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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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