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How to Develop Self Control

Self-control refers to our capacity to manage our behaviors and thoughts to the degree that we remain relatively happy and safe. But it’s not something that will just appear overnight. Nor can it be cultivated without regard for the people around you. Learning how to govern yourself will involve learning to make competent use of your environment so that you can get what you need and build relationships with others in socially appropriate ways. Perhaps most importantly, however, developing self-control can only occur through experimentation with new ways of acting and thinking. These will hopefully happen in ways that allow you to express and act on your desires without reverting back to prior bad habits or less productive patterns of behavior.

I. Tracking Your Actions and Emotions in a Journal

1. Identify areas where you want self-control. 

There can be a number of areas in your life where you want to develop self-control. Learn which aspects of your life you’d like more control over. Self-control doesn’t mean the same to everyone and won’t work the same way in every situation. It is up to you to learn which actions, thoughts, or feelings in your life you’d like to have more control over in which situations.

  • Some areas in which to practice self-control might include: eating, shopping, relationships, work, gambling, smoking and so on.

2. Start simple. 

Writing in a journal has worked for many people in their attempts to develop a better sense for who they are and what they might want to change about themselves.

  • You don’t need to write extensively in your journal every day. In the beginning, just choose one day a week, writing on a piece of paper or on your computer. Narrate the events in detail. Then, gradually increase the number of days you journal as you become more comfortable doing it.

3. Review your journal entries for patterns. 

As you start to compile numerous journal entries, look through them in order to help you figure out what events in your life you struggle with the most and what precisely about your actions in those events you would like to change.

4. Identify your triggers. 

You may experience specific environmental or emotional triggers that result in decreased self-control. When you have interactions with someone, you may experience an emotional reaction, such as getting angry or upset. This is a sign that there is an issue from your past that makes you upset. Once you acknowledge this link, you can work to resolve that issue. This is called a trigger, an event that causes you to remember an incident. It triggers an emotion with that memory.

  • Pay close attention to your emotions during your interactions with others.
  • For example, you might begin to notice a habit in your behavior where every time somebody asks about your choice of clothing, you get defensive and shout back in an aggressive manner. Then, you realize that the reason for your defensiveness is that kids used to make fun of you in school because you wore your brother’s hand-me-downs.
  • Pay attention to these results, and try to think of possible ways to overcome this experience. A way to overcome this negative memory is to remind yourself that you are grown now, and you buy your own clothing. Your parents didn’t do this to be cruel, but because they didn’t make a lot of money. They did give you a lot of love, so you’ve been able to be successful in your own life. Now you make a great living and you are able to buy yourself really nice clothing. The key here is to create enough space within ourselves to experiment with new manners of thinking and acting.
  • Overcoming triggers can be a long process, but taking it situation by situation and experimenting with new ways of reacting each time will gradually allow you to produce new results. 

5. Take note of when you use destructive behavior to fulfill a desire. 

Pay attention when you choose to do something to satisfy a desire. Are you satisfying this desire through potentially destructive behavior? If you can identify when you do this, you may be able to start finding new, more productive activities to fulfill the same desire in the future.

  • For example, you may spend too much on an item of clothing that you can't afford.

6. Connect your habits with past experiences. 

It is often the case that many of our unhealthy habits stem from childhood experiences we’ve had. For example, in the case of unhealthy eating habits, we may have shared a particular food with a loved one. You may have special memories of your mom's chocolate chip cookies, and you like eating them because they remind you of her. Journaling about your daily habits could help you remember some of these past experiences. In turn, this can make it easier for you to develop new habits once you realize how or why you came to develop unhealthy or counterproductive habits

7. Get help if you need it. 

It’s important to keep in mind that journaling can uncover some painful issues. If journaling triggers some very painful emotions, it’s important to go to a therapist and get help as soon as you can to help resolve those issues.

II. Learning How to Control Yourself

1. Identify when you feel you are giving way to temptation. 

You may be able to successfully practice self-control, but you can still have an off-day when you feel particularly susceptible to temptation. Recognize when you may not be able to control yourself. It might be caused by stress or heavy emotions, for example. During these times, you can choose to avoid scenarios when you might lose self-control.

2. Use an “if-then” plan. 

When you are developing self-control, you need to train yourself to delay instant gratification. You can tell yourself, “If I wait until lunchtime, then I can have dessert.” Or, “If it’s after dinner, I won’t check my email.”

3. Give yourself limits or guidelines ahead of time. 

When you have clear boundaries ahead of time about what you will allow yourself to do, you don’t need to make decisions on the fly. Planning out your limits will help you stick to your guns and maintain self-control.

  • For example, you can tell yourself that you’ll work on your research paper every night this week instead of watching television, so that you can finish your research paper ahead of the deadline.
  • Another example is when you attend a birthday party and you tell yourself ahead of time that you can have one small piece of cake.

4. Wait it out. 

Desires tend to come and go. If you can wait it out, the desire will pass and you’ll be able to avoid succumbing to the temptation. For example, if you get the urge to call an ex-boyfriend, wait 10 minutes. If you still have the urge, wait another 10 minutes. The urge should diminish and you can refocus on something else.

