In this post for my emotional intelligence series I’m going to focus on selective self-control. Selective self-control refers to our ability to control ourselves in some circumstances, but not in others. In some ways it can be a cognitive distortion because we often have more control than we realize, but we may be subconsciously choosing not to use our control sometimes, and this can become a problem, especially in our relationships with other people.
Selective self-control is something that I have to challenge my clients on sometimes, because while I understand that it can be hard to practice self-control sometimes, it is my job as a therapist to help my clients find their power and learn to utilize it, and self-control is about power. Selective self-control tells you that you can’t control your reactions to certain circumstances, and then you feel helpless about your ability to exert power over your own behavior.
When you feel powerful, you feel in control. However, feeling powerless often results in people acting or thinking in ways that hurt them more. One thing that I try to encourage my clients to do is to evaluate their choices based on how much power they have in a situation. By this I mean you have to constantly be assessing where you can use the power that you have and what you have to let go of when you don’t have power.
What Selective Self-Control Looks Like
A good example of our use of selective self-control can be found in the differences between how we act at work versus how we act in our personal life. Most of us know that we have to maintain our self-control in the workplace even when things get frustrating, or your supervisor has done or said something disrespectful, or you have to complete task that you find boring or pointless. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.
You know that if you refuse to do your work, or you talk back aggressively to your disrespectful boss that you will end up suffering some consequences that you might not be prepared for. You don’t want to lose your job, so you practice self-control in this environment in order to prevent back-talking or going-off on your supervisor, and you suck it up and do what has to be done because you want to keep your job. If you have ever had to do this at work then congratulations, you have self-control!
However, the same people who can control themselves at work and avoid negative consequences in that situation can find it difficult to maintain self-control in their personal lives. They may get frustrated with their partner or their children and start yelling or getting aggressive. They may slack off doing things that need to get done at home because there’s no one to dole out consequences if they don’t finish something. Or they may tell themselves things that aren’t true, like “I can’t control myself when I feel angry”.
If that happens to you, then you might be using selective self-control. It’s true that in a workplace environment you may not always have power, because you might have a supervisor or someone “above” you in the hierarchy that you have to defer to and listen to their direction. However, as adults we usually have no such person in control of us in our personal life. It’s our choices that control how we handle problems or resolve conflicts.
If the difference between when you can control yourself and when you can’t is based on whether there is someone there to dole out consequences, then you are selectively choosing to only respond to consequences, and then relinquishing your control at other times. This is using selective self-control because your self-control is based on whether you will suffer consequences or not.
The strange thing is, you likely have MORE control in your personal life than you do at work, because if you are an adult, then you mostly answer to yourself. Yet people often claim that they can’t control themselves in their relationships, in their daily habits, or in setting and following through with their own goals.
To further this example, I will expand on something that I saw fairly frequently when I was working with military families as a contractor. I would see sailors that would be excelling at work: getting accolades from their Command and moving into leadership positions, or at a minimum, they would be staying out of trouble at work despite working in very intense, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming conditions. Yet when they would get home, they would have aggressive confrontations with their family, either losing their temper with their children or taking out their frustrations on their spouse.
When talking about the changes they wanted to make, they often stated that they felt out of control when they lost their temper and yelled at their spouse or their kids. They were able to maintain their self-control at work, pushing through very stressful conditions and duties, dealing with disrespect from their CoC, because they knew the consequences of losing control in that environment would be more than they were willing to pay.
Yet at home, there was no one there to deliver such consequences. The consequences they suffered due to losing control at home were mostly in the form of a loss of emotional connection with their spouse, which wasn’t an immediate and tangible consequence. This wasn’t enough to motivate them to maintain their self-control in the home environment.
There is another part to this problem of selective self-control, and that is the issue of diminishing motivation. We often lose motivation and lose self-control when we have been struggling to maintain control for too long. This happens frequently with dieters. You may start a diet, restrict your food choices, and try to control what you intake. You maintain control for a while, yet eventually, you break down. Why?
It takes energy, concentration, and motivation to maintain self-control. You have to resist your impulses, change your habits and swallow your pride at times. This always is going to require some effort. The more temptations, triggers, or stressors you experience, the more your self-control is diminished. This is why it can be hard when you have been maintaining control all day at work and then one more frustrating thing happens at home and you blow up at your spouse or raid the pantry. Researchers have suggested that self-control is a limited resource and that maintaining control at a high level depletes our self-control.
