We all want to exercise self control over some part of our life.
Let’s take cheesecake, of which I am an avid fan. It tastes nice. Also, it’s fattening. If I want to have a healthy life-style, cheesecake has to go. The trouble is, I really do enjoy the taste of cheesecake.
Now I have a conflict. Do I want to be healthy, or do I want to enjoy what tastes good?
I’d rather be healthy. But cheesecake is quite the temptation. It has now become a battle of wills. There’s a part of me that strives for healthy living and promotes what helps me. And there’s a part of me that want’s what feels good, no matter the consequence.
Who will win? This is where self-control comes in.
Healthy Ari: “Don’t eat that cheesecake, buddy.”
Feel-Good Ari: “It tastes good. I want it.”
Self-Control: “Don’t do it, man! Just say no.”
In essence, that’s what self control really is. It’s saying no.
How to go about it then? Maybe I’ll isolate myself. Is it self-control if I don’t allow myself to be in close proximity of cheesecake?
I know that if cheesecake isn’t around, I won’t be as tempted to eat it. But that doesn’t seem like legitimate self control. I’m not controlling the impulse. I’m removing it, circumstantially.
If I do that, I’m not passing a test, I’m avoiding one. And yet, the results speak for themselves. At the end of the day, no cheesecake was eaten, regardless of the virtue of my methods.
But how do I know if this is effective if I don’t face my challenge? Maybe I like cheesecake just as much as before, but I haven’t had the opportunity to fail, yet? Could it be that a better self control method is to ignore cheesecake that sits right in front of me? Certainly, on some level. It seems to indicate a greater mastery over the impulse. More so than hiding it would.
So, which is a more effective self control?
It’s a two step process.
At first the impulse should be avoided at all costs; it doesn’t help to “test” ourselves when we are clearly setting ourselves up for failure. If it’s a strong enough impulse, we may not be ready say no. We would need to isolate ourselves from whatever impulse for long enough to realize that this is not what makes us happy. Replace “cheesecake” with cigarettes, or alcohol, or any other addictive behavior.
Let’s not forget that environment plays a huge role on our lives. Rehab centers are usually located in the wilderness, far away from the past negative patterns of a person’s life. If my friends are all smoking cigarettes, it will be very difficult for me to kick the habit cold turkey. But if I spend enough time away from my impulsive behaviors, I realize I can live without it.
It is only after we have broken the addiction that we can stare that test in the face and even laugh at how we were ever a victim to its whims. I can appreciate that I only valued the cheesecake for its instant gratification. I can appreciate the struggle of saying no, and how much stronger it can make me.
“Self control is a muscle of the mind. We must exercise it so that when we need it, it will be strong.”
–from How to Win Friends and Influence People
I think the goal of self control is to become objective about ourselves and our desires. It’s the first step in analyzing our own behavior and changing it for the better. Self control says that we are complete without this compulsion. We can only live that way when we have denied it. While under the influence of any addiction, whether physical or psychological, we become subjective. And we cannot see it any other way. We will rationalize harmful behaviors because we have allowed them to control us. When we rise above these temptations, though, we can see how it is to live without them. To the point that they are no longer tempting, even if they’re sitting on a table in front of us.
Unfortunately, some people will never be able to face that which they struggled against. They would not be able to hold a cigarette in their hands without lighting it. They wouldn’t be able to sit in a room with a computer without wasting a substantial amount of time. The best they can hope for is to remove themselves from that particular test. That is the extent of their objectivity. They’re aware of what is bad for them, and they appreciate the fact that they would not withstand the test. But it is no less great an achievement. This too, is a victory.