Moving Past the Myth of Self Control

No matter what is bringing someone in to see me, we will eventually get to a point where they disparage themselves for not having “enough self control” or being “too lazy” to engage in a healthy behavior or achieve a goal.

The thing, though, is that while our culture highly prizes self-control and believes it is at the root of most personal success, that’s simply not true. Psychological research shows that it is actually the reduction of temptation and implementation of systems that promote healthy/important behaviors that lead to success.

That is an important fact that can be applied to nearly any goal, whether it is reducing your drinking, building more important relationships, or engaging in artistic expression.

A famous psychology study, called the Marshmallow Test, was believed for decades to imply that self-control is the be-all end-all of success. In this study, children were presented with a marshmallow and told that if they did not eat it they would be rewarded with two marshmallows. The children were then left alone with the marshmallow. The test was to see if they could engage their self-control to wait for a greater reward.

These children were then regularly checked in with throughout adolescence and adulthood to determine if there was a relationship between self-control and success. Time and time again, the ability to hold out for the second marshmallow was correlated with various types of life success.

This study has been performed many, many times over in the last several decades. However, a more in-depth exploration of this study recently revealed a key truth. The children who performed well on the study and later in life, were not drooling over the marshmallows and using some great wealth of internal strength to resist them.

Instead, the children distracted themselves. They refused to look at the marshmallow. They pretended it was a food they disliked.

These children were not founts of incredible self-control. They simply figured out tricks to reduce the pull of temptation. Part of what is remarkable about these children is that they were able to do this from such a young age. We don’t have the even more in-depth research that would tell us whether these skills were self-developed or modeled by the adults in their lives.

What we do know, though, is that these are very simply learned skills.

In my sessions with people trying to make major changes in their lives, we often talk about building in a structure that reduces temptation and encourages engagement in healthy or important activities. We are very concrete and specific in the practialities of building in healthy behaviors, in addition to spending time understanding why on a personal level, there are emotional hurdles that come up and need to be creatively worked through.

Struggling to engage in healthy behaviors is not a sign of being a weak person.

Struggling simply means we haven’t yet worked through all the factors that get in the way of doing what you really want to be doing. So as we go over the structural aspects that are important, we also talk about the emotions that are present. Are feelings of sadness, worry, shame, or anger barriers to progress?

This integrative approach, focusing both on systems and on emotional experience has been successful in helping people boost productivity, make healthier lifestyle choices (e.g., diet, exercise, sleep), reduce time spent online, and even significantly reduce alcohol and drug abuse.

Reach out if you’d like to learn more about how we can help you build a life that supports your personal success.