How to Master Self-Control
So what can we do? If we know that self-control is possible because we make choices to control our own behavior and resist our impulses all the time, but we also know that self-control gets depleted and staying too rigid for too long causes us to lose motivation for self-control, what is the solution?
Emotional intelligence is all about using our knowledge to help us make decisions about how to handle our emotions. So we have to confront the fact that our use of self-control may be selective at times. It’s not correct to say that you have no self-control when in reality you are using your self-control every day in different ways. Self-control keeps you from driving someone off the road when they cut you off, gets you out of bed when you want to sleep in, and stops you from burning the building down when someone steals your stapler. However, armed with the knowledge that we will eventually lose motivation to maintain that control we can take some preventative measures to help us build and practice real self-control.
Here are 10 tips to help you master self-control so you can practice and maintain your own power:
- Stress relief
When you’re stressed, you have less strength to resist your impulsive behaviors, so make sure you’re engaging in stress-relieving practices such as exercise, fun activities you enjoy, and looking at unhealthy habits that might be contributing to stress (such as lack of sleep).
- Practice Assertive Communication
When you are too passive, your feelings and frustrations will build up inside you, causing more stress and reducing your overall sense of self-control. Work on building your assertiveness skills so you feel more powerful in all areas of your life.
- Avoid Avoidance
Avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away, so try to practice addressing issues when they come up instead of avoiding them because you don’t want to face the discomfort of confronting the problem.
- Make room for rewards
If you never feel like your efforts at self-control will pay off, you’ll lose motivation, so reward yourself in positive ways when you’ve accomplished something you’re proud of. If you’re working on a long-term goal, set small goals that bring you closer to your big goal and then reward yourself periodically as you accomplish those smaller goals.
- Remind yourself of your goals
Keep your eye on the prize when it comes to those long-term goals and remind yourself what all this self-control is for. You’re practicing self-discipline so that you can accomplish a goal, whether that’s pushing for a health outcome or improving your relationship with your partner. Keep that goal in mind when you feel frustrated and want to give in to your impulses.
- Remind yourself of intangible consequences
Even if your spouse or partner can’t fire you, you can still lose their respect and affection. They might not leave you today, but if you can’t control yourself and understand the consequences of your actions, then you might lose the people you care about eventually. Remind yourself that just as goals can take a long time to come to fruition, so can consequences. People don’t usually leave their partner after one big argument, but they might leave after years of feeling intimidated or disrespected by the person who says they love them.
- Choose to be in control
Remember who has the power and who is on control. You won’t always be able to have control over everything that happens, particularly in the workplace or in other areas when you’re not the ruling authority. But you always have choices about how to conduct yourself and how to handle conflict that comes up. When you are in control, you will know it because you’ll feel confident about your choices. Often, it’s when people give in to their lowest impulses that they feel “out of control” or ashamed of themselves. Recognize your power over your own choices and discover what real power feels like.
Little things are always going to come along that frustrate you. We all have to build frustration tolerance skills, which will help you from succumbing to road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic. Read more about how to build frustration tolerance in this post.
- Don’t try to be perfect
Think progress, not perfection. No one can be perfect all the time. Whether it’s with your diet, your career goals, or your personal development, making mistakes is how we learn and get better. Trying to be perfect will just result in that diminishing motivation phenomenon, so give yourself credit for your accomplishments and practice gratitude for the progress you’ve already made.
- Find your joy
Everyone deserves to enjoy their own life, so think about what brings you joy and try to work that into your life in any way possible, big or small. When you get to experience what brings you joy you will be more motivated to do what it takes to get you there again. This is the part where all your hard work and self-control pays off, so when you find your joy, revel in it and soak it up.
Self-control doesn’t have to be selective. When you give yourself credit for what you already know you can do you will feel more confident about your ability to maintain self-control. I’m willing to bet that you have practiced self-control in some areas of your life already, so you know what it feels like to suppress that urge to tell off your boss. You just have to apply the same skills you used then to other areas of your life. Practice these tips and build that mental muscle so you feel capable of controlling your impulses and building your own sense of power.