Self-Control

Self control

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

The ability to control emotion, impulse and immediate gratification is known as Self-control. Learning self-control through monitoring, planning, and setting adequate goals in life has long-term impacts on individuals.

What is Self-Control?

Self-control is referred to as the ability to manage one’s own behavior, feelings, and thoughts to achieve 1 Yahya J. (2021). Breaking Beyond the Borders of the Brain: Self-Control as a Situated Ability. Frontiers in psychology12, 617434. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.617434 a specific goal, especially when oppositional motivation is present. This may result in satisfaction regarding one’s life in the later phases of development.

Examples of self-control include limiting social media use, reducing sugar intake, finishing homework before playing, etc. The best example of self-control is the ability to consider all options before making a decision.

Self-control theory by Gottfredson and Hirschi 2 Gillebaart M. (2018). The ‘Operational’ Definition of Self-Control. Frontiers in psychology9, 1231. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01231 (1990) claims that lower self-control is the major contributor to criminality. Individuals with low self-control frequently display two kinds of characteristics which are insensitivity and risk-taking behavior.

Self-control and Mental Health

Self-control trait is associated with positive outcomes of mental health. A higher level 3 Boals, A., vanDellen, M. R., & Banks, J. B. (2011). The relationship between self-control and health: The mediating effect of avoidant coping. Psychology & Health, 26(8), 1049–1062. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2010.529139 of self-control is related to:

  • Better interpersonal relationships with others
  • Better quality of life (comfort, health, and happiness experienced by individuals)
  • Less mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, etc.
  • The ability to manage unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol abuse and overeating
  • Application of coping skills with stress
  • Higher level of satisfaction in life

Read More About Anxiety Here

Additionally, the research 4 Kim, Y., Richards, J. S., & Oldehinkel, A. J. (2022). Self-control, Mental Health Problems, and Family Functioning in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Between-person Differences and Within-person Effects. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-021-01564-3 found that problems in mental health are related to functional and structural impairments in the prefrontal cortex (front area of the brain) which works for an individual’s executive functioning such as focusing, paying attention, planning, and remembering. These executive functions can influence impulsive behavior and urges. Thus, mental health problems indirectly cause lower levels of self-control.

Development of self-control in children

Self-control develops in the early stages of life are crucial for optimum and long-lasting effects on adulthood. Adequate self-control in early life 5 Tao, T., Wang, L., Fan, C., & Gao, W. (2014). Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual-systems model. Scientific Reports, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep07272 benefits:

  • Positive mental health
  • Academic success
  • Harmonious family functioning
  • Higher educational levels
  • Financial security
  • Development of conscience

Parents can teach how to develop 6 Binder, L. M., Dixon, M. R., & Ghezzi, P. M. (2000). A procedure to teach self-control to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of applied behavior analysis33(2), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2000.33-233 and improve children’s self-control by changing the environment for avoiding temptation, helping children with the right direction of the mind, and playing games that improve their ability of self-control like, ‘green light, red light’, Jenga, etc.

Types of Self-control

There are three types of self-control, which includes:

1. Impulse control

Impulse control refers to the capability of someone to stop themselves from engaging in disruptive behavior. Poor impulse control 7 Yu, C., Zhang, J., Zuo, X., Lian, Q., Tu, X., & Lou, C. (2021). Correlations of impulsivity and aggressive behaviours among adolescents in Shanghai, China using bioecological model: cross-sectional data from Global Early Adolescent Study. BMJ open11(7), e043785. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-043785 is associated with acting out in aggression.

2. Emotional control

Emotional control is about how well an individual can understand his own feelings and interpret others’ emotions as well. People who can regulate their emotions, respond in a socially acceptable way. On the other hand, difficulties in emotional control 8 Balter, L. J. T., Sundelin, T., & Axelsson, J. (2021). Sickness and sleep health predict frustration and affective responses to a frustrating trigger. Scientific reports11(1), 1542. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80461-4 may lead to low tolerance for frustration and criticism 9 Moore, R., Gillanders, D., & Stuart, S. (2022). The Impact of Group Emotion Regulation Interventions on Emotion Regulation Ability: A Systematic Review. Journal of clinical medicine11(9), 2519. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm11092519  

3. Movement control

Movement control is the ability of individuals to control their muscles movements, including reflexes and directed movements. Individuals with poor movement control 10 Leonard H. C. (2016). The Impact of Poor Motor Skills on Perceptual, Social and Cognitive Development: The Case of Developmental Coordination Disorder. Frontiers in psychology7, 311. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00311   show behaviors like dropping things or bumping into objects. They also sometimes speak loudly, which is misinterpreted by others.

Self control strategies
Self control strategies

Delaying Gratification and Marshmallow Test

Delaying gratification is the ability to manage one’s impulse for an immediate reward in the hope to receive a more favorable reward in the future. The concept of delaying gratification is associated with self-regulation 11 Wilson, A. C., Lengua, L. J., Tininenko, J., Taylor, A., & Trancik, A. (2009). Physiological Profiles During Delay of Gratification: Associations with Emotionality, Self-regulation, and Adjustment Problems. Journal of applied developmental psychology30(6), 780–790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2009.05.002 or self-control.

