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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