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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During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #adolescence 
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"We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say 'no' sometimes, and if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.❤️" 
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#neurodevelopment #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting

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