“If self-control is so important,” a reader asks, “how are we supposed to achieve it?”
Personally, I don’t much like the term “self-control.” It suggests a desperate struggle between willpower and cravings, or between restraint and impulses. The term promises endless flirtation with the prospect of self-defeat. It even brings to mind the image of people whipping themselves into compliance or submission.
The term “self-regulation” has more decorum along with a more promising prognosis. It allows us to appreciate the subtleties involved in making our life run smoother. We want to be able to regulate our emotions in order, for instance, to prevent worry, fear, loneliness, and anger from invading our inner space. We also want to regulate our behaviors so we avoid, say, procrastination and overspending, along with compulsive or addictive pursuits.
The lack of self-control is obvious when people are plagued by addictions or compulsions. But an ability to regulate our life often requires us to appreciate our mind’s more subtle aspects. In this post I write about these subtleties. The purpose here is to uncover certain emotions and behaviors that contribute to suffering and self-defeat but have evaded our attention. Seeing these psychological dynamics with more clarity is an excellent way to strengthen oneself.
Here’s an example of what’s involved in the process of acquiring more self-regulation. Carl was having trouble developing a closer, more intimate relationship with his wife, Joan. The pair got along all right, but they were more like friends than sweethearts or lovers. She complained that he wasn’t emotionally supportive or expressive, yet, try as he might, he couldn’t alter his impersonal approach to her. Often, Carl fixated on little flaws in her character and appearance, thereby further distancing himself from her. He frequently wondered to himself whether he had made a mistake in marrying Joan.
He was failing to achieve intimacy with her because, for one thing, he was determined unconsciously to live through feelings of self-doubt. His failure to achieve intimacy had little or nothing to do with her (although he believed it did). Lacking in self-regulation, he compulsively produced thoughts and speculations—“Where would I be now if I hadn’t married Joan?” What if I had married Sally instead?”—that accentuated his self-doubt (an old emotional default position in his psyche).
In fact, he produced these ambivalent thoughts concerning Joan solely and unconsciously for the purpose of continuing to experience his unresolved self-doubt. Poor Joan! She wasn’t being loved by Carl because, in being too intent on doubting himself and thereby subtly dissociating from himself, he was simultaneously dissociating from her. In other words, he couldn’t connect with his own essence and intrinsic value, and so he couldn’t connect with hers.
Unbeknownst to him, he was unconsciously determined to continue to experience himself through that familiar self-doubt that was, in a sense, his identity, his way of knowing himself. Carl’s emotional attachment to this identity blocked him from establishing true intimacy. True intimacy with Joan would mean little or no self-doubt. Intimacy would mean he did the right thing by marrying her. It would mean he knew his own mind and feelings—hence, little or no self-doubt.
If after recognizing and resolving his emotional resonance with self-doubt, he were to feel he didn’t love her sufficiently and wouldn’t be able to attain intimacy with her, he would then have the new-found strength to seek romance and love elsewhere.
Seeing how much he was under the influence of self-doubt, Carl was now able to overcome it. We overcome self-doubt by bringing it into focus and continuing to acknowledge our emotional attachment to that familiar weakness. What people tend to do, instead, is to deny it in some manner or other, often through an idealized self-image, which means the weakness is not addressed or resolved. Carl now began to feel a strong connection to the true value that existed both in himself and in Joan.
With his new insight, Carl was in a position to regulate (meaning reduce or eliminate) his negative thoughts and feelings toward Joan. In this context, he was acquiring an enhanced degree of self-control. Again, he now realized he had been producing the negative thoughts and feelings toward her, along with his ambivalence about being with her, in order to continue to live through the self-doubt that constituted an old identity he had been resistant to letting go of.
In the next example, Deborah, a busy professional, was unable to stop and rest between the many projects, large and small, that preoccupied her in her career and personal life. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, she continued to feel restless, unfulfilled, and driven. Sensible self-control would involve the ability to relax and enjoy the emotional rewards of being efficient and productive. Yet after the briefest rests, and despite her wish to be able to absorb more satisfaction from her efforts, she wearily pushed herself on to the next project.
Like Carl, Deborah, too, was lacking in self-regulation. She hadn’t been able to see her problem with sufficient clarity. She wasn’t enjoying herself and her work because she was being held accountable by her inner critic. This part of us can operate as the hidden master of our psyche. It’s a primitive energy that’s demanding, merciless, and tyrannical. If we possess too much self-doubt or inner passivity, we’re unable to stand up to the self-aggression. We’re not in charge at an inner level. Instead, our inner critic is in charge, and we end up feeling guilt, shame, tension, anxiety, or constant inner defensiveness, depending on how much self-aggression we absorb from our inner critic.
How can we possess a high degree of self-regulation when we’re failing at an inner level to quell self-aggression? We can’t. If, through inner passivity, we’re allowing our inner critic to hold sway in our psyche, we’ll be failing in some manner to practice self-control in our daily life.
Deborah’s inner critic insisted that she had to continually validate herself through her work. The implication was that she didn’t have intrinsic value unless she could prove otherwise. One of Deborah’s emotional weaknesses was her dependence on her mental abilities and intellectual accomplishments for her sense of value. Her father had this same weakness, and it was consistent with human nature that Deborah, as his daughter, would have picked it up from him. With her inner critic holding her accountable and insisting she had to comply with its standards (however irrational), she could quickly feel overwhelmed by the demands on her and become upset over small things going wrong.
Behind the need to prove herself was the old default position, her underlying self-doubt and fear of failure. As Deborah began to expose her inner critic’s operating methods and expose its irrationality, she experienced for herself the correlation between self-regulation on an inner level and on an outer level. As she began to regulate her inner life, she no longer felt the need to answer to her inner critic. Now she could rest deeply between projects, and no inner voice or impression harassed her about it. She now trusted herself. She knew she would get back to work when the time was right, and do so successfully and with pleasure.
Self-knowledge is the means that improves self-regulation. It’s about becoming the master or mistress of our inner life.