My Self-Control is Running on Empty

Self-control is more important than self-esteem. The ability to control one’s activities is more predictive of success than is intelligence. When it comes to self-control, research supports Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage that “character is higher than intellect.” What does the research say about levels of self-control? This question must be answered in two ways.

First, some people have a self-control gauge that is perpetually pointing low. As such, self-control can be seen as a character trait that is relatively stable over time, such that some individuals in most situations evidence a low level of self-control. For these people the question is, how can I develop a higher level of self-control?

For others, however, the self-control gauge is in a state of flux; these individuals experience a high level of self-control at most times but a low level at others. Like your gasoline gauge, sometimes the needle is pointing at F, but other times it is pointing at E. This variable level of self-control implies a different question, how can I maintain higher levels of self-control?

Using the gauge analogy, we are asking whether the car is low on gasoline because you never bought any, or because you bought gas but used it all up. Is your self-control always low, or is it high at other times but currently used up?

Allow me to change analogies; I will switch to muscle power. There are some of us who perpetually have low levels of muscular strength. I don’t have much, no matter what day or what time of day. There are others who have high levels of muscle power, yet their strength at any given time depends upon various factors, such as the extent to which they have recently strained, stressed, or abused their strength. Hence, at certain times, their muscle strength is considerably reduced.

There is research evidence to support this analogy as it relates to self-control. Just as the regular exercising of a muscle will build strength, so the regular exercising of self-control will increase overall levels. Practice increases strength. However, overuse of a muscle will cause a short-term loss of strength. Likewise, too much exercising of self-control can lead one to be temporarily more vulnerable to temptation. The needle will point toward E until there is time to regain strength.

The reality of muscle strength means that you sometimes make choices about how to use this limited resource. If you know that you will be moving a piano tomorrow, then you might choose a different exercise routine today, so that you will have maximal strength when it is needed.

Likewise, self-control is a limited resource. If you will face a major temptation this afternoon, then you would be foolish to use up your self-control strength on trivial decisions this morning.

First, we need regular exercise in the practice of self-control. If we live an indulged life, where we honor most of our desires and whims, then we fail to boost our overall levels of self-control. Perhaps this is the problem of the rich and famous, sometimes called the Celebrity Syndrome. Regular exercise in self-control is an essential element of life.

There is a serious risk, however, when control is taken too far. If we exercise our self-control too much, we run the risk of running low, until we are able to reboot. If we run out of self-control, when a major temptation is in the works, we might find ourselves without the resources needed to self-regulate. This would be particularly ironic if we were to over-exercise self-control in trivial matters, such that the resistance of the trivial leaves us susceptible to the more serious failures of life.

If we are practicing a legalistic approach in the trivial matters in life, then we are, in fact, leaving ourselves more vulnerable to temptation in the larger areas of life. We need to have sufficient self-control reserves to meet serious temptation.

I hope my kids don’t pierce their noses or their tongues. In the broader scheme of things, however, these are my own trivial preferences. If I place too many of these trivial demands on my children, they may be less able to resist the more serious issues of life.

It is critical, then, that we practice self-control ourselves and foster the practice of self-control in our children. Failure to do so will result in the needle most always pointing to E. It is also important, however, that we not take the other extreme. We do not want to overexert our self-control on trivial matters. Demanding that our children live their lives according to our preferences can easily backfire and cause instead a self-control level that is pointing toward E at a most critical time.

“Lead us not into temptation,” especially not when our self-control is running low.

Gary L. Welton

Gary L. Welton

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.

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