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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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