American psychologists Jack Block, David Funder, and their colleagues identified delayed gratification as an expression of a person’s general habit 12 Hoerger, M., Quirk, S. W., & Weed, N. C. (2011). Development and validation of the Delaying Gratification Inventory. Psychological assessment23(3), 725–738. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023286 to control impulses. According to a study 13 Rahardi, F., & Dartanto, T. (2021). Growth mindset, delayed gratification, and learning outcome: evidence from a field survey of least-advantaged private schools in Depok-Indonesia. Heliyon7(4), e06681. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06681 , delayed gratification is mostly found in successful people.

Example of delayed gratification includes overriding the instant gratification of junk food for better health, saving money for retirement, fulfilling one’s dream, etc.

Marshmallow Test

The marshmallow test is a famous experiment conducted to measure the tendency of delayed gratification among children. This research was performed by Walter Miscel in the late 1960s  and early 1970s.

A group of preschool children from the Stanford University community was taken and placed in a room keeping marshmallows in front of them. The children were informed that they had two choices- if they could wait until the researcher returned, they would receive more marshmallows and if they could not wait, they could ring a bell to call the researcher, but they would not receive additional marshmallows.

The experiment 14 Luo, Y., & Pattanakul, D. (2020). Infant expectations of instant or delayed gratification. Scientific reports10(1), 19081. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76136-9 concluded that children showed various kinds of delayed gratification for receiving more marshmallows. The researcher recorded the time waiting for additional marshmallows by the children which predicted that children distracted themselves from more consumption of delicious marshmallows.  

What Causes a Lack of Self-control

Having low self-control can be correlated with adverse effects on our overall life. There are several factors that cause a lack of self-control, such as:

Limited willpower

Willpower provides the power of controlling or restraining oneself and achieving one’s goal. With limited willpower 15 Pilcher, J. J., Morris, D. M., Donnelly, J., & Feigl, H. B. (2015). Interactions between sleep habits and self-control. Frontiers in human neuroscience9, 284. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00284 , it is hard for individuals to control their entire life.

Lack of planning

Individuals with a lack of planning are unable to execute their plans 16 Tao, T., Wang, L., Fan, C., & Gao, W. (2014). Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: perspective from a dual-systems model. Scientific reports4, 7272. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep07272 in the right direction which eventually affects one’s self-control.

Lack of goals

Sometimes it is hard for people to manage their self-control as they are not clear about what they want to achieve in their lives. So, self-control can be associated with not having a purposeful aim 17 Yahya J. (2021). Breaking Beyond the Borders of the Brain: Self-Control as a Situated Ability. Frontiers in psychology12, 617434. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.617434 in life.

Unsuitable conditions

When individuals are not in the right state of mind, for example, having a bad mood 18 Heatherton, T. F., & Wagner, D. D. (2011). Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure. Trends in cognitive sciences15(3), 132–139. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.12.005 , emotional issues, or mental fatigue, this will likely decrease their self-control.

Stress

According to the study, prolonged stress affects the immediate reward, which can cause reduced self-control.

Read More About Stress Here

How to Improve Self-control

Many people find it difficult to control their emotions, feelings, and reactions. Here are a few ways to improve self-control:

1. Relaxation techniques

Try to follow some relaxation techniques 19 Krishna, D., Deepeshwar, S., & Devi, B. (2020). Yoga-Based Relaxation Technique Facilitates Sustained Attention in Patients with Low Back Pain: A Pilot Study. Advances in mind-body medicine34(3), 11–17. such as yoga, breathing exercises, or meditation during your convenient time in the day.

2. Good night’s sleep

Getting 7 hours of night sleep 20 Get Enough Sleep – MyHealthfinder | health.gov. (n.d.). Health.gov. Available from: https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/healthy-living/mental-health-and-relationships/get-enough-sleep#:~:text=How%20much%20sleep%20do%20I is recommended for managing self-control.

3. Develop healthy habits

Try to maintain healthy habits 21 Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine13(2), 142–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618818044 , such as eating healthy foods, regular physical activities, etc. to improve your self-control ability.

4. Goal settings

It is recommended to keep yourself motivated by planning out a specific goal that you want to achieve.

5. Recognize impulsive thoughts

Try to make a list of the behavior you want to control and the situations that often trigger impulsive behavior.

Takeaway

Self-control is an ability that can be developed by controlling one’s own feelings, emotions, and behavior in terms of reactions in an exciting or upsetting situation.  With low self-control, individuals show behavior that can be insensitive and apathetic to others.

Therefore, it is necessary to understand the importance of self-control in daily life. Also, it is required to identify an individual’s impulsive reactions and learn to improve self-control by following a few practices like meditation and maintaining healthy habits of daily physical activities, and eating nutritious food.

At A Glance

  1. Self-control is the ability to manage uncontrollable impulsive thoughts, behavior, and reactions in triggering situations.
  2. Self-control can be improved among children by their parents.
  3. The benefits of self-control are essential for success in adulthood.
  4. Self-control impacts positive outcomes in mental health, such as better quality of life.
  5. There are three types of self-control: impulse control, emotional control, and movement control.
  6. Different factors such as limited willpower, lack of goals and planning, and stressful conditions play significant roles in the lack of self-control.
  7. Poor self-control can be improved with meditation and sufficient night sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What does it mean if I don’t have self-control?

