Self-control is often used to describe a favorable character trait in people. The word is used fairly frequently, but what exactly is self-control, and why is it important? Here, we’ll share some secrets of self-control and ways to pass on the practice of self-control to your children.
What is Self-Control?
Self-control is the war between impulsivity and doing what’s right or beneficial. It’s the ability to control emotions, impulses or behaviors to achieve a greater goal.
A common example of this is people attempting to maintain their New Year’s Resolution and lose a few pounds. It can be very difficult to refuse seconds of dinner or dessert afterward, but those practicing self-control know that they are working toward a long-term goal. While the immediate satisfaction would be sweet, the long-term results probably wouldn’t be weight loss.
Why is Self-Control Important?
This may seem self-explanatory, but it’s helpful to work through this question thoughtfully.
Is self-control really that important, or is it better to enjoy the moment and not concern oneself with future outcomes?
Besides risking the ability to achieve long-term goals, there are other problematic issues with a lack of self-control.
People who lack self-control are often given to impulsive behavior and emotions as well. This means that they may make poor choices that harm themselves or others and react poorly when they don’t get what they want.
Imagine a toddler who wants something but the parent says no. Often, the initial reaction is to behave impulsively. They may throw a tantrum and hit and scream. Toddlers are still learning to regulate their emotions and respond appropriately when things don’t go their way.
The same is true for people of all ages. Self-control is an important skill to develop because these same emotions occur in any person who feels that their needs or desires are not being met. However, a person who lacks self-control may respond in a variety of ways including with anger, physical violence or by turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
A person who lacks self-control may be an unstable person, prone to fits of anger and unethical decisions. There’s more at stake to a lack of self-control than a forgotten New Year’s Resolution — it may mean the difference between a person who is successful in personal relationships and careers, and one who is not.
The Link Between Self-Control and Empathy
Researchers have recently discovered that the same part of the brain that controls empathy also controls self-control. This section of the brain is called the right temporoparietal junction, or rTPJ.
In the study, Alexander Soutscheck temporarily altered the part of the brain long-associated with empathy using a magnetic field. He discovered that a person’s self-control was inhibited when this part of the brain was shut down.
Rebecca Saxe from MIT weighed in by saying, “For a long time, people have speculated that we use the same mechanisms to reason about other people as about our hypothetical selves. So this new study fits really well.”
In other words, a person’s self-control to avoid dessert in the present helps a hypothetical future self lose weight. The effects are not immediate, so a person’s use of self-control now benefits a future version of themselves.
In Soutscheck’s study, when he disrupted the rTPJ part of the brain, his test participants were less likely to behave altruistically. They were given a scenario where they could take a sum of money for themselves or share it with a partner. When the rTPJ part of the brain was disrupted, they were less likely to share. This confirmed the link between rTPJ and empathy.
But interestingly, the same participants were also more likely to take a small sum of money in the immediate as opposed to a larger amount in the future — linking rTPJ to self-control responses as well.
What are the Secrets of Self-Control?
If self-control is important, what do you do when it doesn’t come naturally? How can you develop this vital skill?
Here are three ways to begin a journey of self-control.
Pray, Meditate, Be Mindful
Prayer and meditation are powerful ways to help you reset your thought processes.
Taking time to pray or meditate during the day is a good way of refocusing your mind and giving yourself a chance to calm down if something is irritating you. Instead of getting worked up about a problem, offer your concern to God in prayer, as Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Or consider using meditation by setting aside some time to close your eyes, breathe deeply and focus on what you can control and how you can move forward.
If you’re trying to stop a bad habit, these can be good options to curb your impulse to do it. You can replace those old habits with prayer or meditation.
Get Enough Sleep
It’s not always easy to catch the z’s that you need, but a lack of sleep has been linked to self-control issues.
In a Harvard Business Review article, author Christopher Barnes discussed the link between a lack of sleep and poor choices.
Building on previous research that showed a lack of sleep may lead to lower self-control, Barnes and his colleagues conducted a study of their own. Their results showed overwhelmingly that those suffering from sleep deprivation exhibited high levels of unethical behavior.
Many adults are living on less sleep than they probably should be getting — some living on less than six hours a night. Unfortunately, this sleep deprivation may lead to making poor choices. If you’re suffering from a lack of sleep, try to rearrange your schedule to make sure you’re getting enough snooze time.
Create a Ritual
It may seem unlikely, but participating in a simple ritual may give you the ability to avoid unhealthy impulses.
Scientific American conducted a study that gave participants a simple (and random) ritual to perform to help them achieve weight loss. They chose females from a university gym who were already striving towards weight loss.
Half of the participants were told to be mindful about their food habits. The other half was told to do a three-step ritual before consuming their food which involved cutting their food into pieces before they ate it, rearranging the food so it was symmetrical on their plate and pressing their eating utensil on their food three times before eating.
The study showed that the women who performed the ritual ate fewer calories and also ate less sugar and fats.
How to Teach Children the Art of Self-Control
If you have or work with children, you may be wondering how to teach them self-control. Learning self-control at a young age is a great way of setting them up for success in the future.
Self-control, or self-regulation as it is sometimes referred to, is a skill that can be taught. While some people are born with more natural ability, most often it is a skill that individuals can help develop.
One way of doing this is to help children replace negative responses with positive ones. Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, explains that to teach children to self-regulate, you should not avoid situations that may be difficult. Instead, you should coach your children through difficult times.
When you coach kids through a frustrating moment, you’re providing a framework that clinicians call “scaffolding,” or showing the child the behavior that you want the child to have. Once that child understands the concepts they can begin to overcome challenges on their own.
One way to work through this process is by doing practice runs. For example, suppose a child throws tantrums when going to the store. Child Mind Institute suggests taking a short trip to the store and helping your child practice things like staying with you or keeping their hands to themselves. You could use a reward system for every time the child behaves.
Even with a short trip, the child may still act out or misbehave. This can be discouraging.. However, Dr. Rouse explains that consistency is what’s important. If necessary, make the trip very short and as simple as possible. As the child begins to get better at the activity, they can be given more independence.
Self-Control in the Future
Self-control is linked to many good things including success and the ability to achieve goals. However, it’s important to keep in mind that one mistake in self-control shouldn’t mean that a person should give up. No one is capable of perfectly controlling their impulses or decision making at all times.
This is even more apparent in habits or responses that have become hard-wired into a person. Channeling anger into positive energy or resisting unhealthy habits is not an easy task. Consider it a victory each time you are able to use self-restraint in a situation that you would ordinarily respond in a negative way.
If you make a mistake, see it as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to quit trying. Self-control is a lifelong journey to continue to work on.
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Article republished. The original text is available here.