very badly for everyone involved.

The better approach is, of course, to do nothing other than to continue driving safely and sensibly.

Example 2:

Maybe there is someone at work who tests your patience.

The job is pretty okay, but your boss is insufferable. They’re the type of person who embellishes all of their stories, including how much of the work they were responsible for on a project you worked hard on.

Every time you hear your boss speak, you want to call them out on their behavior, but you are fully aware that’s not going to end well for you. After all, the boss is someone that higher management believes to be a quality worker.

You could act on the impulse to make a passive-aggressive comment or angrily shove back, but that’s only likely to get you written up for insubordination.

The better approach may be to lodge a formal complaint and hope it goes somewhere, or maybe it’s just to preserve the general work environment and not get fired until you can find another job.

These are just two small scenarios where self-control plays a significant role in preserving your well-being.

Impulsiveness is almost always a bad thing because you haven’t taken the time to consider whether or not you are making the right choice or at least a choice where you can live with the consequences.

Everyone wants to push back against the boss sometimes, but how you do it is the difference between getting your grievance heard and hoping you can find another job before your savings dry up.

How can you learn self-control for situations like these?

A Simple Strategy For Short-Term Self-Control: The ‘Pause’

Your brain is continuously popping out emotional responses to the situations that you experience every day.

The key to developing your short-term self-control is to understand that just because you feel something, doesn’t mean that it’s correct or that you have to act on it.

That’s where the old advice to “count to ten” before acting on anger comes from. Counting to ten before you take action puts some time between the flash-point of anger and the action you choose to take.

Is anger reasonable when someone else is driving unsafely and potentially endangers you? Yes!

Is it reasonable to act in a similar unsafe way with the blinders of anger on to vent at that person? No. It’s not. It doesn’t help or fix anything. It’s not going to make any meaningful changes with the other driver. All your anger does in that situation is put you and the people around you in additional danger.

Is anger reasonable when your boss mistreats you or takes credit for your work? Sure is!

Is it reasonable to lash out with that anger at your boss? Well, depending on how bad the boss is, it might be. But then there are the consequences of lashing out with that anger. You’ll walk away from that situation with a reputation of someone unprofessional, volatile, and likely a disciplinary action where your employer is starting to build the paper trail to fire you.

When you feel your anger or any strong emotion trying to overtake you, just pause, breathe deep for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and repeat until the flash of anger passes.

Don’t say anything, don’t do anything in response to the anger. Find your balance.

The more you practice this kind of grounding and centering of your emotions, the easier it gets!

Writer’s Note: As a mentally ill person that had anger issues for a long time, I understand that this probably sounds like BS. But it really does work if you make it a consistent part of your life. The presence of mind and habit to not respond immediately to my anger gave me so much more peace and happiness because I avoided the conflicts that resulted. I’d still get angry, but it would dissipate quicker because I starved the anger of fuel by avoiding conflict. Eventually, I started having less severe emotional responses, which gave me much greater self-control over my choices and actions. I just wanted to share that because I spent years telling myself it was BS. It’s not. Your personal experience will vary.

Learning Long-Term Self-Control

The interesting thing about building long-term self-control is that it’s not something we are naturally wired for.

One study on improving self-control suggests that people who regularly tried to build long-term self-control generally could not.

That’s illuminating considering how much guilt and turmoil people who are trying to make long-term changes experience on their journey.

Instead, building self-control in the long term often involves practicing self-control in the short term.

The first way is to limit your temptation and access to the things that you struggle with.

After all, you can’t be tempted if the source of temptation isn’t within your reach. By removing the temptation, you can better use your short-term self-control to make healthier and better decisions.

You can’t idly snack out of boredom if there are no snacks in the house. To do that, you would need to decide to get dressed, get your things to go out, drive to the store, shop for what you want, buy the items, and drive it all back home.

Any one of those stages in the process of acquiring the deviant snacks is a chance for you to decide, “No. I’m not going to snack.”

The second way to develop long-term self-control is to focus on your wins.

As you make good decisions, you’ll want to keep track of the progress you make by writing them down on paper or electronically.

Perhaps you made bad decisions in the past. That’s okay. We all do. As you make these better decisions in the present when you choose to stick to the plan, you are creating a road map of your journey to success.

By writing down your moments of self-control, you can look back at all of those individual points where you made the right choice and stuck with your plan.

That’s the essence of discipline. Discipline is the bedrock that good habits are built on, and the tool you use to dismantle bad habits.

Discipline helps control eating, get in shape, train for a new job, train for a half-marathon, or do whatever it is that you want to do.

Discipline is founded on those moments of short-term self-control where you have a present moment in your life to make the right decision.

BUT! Because there is always a but…

There will be times where you won’t make the right decision. You’ll make the wrong one. And that is totally okay. No one is 100% perfect.

And the good news is that you don’t have to be 100% perfect to accomplish your goals. The more times you can make the right decisions, the closer you are drawing to your goal.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip once or twice. After you slip, decide to get back on the right track and make more good choices.

The combination of these two approaches works because self-control is much like a muscle – when you use it, it becomes weakened in the short term, but strengthened in the long term.

Removing temptations allows you to avoid using so much self-control, meaning you conserve what little you do have for subsequent times when you need it.

Recording your victories helps you to recognize your ability to act in the way that you wish to act. This gives you extra strength when you face similar situations in the future.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.