The Sabotage of Self-Control – And How To Get It Back

The Sabotage of Self-Control - And How To Get It Back

There are times when we act with extreme altruism, giving up time, energy and the beginning of ‘Law and Order’ out of concern for the greater good.

Once we have selflessly taken care of the greater good by, say, stacking the dishwasher, we may well consider ourselves deserving of a treat perhaps a glass of wine(s) or a proper dessert (and no – in these circumstances fruit is not a dessert, unless it’s in a pie, a sauce or accompanied by something dairy).

At this point our internal chatter picks up, ‘You’ve worked really hard. You deserve a treat – that high voltage dessert or a second glass of wine will do nicely. And don’t worry, it doesn’t count as a breach of the healthy eating thing you started this morning because you’ve earned it. And besides, it’s a special occasion. All evenings are.’ Recognise it?

Temptation: one.

Self-control: zero.

Despite the very best of intentions temptation can take over, leaving self-control gasping for breath on a cold concrete floor.

Enter the scientists.

A recent study has shined a light, a floodlight really, on one of the ways self-control is self-sabotaged.

Good intentions are not always translated into action. According to the literature, the rate at which people act on their good intentions is about 50%.

There may a few reasons for this but one that has been recently explored is self talk, specifically the use of justifications to permit indulgence.

Researchers have found six main justifications that people use to allow temptation. Nobody is saying indulgence is a bad thing. I say, come on over indulgence because I love you – I always have. It is, however, the enemy of self-control, which is necessary to stop short-term goals (e.g. getting pleasure from eating cake) from taking to long-term goals (e.g. getting healthy) with a big stick. Or a bulldozer.

The problem with justifications is that they tend to become automatic. We act on them without consciously noticing them. 

The key to self-control is to act more deliberately. This involves being aware of the automatic thoughts that undermine good intentions and self-control. 

There are the six main justifications that do the damage. Here they are in black and white – from back of mind where they fly well under the radar, to front and centre where they can be caught and controlled:

  1. I deserve it.

    ‘I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a treat’/‘I’m stressed out’/’This will make be feel better’/’It’s a special occasion.’

  2. I’m curious.

    ‘It looks gorgeous in the ad’/’My friends/relatives told me about this.’

  3. This one is an exception to the norm.

    ‘Once in a while is ok.’

  4. I’ll make up for it later.

    ‘I’ll eat healthy tomorrow’/’I’ll exercise later.’

  5. The temptation is available.

    ‘It’s here, may as well eat it’/‘It’s been made for me’/’It will go to waste otherwise.’

  6. The temptation is irresistible.

    ‘It just looks crazy good.’

Research has revealed that the more people use justifications the higher their fat intake and intake of unhealthy food generally. This is despite holding strong intentions to avoid doing so.

Justifications are not simply a rationalisation or excuse after the fact. They have their impact at the moment of indulgence, influencing the decision to snack or not to snack.

Using justifications at all will diminish self-control in unrelated areas. One study asked people to justify whether or not to go on a holiday with friends instead of a partner. Those who used justifications showed less self-control in a subsequent task which involved deciding whether or not to eat chocolate.

To change a habit or to increase self-control:
.  Be aware of the justifications that you use to permit yourself to indulge;

.  Minimise other situations where justification might be necessary.

Be aware of the justifications that might be used to skittle self-control. By putting the justification(s) squarely on show, it’s less likely to be a vague faceless force whispering sweetly in your ear, pretending it’s no trouble at all.

Once justifications are activated, indulgence is likely to follow even if the justification is unrelated.

In situations that require self-disclipline or self-control (such as dieting, studying, exercising, quitting cigarettes), try to minimise other situations where justification might also be necessary.

Temptation in any area has the potential to activate justifications. Once those justifications are activated, they’ll go to work in unrelated areas.

For example, given what we know about temptation and justification, it may initially be harder to sustain a strict exercise and eating plan simultaneously. Try for one at a time – start with exercise or eating – at least until one area becomes more of a habit and requires less self-control.

Willpower is not a bottomless well. When the well starts to run dry justifications will be used to avoid tapping into reserves.

The less you can have tapping into the well at once, the more likely you will be to succeed at whatever it is you are heading towards.

Self talk – the things we tell ourselves – are so powerful and influence action as though they were the sage words of a learned scholar. A large part of their power is because they are automatic.

Naming the justification and acknowledging that ‘this is what I do’ stops the response being automatic. It’s paradoxical, but the more a response – in this case, the justification – can be named and accepted as playing a part, the more able we are to make an informed, conscious decision based on wisdom rather than habit.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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