Self-Control is Like a Muscle

by / Comments Off on Self-Control is Like a Muscle / 106 View / March 1, 2015

Betty is a prime example of someone who relies on a quick fix to feel better. She feels bad about what’s going on in her life because both her work and her marriage are causing her a substantial amount stress. But rather than confront the issues, she’s turned to wine for solace. Now she drinks a bottle every night. The kicker is that consuming alcohol no longer makes her feel good. In fact, it makes her feel helpless to do anything about her unhappiness.

Betty’s husband, Sandy, is very critical of her. His hostile comments drive her further into her shell, seeking safety and comfort from the substance she’s come to rely upon. The more Betty withdraws, however, the angrier Sandy becomes and the less control he’s able to exert over his own actions.

Sandy makes himself feel better by unleashing his hostility, which alleviates the physical tension that mounts within him. He can see what his wife is doing wrong, but has a blind eye for his own contributions to the problem. When he’s frustrated in getting what he needs from the marriage, he dwells on what Betty is doing wrong – which builds up his anger until it boils over.

Sandy has not developed an effective method for dealing with his negative emotions. Anger, anxiety, and even depression are accompanied by various forms of physical distress such as high blood pressure and muscle tension. It takes at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day to burn off the chemicals that our body produces when we’re under stress.

Sandy tries to find satisfaction by going shopping. He drives an expensive car and is obsessed with all the things his money can buy. Of course, happiness isn’t one of those things.

There’s an old saying that opportunity only knocks once, but temptation leans on the doorbell. Physical pleasures give us immediate satisfaction. But sensory-based stimuli such as eating, drinking, smoking, and shopping only provide a fleeting feeling of happiness.

When we come to depend on external pleasures to make us feel good, it takes an ever increasing amount to satisfy us. So we end up chasing the high that we felt when we first indulged ourselves. But it’s never the same.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of making a “fundamental attribution error”, which is assuming that there’s something seriously wrong with someone who disappoints us. Habitually relieving our distress by dumping our negative evaluations onto others creates conflicts that ultimately prolong and intensify our problems.

Neither Betty nor Sandy has learned to exert control over their destructive impulses. Self-regulation involves either initiating an action (going for a walk) or inhibiting a reaction (resisting the urge to make hurtful comments). There are three major factors that drive effective self-regulation: values, awareness, and capacity to change.

Values guide us toward our most desired outcomes. You’ll be more likely to exercise if you intensify your desire to be healthier, thinner, or calmer. You’ll find it easier to censor an angry comment if you value being kind, fair, or loving. Sometimes a self-regulation failure will occur if you have two values that are in conflict. Clarifying what’s most important to you is essential at those moments.

Awareness is often the key to improving self-control. Research suggests that few impulses are actually irresistible-even though they may feel that way at the time. Effective monitoring of choices dampens impulses. Consumers spend less and make fewer “impulse buys” when they record every purchase. Dieters are more successful when they keep a log of what they eat. People who keep a journal of what they felt about their experiences during the day are better able to manage their emotions.

Defining a value that’s important to you (losing weight) and a careful record of your behavior (healthy food choices all day) is useless without the ability to push yourself to take the necessary actions (buying iceberg lettuce, not ice cream, at the grocery store).

Substantial research supports the idea that self-control is like a muscle. Your capacity to self-regulate becomes depleted the more you use it. Making decisions and choices throughout the day exhausts the inner resources that govern your ability to self-regulate, leaving you vulnerable to acting on your impulses by evening.

It’s essential that you avoid temptation as the day progresses. Instead, plan to rejuvenate your self-regulation capabilities: take a walk to burn off the accumulating stress chemicals, talk to a friend, and meditate to shift from ruminating on problems to seeing positive outcomes.