5. Distract yourself. 

When you occupy your thoughts with another activity, you can overcome the impulse that might lead you to lose self-control. Find something else to do while you have the desire.

6. Forgive yourself for mistakes. 

You will probably have lapses in judgement and actions. Be gentle with yourself and understand that mistakes can happen. Forgive yourself for these mistakes and be ready to move on to a new day with successful self-control.

III. Getting Comfortable with Self-Control

1. Recognize the long-term project of developing self-control. 

According to recent research on self-control, “Self-control promotes health behavior not because those high in self-control are more successful at resisting single temptations, but rather because they develop adaptive habits.”

  • Developing self-control turns out to be much more about building healthy habits as opposed to avoiding tempting impulses in the moment. Developing healthy habits, in turn, involves both a stabilizing of desirable behaviors and an ability to adapt when behaviors fail to produce desired outcomes.
  • For example, if you are struggling to eat fewer unhealthy snacks, research suggests that simply avoiding to do so once or twice will not lead to self-control. Instead, you need to develop new behaviors. Then, you will be able to get the pleasure you currently get from eating unhealthy snacks through other, healthier means. Try substituting healthy snacks for your unhealthy ones. Trail mix, sliced veggies or fruit, or even smoothies can all serve as replacement snacks for unhealthy foods that you find yourself eating too often. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new foods that you’ve never tried before. If you are unsure as to which new foods you should try in order to maximize your health, feel free to consult a physician.

2. Let go of what you can’t control. 

Life is full of situations that are out of your control. Many problems related to self-control, or an inability thereof, tend to result from attempts to force life to conform to your personal expectations. When life inevitably fails to do this, you may get angry or sad. This causes you to react in ways that are ultimately destructive for yourself or those around you.

3. Practice self-affirmations. 

Tell yourself affirming and encouraging statements to help you stay on track. These will also build your confidence in your ability to control your impulses. For example, you might tell yourself:

  • I am in control of my actions.
  • I am in control of my emotions.
  • My self-control is improving every day.
  • Self-control brings me inner strength.

4. Take up activities that teach you inner focus. 

Consider such activities as martial arts, tai chi, yoga, or meditation. These can help you practice self-centering and learning to rely upon your inner strength. These are excellent means for developing self-control.

5. Expand your comfort zone. 

Expanding your comfort zone can help you experiment with your emotional boundaries with other people in general. Trying different activities are great ways to experiment with your body and emotions. Put yourself in situations that might otherwise make you uncomfortable.

  • For example, if you are uncomfortable when people ask you to dance, experimenting with yoga poses on your own could help you develop the confidence needed to use your body in unanticipated ways.

6. Become comfortable with spontaneity. 

We are creatures of habit. Therefore, we tend to repeat the same actions over and again, even if these actions don’t get the results we hope for. Put yourself in unexpected or unconventional situations. For example, do something simple like taking a new route home from work. Accept a new friend’s invitation to go to a concert. When you place yourself in unexpected situations, you will train yourself to handle a greater degree of spontaneity.

  • As you become more comfortable with spontaneity in your everyday life, you won’t feel as compelled to react against the world. This type of reaction typically happens when events don’t conform exactly to what you’ve come to expect out of them. This reaction is usually based primarily upon your own personal experiences.

7. Practice everything in moderation. 

Enjoying all things in life in moderation is an essential part of developing self-control. Self-control can keep you from giving in to emotions that produce extremely negative consequences, but research suggests that too much self-control can keep you from those related to intensely positive ones as well.

  • Moderating yourself means both forgoing the entire chocolate cake in lieu of a single slice, but also enjoying cake when you know you’ve earned it. It also means participating in the activities that you actually have time for rather than stressing yourself out by putting too much on your plate.

8. Seek professional help. 

Counseling can be a great way to help develop some self-control muscles. You can work with your counselor to identify areas in which you would like to develop self-control. Then you can discover some ways to develop adaptations to that area and to measure your progress in achieving your goals.

IV. Developing a Healthy Lifestyle

1. Eat well. 

When you are developing self-control, you should give your body and mind enough fuel and tools to accommodate this task. Feed your body with plenty of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins. Reduce your intake of processed foods, refined sugars and refined carbohydrates.

2. Drink plenty of water. 

When you are dehydrated, your ability to think and make sound judgements can be compromised. Drink enough water every day. You can also get fluids from the foods you eat, such as soups, vegetables and fruits.

3. Get plenty of sleep. 

Give yourself a chance to replenish your energy by getting adequate sleep every night. The average person needs 7-9 hours of sleep every night.

  • Establish good sleep patterns, including a consistent bedtime and wake up time. Turn off all screens (phones, computers, tablets, TVs) at least an hour before bed so that you give your brain a chance to rest before sleep.

4. Get regular exercise. 

When your body is in good condition, you are able to tackle problems better. Get 30 minutes of exercise several times a week. This will release GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating anxiety, impulses and other reactions.


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