Tuesday, March 11, 2014

No, no, no, no………oooooh, yes: Self-control in Action

You may well have had the following conversation, or similar since it is only a metaphor, in your head at some stage in your life, maybe even daily.

Hmmm, yummy chocolate! No I’ll be good! Just ignore it. No! Find something else to look at. Take the damn things away would you. Gee, that chocolate looks good. I haven’t had any for at least two days. I’ve worked hard. One bit won’t matter. Mmmmmmmmmm! Lovely.

It may not have been chocolate. Maybe it was exercising. You hadn’t got out of bed early enough that morning and told yourself that you would catch up on it that evening. As the day wears on the resolve starts to flicker and then gets dimmer towards knocking off time or on the bus home. Nah, I’ll do it tomorrow.
It could be trying to contain frustration, not scream at the traffic, being nice to someone who is hard to be nice to, not arguing with your teenager, or making those awkward phone calls rather than avoiding them. And of course it could be managing any one of several addictions.

Self-control is a very topical issue from the glossy pages of gossip magazines discussing how to change habits to the more austere thoughts of gurus talking about the attributes of successful leaders. With respect to the latter, self-control has indeed been suggested as an essential element of being a good leader. If you buy into the claims of emotional intelligence, which I personally don’t, self-control is one of the key factors found within this rather paper thin theory. Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence to show that self-control is a good life skill to have for a whole lot of reasons that are relatively obvious.

There is some recent, neat research, however, suggesting that being able to master self-control may be more complicated than it sounds. It seems that there are two interesting factors that may impede that ability to resist that addiction or that habitual response.

The first of these is what can best be called resistance fatigue. It seems that if we have had to be strong and resist a number of times early in the day then our ability to resist perhaps another temptation later on might falter. So, saying no to too many things might mean you are more likely to fail on at least one of them and then be disappointed. A part of us might think that because we have been so good, and resisted for so long that we deserve a treat, a reward for good behaviour. Then afterwards we beat ourselves up with guilt. After all that was what guilt was invented for. This effect sits well with a fairly well accepted idea that we should try to focus on one change at a time rather than lots. Psychologists also break these changes down into steps, to make it even easier.

The other is that it is often harder to resist temptation later in the day. Presumably that is due to tiredness. Self-control takes a lot of effort and energy. We have to be self-aware all the time, alert to danger as it were, then make the effort to actually resist, to self-regulate. This takes some serious self-talk and is stressful given we are often fighting against a powerful impulse.

So, we need to be alert at the times of the day when we are least likely to want to be alert given we are tired. It’s a bit like sports teams or athletes that manage to lose games in the last few minutes because they relax. Good coaching tries to avoid this natural response to tiredness and stress. And we need to only change a few habits at a time or link them in a way that makes follow the other. Just learning to control one’s emotions is likely to have positive effects in all sorts of other ways, for example. Don’t try and give up two addictions at the same time.

If you are a leader then you need to be on guard when you are stressed or tired, or when you have lots of things happening in your head, your life. This is the time you are most vulnerable to doing lots of damage. This is the time when you need to be very careful to pay more attention to what others are saying, staying even and calm, maintaining relationships, putting others first and so on. When stressed do the mundane things, practical things that don’t involve people. Don’t schedule meetings at the end of the day if you want a good outcome.

And this is even more true in our loving relationships. So many times in my clinical work I see people knock their best friend out of the ring when they need them the most. It seems that we are prone to taking out our stress, losing our control around people who love us. Presumably we relax enough to do that because we feel it is safe. Wrong! Again, this is the time when we need to be most aware and draw our loved ones to us rather than push them away.

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