23: Self-Control

Whenever we experience significant distress or illness, we need to take action to heal it. It is foolish to rely on hope or good luck to solve our problems. Likewise, waiting for someone to rescue us is not a dependable way to find the relief we need. Taking charge of our problems should be the first choice we make—not our last resort.

Yet little healing can occur until we develop a useful capacity for self-control. This is the one great strength that makes all other personal changes possible. Self-control is an expression of the skillful will— that is, the intelligent direction of the will. With self-control we have the ability to disconnect our “mental cruise control,” letting us interrupt our automatic responses to our experiences. Our programmed reactions of fear to threat, anger to irritation, doubt to uncertainty, and guilt to mistakes generate substantial distress in us. Control of these reactions and the substitution of better choices depends on our ability to take charge of our thinking, attitudes, and intentions. Without self-control, we will continue to be a slave to all our old habits, biases, fears, doubts, and resentments.

Commanding our unruly emotional reactions and frustrations requires us to step outside of our usual focus in sentimentality and shift to our mental capacities. This enables us to engage our mind for decision making and direction while bypassing our usual emotional reactions. Our reasoning mind has the ability to recognize the options we have, discern the best ones, and then impose them on what we think, feel, say, and do. Our will provides the power to counteract old habits and momentum so we can substitute a new order in our self-expression. As long as we defer to our desires and fears for guidance, we will permit old habits and customs to rule our day. These include our prejudices, resentments, phobias, and irrational beliefs.

Using our mental faculties to make our interpretations and choices is a concept that can seem slightly puzzling or even annoying. It can be puzzling to those who do not realize how often their emotions are in control of what they think and do. Others assume that feelings are a direct channel to inspiration and our highest wisdom. Actually, our inner feelings mostly reflect our storehouse of preferences, hopes, prejudices, and desires to have or avoid things. Collectively, these forces are known as our wish life, based on the sum of our emotional reactions to life— our frustrations, annoyances, excitement, boredom, petty resentments, and fears. By letting these factors control our responses to life, we are placing major limitations on our health, growth, and spiritual life. Self-control is vital to counteracting these tendencies. Developing self-control begins by using what we have to exercise choice and restrain reactions. We all have this capability; we just need to respect it and choose to use it more often and deliberately. Often this means just giving ourself more time to think— to reflect on our choices before we respond. It helps to consider the outcomes we want and how we can do specific things (or restrain others) to get the right results. Many people are surprised to learn that a little thoughtful planning can enable a more successful degree of self-expression. Instead of “going with the flow” of our usual momentum of attitudes and habits, we can upgrade our response to events about us.

In order to make this change happen, we must interrupt our automatic habits of reaction. This can be difficult for any one of us who has strong surges of emotions that seize us in their grip and take over. This is the psychological equivalent of being carjacked by some dark attitude or excess of excitement. However, when we reflect on these memories, we usually are not proud of them. This insight can be our incentive to make a stronger effort to monitor our impulses and automatic reactions to intervene with better choices. Engaging our capacity to observe from within is the key to overriding our automatic reactions. There is always a deeper part of ourself that supervises what the outer part of us is thinking and doing. This department of ourself has the capacity to perceive the consequences of our usual responses, plan better choices, and impose them on what we think, feel, say, and do.

This observation can be made during quiet times when we reflect on what we have done and what we plan to do. By using a more relaxed approach, we can review the results of recent behavior and plan revisions for future occasions. Gradually, we become better at choosing an appropriate response as our first choice.

In these quiet reviews, we can readily spot areas where our anger or pessimism or guilt has taken over and imposed our worst habits of psychic self-destruction. Lacking such review, we will be unable to make progress. Yet, if we work at making many small steps in moderating old habits, we can use intelligent self-control to tame our hot temper, deep prejudice, despair, or guilt that continually sabotages our life. A word of caution is necessary here for those who want rapid change. It may be delightful to imagine that we can switch to saintly behavior in one or two steps, but this is usually the fast road to crashing in utter failure. Our subconscious may feel threatened by our efforts at self-improvement and try to sabotage them. This protective urge can generate a strong sense of discouragement, so that we never really begin to practice self-control. We may also unconsciously set ourself up to fail by expecting too much too soon. The sensible approach is to take many small steps of simple change that we can achieve. As good results accrue, we can add more.

The power of self-control is tapped by reviewing and developing a hierarchy of our values. A value is whatever is most important to us—what motivates us. Just surviving each day and escaping without too many wounds is a banal motive for living. By contrast, if we strive to be useful in our domestic and career roles, we create a more noble type of value. Wanting to grow in skill and virtue would likewise be an enlightened value, whereas wanting to fulfill all of our desires for money and popularity would be a value trapped in narcissism. Effective self-control needs to be linked to the power of our highest values—that is, our knowledge of what is extremely important to us. As these values reflect a mature approach to life, they guarantee the development of a strong capacity for self-control.

Self-control is vital to the development of many other important healing methods. In subsequent chapters we will highlight the importance of detachment, mindfulness, tolerance, forgiveness, and our search for healing insights. Without adequate self-control none of these techniques can be developed or used effectively.

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