When people talk about goal setting and goal achievement, we often hear the discussion of willpower and self-control coupled in the concept of goal attainment. We think of the entrepreneurs, senior leaders, and health enthusiasts who have a high degree of self-control, and how that results in high degrees of success. But is self-control always good? Is it always better to have more self-control?
In mainstream conversation, and even in the research, there appear to be two aspects of self-control:
- High self control: The ability to inhibit and regulate our emotions, temptations and impulse leading to goal attainment. This degree of self-control is assumed to be uniformly good.
- Low self control: The inability to inhibit and regulate our emotions, temptations, and impulses, often leading us to not achieve our goals due to short-sighted whims and sometimes resulting in insensitivity towards others as we follow impulse. (Think: cheating on a partner or dining-and-dashing). This degree of self-control is assumed to be bad.
By looking at self-control as a dichotomy, we’re inadvertently and inappropriately coupling high/low degrees of self control with other good/bad, right/wrong, and appropriate/shameful dichotomies. The moment we connect this dichotomy to people and success, it becomes a cause for judgement regarding worthiness. Simply put, if you have the willpower and the self-control, you are worthy, and if you don’t have “enough” of it, you’re just not worthy.
Self control, like all things, however, is good in moderation - going overboard at the expense of your own rights and wellbeing is equally as detrimental as not exerting enough. We’ve all seen the point when self-control becomes too much. When the entrepreneur works herself to death to get to that elusive “next level,” when the senior leader “has to” pull an all nighter, and when the heath enthusiast starts to look more like health addict, allowing food and exercise to control her mood or other aspects of her life.
So what’s the difference? I posit that there are two additional kinds of self control: assertive and aggressive.
- Assertive self control is the ability to inhibit and regulate emotions, temptations and impulse in a way that respects and maintains the rights and wellbeing of the individual exhibiting self control. This may look like the entrepreneur who sets clear boundaries for their own work hours, and exhibits self control in being thoroughly focused and determined during those hours, while maintaining respect for work-life balance.
- This may look like the senior leader who delegates effectively and exhibits self compassion when quarterly targets aren’t met, respecting the work and effort that went into progress made. This may look like the health enthusiast who allows herself a day off from the gym to respect her need to rest and recover.
- Aggressive self control on the other hand, inhibits and regulates emotions, temptations, and impulse in a way that is at the expense of someone’s rights, namely, the self. These often come at the expense of the individual’s human and bodily needs, such as eating, drinking, connection, financial wellbeing, and sleeping.
- This looks like the entrepreneur who refuses to take a salary in the name of business development and feeds herself ramen every day. This looks like the senior leader who is unable to pick up and spend time with her kids, in order to put in more hours on the job. This looks like the health enthusiast, who counts calories and restricts food even when she’s hungry in the name of “health.”
How do you know if you’re being assertive or aggressive in your self control?
- Make a list of the ways in which you currently control yourself. This kind of control is often attached to what you think is the “right” thing to do, a commitment or resolution you have made, or some form of goal attainment.
- Notice what gets hard to control when you’re tired. Using willpower to exert self-control depletes our energy reserves and ability to make decisions. Notice when you’re feeling fully depleted, and take inventory of what you’ve controlled during your day.
- Create a personal Bill of Rights. Only when you have clarified your rights for yourself can you determine if you are respecting them. Consider rights such as: the right to sleep 8 hours a day, the right to eat when you are hungry, the right to seek medical attention when you are sick, and the right to express all of your feelings, both positive and negative, and the right to be happy.
- Get curious with each item on your list. Ask yourself: How do you feel when you control this? How does this contribute to, or take away from, your health, happiness, and wellbeing? By controlling myself in this way, am I respecting my rights?
Once you have determined your personal bill of rights and whether you are being assertive or aggressive in your self-control efforts, you are able to make more informed decisions and operate more intentionally throughout your day in ways that respect both your short and long-term goals, health, and happiness.
What's been your experience? Is high self-control always good? Do you wish you had more or less self-control? Leave your thoughts for me in the comments below!