People with a lack of self-control often show impulsive behavior and emotions as well. They make poor choices that can hurt them or others.

2. What is the key to self-control?

Several factors help to improve self-control, including recognition of one’s impulsive thoughts as a major key to controlling oneself.

3. What is the first step to self-control?

The first step to self-control is to manage one’s own temperament and amicable communication with others.

4. How can you gain more self-control?

Various strategies are used to improve self-control with efforts and practices such as making plans, focusing on a specific goal, etc.

5. Is low self-control a personality trait?

Low self-control is conceptualized as a latent personality trait.

6. How to resist temptation?

There are numerous ways to control temptation, but distracting oneself with healthy activity is a good way to resist temptation.

References:

  • 1
     Yahya J. (2021). Breaking Beyond the Borders of the Brain: Self-Control as a Situated Ability. Frontiers in psychology12, 617434. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.617434
  • 2
     Gillebaart M. (2018). The ‘Operational’ Definition of Self-Control. Frontiers in psychology9, 1231. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01231
  • 3
     Boals, A., vanDellen, M. R., & Banks, J. B. (2011). The relationship between self-control and health: The mediating effect of avoidant coping. Psychology & Health, 26(8), 1049–1062. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2010.529139
  • 4
     Kim, Y., Richards, J. S., & Oldehinkel, A. J. (2022). Self-control, Mental Health Problems, and Family Functioning in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Between-person Differences and Within-person Effects. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-021-01564-3
  • 5
     Tao, T., Wang, L., Fan, C., & Gao, W. (2014). Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual-systems model. Scientific Reports, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep07272
  • 6
     Binder, L. M., Dixon, M. R., & Ghezzi, P. M. (2000). A procedure to teach self-control to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of applied behavior analysis33(2), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2000.33-233
  • 7
     Yu, C., Zhang, J., Zuo, X., Lian, Q., Tu, X., & Lou, C. (2021). Correlations of impulsivity and aggressive behaviours among adolescents in Shanghai, China using bioecological model: cross-sectional data from Global Early Adolescent Study. BMJ open11(7), e043785. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-043785
  • 8
     Balter, L. J. T., Sundelin, T., & Axelsson, J. (2021). Sickness and sleep health predict frustration and affective responses to a frustrating trigger. Scientific reports11(1), 1542. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80461-4
  • 9
     Moore, R., Gillanders, D., & Stuart, S. (2022). The Impact of Group Emotion Regulation Interventions on Emotion Regulation Ability: A Systematic Review. Journal of clinical medicine11(9), 2519. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm11092519
  • 10
     Leonard H. C. (2016). The Impact of Poor Motor Skills on Perceptual, Social and Cognitive Development: The Case of Developmental Coordination Disorder. Frontiers in psychology7, 311. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00311
  • 11
     Wilson, A. C., Lengua, L. J., Tininenko, J., Taylor, A., & Trancik, A. (2009). Physiological Profiles During Delay of Gratification: Associations with Emotionality, Self-regulation, and Adjustment Problems. Journal of applied developmental psychology30(6), 780–790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2009.05.002
  • 12
     Hoerger, M., Quirk, S. W., & Weed, N. C. (2011). Development and validation of the Delaying Gratification Inventory. Psychological assessment23(3), 725–738. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023286
  • 13
     Rahardi, F., & Dartanto, T. (2021). Growth mindset, delayed gratification, and learning outcome: evidence from a field survey of least-advantaged private schools in Depok-Indonesia. Heliyon7(4), e06681. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06681
  • 14
     Luo, Y., & Pattanakul, D. (2020). Infant expectations of instant or delayed gratification. Scientific reports10(1), 19081. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-76136-9
  • 15
     Pilcher, J. J., Morris, D. M., Donnelly, J., & Feigl, H. B. (2015). Interactions between sleep habits and self-control. Frontiers in human neuroscience9, 284. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00284
  • 16
     Tao, T., Wang, L., Fan, C., & Gao, W. (2014). Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: perspective from a dual-systems model. Scientific reports4, 7272. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep07272
  • 17
     Yahya J. (2021). Breaking Beyond the Borders of the Brain: Self-Control as a Situated Ability. Frontiers in psychology12, 617434. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.617434
  • 18
     Heatherton, T. F., & Wagner, D. D. (2011). Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure. Trends in cognitive sciences15(3), 132–139. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.12.005
  • 19
     Krishna, D., Deepeshwar, S., & Devi, B. (2020). Yoga-Based Relaxation Technique Facilitates Sustained Attention in Patients with Low Back Pain: A Pilot Study. Advances in mind-body medicine34(3), 11–17.
  • 20
     Get Enough Sleep – MyHealthfinder | health.gov. (n.d.). Health.gov. Available from: https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/healthy-living/mental-health-and-relationships/get-enough-sleep#:~:text=How%20much%20sleep%20do%20I
  • 21
     Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine13(2), 142–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618818044
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