Discipline. A man struggling to stay focused.

Self-Control—the Good and Bad of Being Disciplined

How important is self-control to you?

We have to have some self-control or we wouldn’t be able to get by in life. We (at least most of us) have to get ourselves up in the morning, go to work, and generally do a lot of things that aren’t consistent with our impulse of the moment. So, some self-control is vital, but many of us get too hung up when we’re not as disciplined as we believe we should be, or when we’re disciplined about things that aren’t that beneficial to us. Having a good sense of our self-control and discipline and how it impacts our lives can help us develop an appropriate level of discipline and target it more effectively.

What self-control means for you

Most of us have some areas in our lives where we wish we had more self-control. We might eat compulsively or binge-watch TV, or it might be something more serious like anger issues or a drinking problem. We may be in denial about our lack of self-control, or it might be something we acknowledge but struggle with. Whatever our state of self-control is, we should strive to understand it as much as we can. Through this understanding, we can develop an approach that is intentional, draws on our strengths, and works around our weaknesses. Our approach might be a plan that addresses one of our self-control issues. It may be an eating plan, or it may be therapy or group support meetings. Whatever the nature of our self-control issues are, the approach we take should include a good, solid understanding of what our challenges are and a set of solutions for addressing those challenges.

Extreme forms of discipline and why they’re attractive

There are many examples of people who have extreme levels of discipline and self-control. These people can be inspiring for many reasons, including for their ability to use discipline to simplify their lives and to possibly provide a barrier against the messiness of emotions. They seem to cut out all the extraneous parts of their lives and live with the essence of what they are and what they’re trying to achieve. Examples of these people include monks[1], who live with the bare necessities of life and devote their focus and energy to their spiritual paths. When I am going through periods of stress or emotional turmoil, I fantasize about offloading all my material goods and social connections and living a life of introspection and peace. Although I admire and appreciate those that choose this kind of life, for me, it would be an escape and would prevent me from exploring the richness of a life filled with challenges, heartache, and a good dose of pain. These are the prices I pay for the rewards this kind of life provides.

Progress versus perfection and the importance of the moment

When planning our approach for self-control, we should never expect perfection. We shouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but people tend to get frustrated and give up if they aren’t completely disciplined in what they are trying to achieve. It’s more effective to think of self-control in terms of progress—in terms of making strides toward our desired outcome. When we do falter, rather than think we’ve lost our self-control and messed up whatever we were working toward, we can think about where we are in the moment. For example, if you are trying to eat less or eat healthier, and you’ve just eaten half a bag of cheese curls, don’t think that you’ve completely ruined your diet. It’s more helpful to think about that moment and what happened. Analyze what was in your thoughts and your emotional state and look for red flags. The most important thing to remember is the current moment: “Right now, I am not eating cheese curls, and right now I am not planning to eat cheese curls in the coming moments.” (Side note: I love cheese curls.) Focus on now and the future, rather than on past lapses, and on the progress you’ve made.

Creating your version of discipline

When thinking about the parts of your life you would like more control over, it’s important to consider both the behaviors you want to change (and why) and the path you will take when changing those behaviors. We all need some measure of discipline in our lives, but we can’t all incorporate discipline in the same way and to the same extent. It’s also important to not focus too much on your past behavior. It’s not helpful to dismiss a behavior change because “I’ve never been able to do that.” The nature of discipline is doing something that you have a tendency or compulsion to not do (or vice versa). The trick is understanding what you’re capable of—not what you’ve been capable of in the past—and proceeding with those insights. It’s also important to create a direct link between your desired behavior and your reason for wanting to change your behavior. This will keep your goal for behavior change at the forefront of your mind. Ultimately, you have to take a leap of faith. You’re trying to do something you’ve never been able to do before or have never been able to sustain before. You have to trust and believe that you’ll be able to do it.

Self-control is important and necessary, but make sure you know the “self” in your self-control.

[1] I am generalizing about monks here for convenience. I know there are many different kinds of monks with a variety of lifestyles.

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