• Reflective Resources

S is for self-control and willpower

“Self-regulation is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It doesn't take any character for the animal to be animal, but the true test of character is to behave human, upon conquering our inner animal.” Abhijit Naskar


Self-control is concerned with the ability to regulate and manage one's initial behaviour, abilities, emotional responses; impulses and thoughts so you can respond intentionally in a way consistent with your values rather than reacting. i.e. it is about having the ability to pause and think before responding. Self- control or self- regulation is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence.


“....goal directed self-imposed delay of gratification is perhaps the essence of emotional self-regulation: the ability to deny impulse in the service of a goal, whether it be building a business, solving an algebraic equation, or pursuing the Stanley Cup.” Daniel Goleman


The ability to control and manage our own emotions and also control and manage other people’s emotions is an invaluable skill which can be improved through practice through conscious habits which once channelled can become our allies and can help us flourish

It is worth remembering that everything is about balance. Willpower is not an unlimited resource. Too much self-control can actually be bad for your health when temptation and stress hijack the brain's systems of self-control. Self-control therefore includes an element of taking responsibility for our actions but ensuring that what we do matches with our own personal values and the bigger picture.


What are the benefits of self-control?


“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.” Daniel Goleman


Self-regulation skills have been linked to a range of positive health outcomes including better resilience to stress which leads to increased happiness and better overall well-being and success in life..


The ability to have self-control also has an important role to play in relationships. People who can manage their emotions and control their behaviour are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and achieve their goals


“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Daniel Goleman


When you are self-aware and can practice self control it is less easy to be manipulated. Manipulators often use emotional manipulation to persuade others to do their bidding through their words or their actions. They aim to trigger intense emotional reactions which will drain another person’s energy, break down their resistance, create confusion or guilt and plays havoc with their emotional well-being.


“Self-control is strength. Calmness is mastery. You have to get to a point where your mood doesn't shift based on the insignificant actions of someone else. Don't allow others to control the direction of your life. Don't allow your emotions to overpower your intelligence.”

Morgan Freeman


What can we do to help ourselves develop self-control?


“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Thich Nhat Hanh


By practising skills such as focused breathing, focusing on gratitude and mindfulness practices, they can enable us to put some space between ourselves and our reactions, giving us the time necessary to adjust our focus and helping us to feel calmer and more relaxed.


Good nutrition, exercise and sleep also play vital roles in our ability to self-regulate. It is very difficult to become our best selves when our ‘brain energy’ is depleted. Our brain comprises of 2% of our body weight but burns 20% of our energy reserves every day and when we are exhausted and our energy levels depleted - we lose access to our executive function because the body is “judicious in its use of fuel”. Brady Wilson


When our brain is full of energy, we can focus our attention more easily and regulate our emotions, notice connections, resolve conflict, predict outcomes and make good decisions etc but when our brain is exhausted the opposite occurs so getting sufficient vitamins and rest plays an essential role in helping us develop our willpower.


Self- control and willpower are needed not only to stop yourself doing something you want to but know is not good for you but conversely it is required when you need to ‘encourage’ yourself do do something you don’t want to, but you know that will benefit you in the long run.


Practical suggestions (gathered from Reflective Resources Facebook group:


When upset by others:


“I find 'Practising the Pause' is helpful when someone has said, written or done something that has upset me...a bit like 'Take a deep breath and count to 10' (though the process definitely takes a lot longer than that sometimes  ). It gives me the time to analyse my feelings, try and look at things from the other person's perspective or try to understand why someone has been hurtful and then hopefully respond not react.” Sara B


“When I'm upset by other people's actions my initial response is to have a rant 😁! I find that if I go for a walk or distract myself in some way the anger and upset subsides! However there are situations that need a response and I feel I need to say how I feel which gets it off my chest” Jill H


There are times to 'hold your peace' and others 'to say your piece'. The wisdom is knowing when to do which and there are always choices with regards to the how!


For those with difficulty sleeping:


“I try to cut down on caffeine towards the end of the day and also resist the temptation to look at my iPad late in the evening!” Jill H


“Try to get a good sleep every night. It helps you cut down on sugary snacks the following day” Jackie H


“I do try to avoid watching the news if I can. I like to fall asleep with "happy" thoughts, not negative ones” Jackie H


For those trying to eat healthily:


When tired it’s easy to rush for a quick sugar or carb boost. The matter can then be compounded if you go shopping when you are hungry as you are setting yourself up to give in to temptation again in the future.


“I try not to buy stuff as I know that I struggle with self discipline in this area so I try to 'help myself' by not cracking in the supermarket in the first place. I find the best time to go shopping is after I have eaten.” Sara B


“Making a list in advance and sticking to it helps you shop quicker , save money and not get distracted or enticed by publicity” Ann D


For those who put things off


“I am one of life's procrastinators and instead of getting stuck into a boring, mundane but necessary task such as cleaning the oven or bureaucratic paperwork I will all too readily say that I'll do it tomorrow and sneak off to read my book instead....But eventually the strong sense of duty bequeathed by my upbringing ( or the necessities of daily life!) will prevail and I'll pass on the sweet treat and get the oven cleaner out. I've learnt over the years that the first step is the most difficult and once you get started the easier it is to get to grips with the task in hand and before you know where you are you've done it!” Cathy W


“I also tend to put off things to the last moment though I won't/can't relax and read a book I will find other 'easier' things to do/distractions but then feel guilty until I get a spurt of energy and crack on. As you say the first step is the hardest ...but then I can get into it. It is easier if I plan and prepare/make decision to do something one morning so just wake up and get on with things.. unless of course I have had a bad night's sleep and then of course that tends to scupper my plans or make them twice of a struggle ! It's a mental battle” Sara B


If you have a tendency to put things off it can help to set out everything that you need in advance (e.g. the night before) so that everything is ready for you. It could be simply paperwork, phone numbers, cleaning materials, or your exercise clothes.

Soliciting help from others also works well e.g. arranging with someone to call for you to walk together, or inviting someone around for a cuppa can be a great motivator to tidy up beforehand!


Self-control increases your options to choose and enables you to live an intentional responsive life as opposed to a random reactive one. Self-control enables you to stay in control of yourself and of your reactions to any situation or other people. It is an essential skill like a muscle in that the more you practise, the better you become.




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