President's Column - June 2004

The positive psychology of self-control
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

It is a picture-perfect summer evening. The setting sun bathes the parkland in a gentle glow. The towering pine trees, in their dark green uniform, stand on guard, watching over the children playing. Some young couples walk leisurely along the glistening lake, pushing a stroller or holding the leash of a dog. Further away from the lake on the sports-field, around the track a number of people either jog or do their "power walk". In the middle of the field, young people play soccer. Beyond the field, boys with their baseball caps worn backward take turns displaying their athleticism in the skateboard park. An old couple sit quietly on a bench; they seem happy just being there.

Birds and crickets provide the background music that harmonizes with the rhythms of life in every realm. Every now and then, a lone bird flies across the sky into the setting sun, with grace and artistry. Warm, fresh air, with the scent of freshly cut grass, fills my lungs. Goodness and beauty are all around me. Peace and serenity permeate the entire space. All of a sudden, I was swept away by waves of gratitude and overwhelmed by feelings of awe. At that moment, I feel a sense of perfect harmony with God and all of His creation. Life just can't get any better! Why can't the world go on like this?

But gradually, the sun withdraws its warm, golden arms and casts its last lingering glance over the distant hills before retreating from view. I recall a famous Dang poem by Li Shang-Yin: "The sunset is glorious beyond measure, but, alas, the evening is drawing near."

Day and night and the twilight zone

Soon the last vestige of the Day is gone, and the nocturnal world begins to extend its domain. The Night is always seductive and menacing, all at once, with its black magic and secrets. As I wander around in darkness, my perspective shifts and I feel the chill of the dark and unknown.

There is a host of characters and creatures inhabiting the night: the vampires looking for the next feed on human blood to stay alive, the headless ghosts roaming the streets seeking vengeance, the pimps and prostitutes setting traps for seekers of cheap thrills, the terrorists planting their deadly devices, the thieves robbing others of their dreams, and all the creepy night crawlers preying on unsuspecting victims.

But life is not so simple and the world cannot be clearly divided into Day and Night!

In reality, there exists a twilight zone between heaven and hell - it has no identifiable name, no boundaries and no road signs. Yet it's inhabitants continue to infiltrate our society and destroy what is good and decent. I cannot help but wonder: How many evil deeds have been conceived in the heart of darkness, fashioned in boardrooms behind close doors, and carried out by respectable people in broad day light!

The most dangerous people are wolves in sheep's clothing. They live among us as friends, neighbors and leaders in their pious, official robes, while carrying out their subversive activities. They have perfected the skill to conceal and deceive. They can poison our souls, anesthetize our minds, and paralyze our wills undetected, and then deliver a deadly blow with surgical precision. They exploit and destroy others all in the name of God, country and humanity. They even consider killing as an act of worship as long as it is done as onto God. The graves of many innocent victims bear silent witness to their whitewashed corruption and brutality.

Self-control, shared control and external control

How are the above thoughts related to the topic of self-control? Let us begin by revisiting the beautiful park scene.

Three types of control must be present in order to achieve the kind of positive community I have just described in my opening paragraph: self-control, shared control, and submission to external control must work together in concert.

Self-control is the foundation for any democratic, civil society. All individuals are free to pursue their activities as self-determining agents, whether it is jogging, skateboarding, or playing soccer. However, their autonomy is regulated by self-control mechanisms just as their bodies are regulated by a set of receptors, set points and feedback mechanisms to maintain homeostasis.

These self-control mechanisms include a set of internalized rules, set points for various behaviors, specific goals, and continuous feedback through self-monitoring and interactions with others. As long as everyone behaves within socially prescribed boundaries through the exercise of self-control, there will be little or no conflict.

However, self-control cannot be very effective all by itself. It is difficult to maintain self-control, when others do not play by the rule and take advantage of those who do. There needs to be shared control among peers. Such mutual control mechanisms include shared values, peer accountability, checks and balances, and social contract. Independence must be complemented by interdependence. Even the explosive energy of a creative genius cannot be allowed to trample on the personal space of less creative individuals. Social life will flourish only when everyone exercises self-restraint and respects each other's rights.

Finally, self-control and shared control cannot survive without voluntary submission to the rule of law and the legitimate authority. The defining feature of a democracy is more than one-person-one-vote; it must include the rule of law and a judicial system, which offers equal protection to all individuals.

We willingly submit to external control, when the legitimate authority represents collective will and serves the common good. We need a strong government to enforce the law and provide security so we can be free to pursue our dreams.

Submission to authority can even be extended to God or Higher Power. When human efforts fail, we can always find refuge and seek guidance from the Creator. In the final analysis, belief in final judgment and ultimate justice provides the necessary motivational and logical grounding for all three types of human controls.

When any one of these three kinds of control is missing, it provides an opening for evil. Issues of control are at the very heart of personal growth and organizational leadership; they deserve careful analysis and close examination.

Definition of self-control

Self-control may be defined as the exercise of internal control over one's own actions. This exercise may take the form of mental regulation, emotional management, goal setting, self-monitoring and making responsible choices.

In spite of this simple definition, we need to appreciate the complexity of self-control. The following represents the different facets and distinct functions of self-control.

  • To the extent that self-control can be acquired through socialization and education, it can be considered a skill.
  • Self-control becomes self-discipline, as long as it requires intentional effort to exercise self-control.
  • However, when it is practiced habitually for some time, it becomes a personality or character trait.
  • When one resists temptation in order to achieve a desired goal, self-control becomes a virtue.
  • Self-control becomes a thought process, because of the cognitive processes and mental regulations needed to implement self-control.
  • When it is the by-product of spiritual transformation, then, it may be considered as a spiritual gift.
  • When self-control is tested by unrelenting pressure or prolonged deprivation, then its continuation depends on internal resources such as character, courage, faith, purpose, endurance. In this case, self-control may be considered a resource, an important part of a cluster of inner resources.
  • Finally, self-control requires motivation. Even when one possesses all of the above, in certain situations, such as a special celebration or an artificial psychology experiment, one may decide to briefly give up self-control for the occasion.

Unlike physiological mechanisms, most self-control mechanisms need to be acquired through conditioning, learning and socialization. As adults, we are held responsible for our thoughts, emotions and behaviors to the extent that these are subject to self-control.

An important part of self-control has to do with regulating one's own emotions so that one's behavior is situation-appropriate and socially acceptable. Even though feelings are generally considered uncontrollable, their intensity and expressions can be regulated.

The importance of self-control

We admire the spontaneity and transparency of little children. They have no guile and no disguise. They can be engulfed with the sheer joy of the moment, unencumbered by the past or the future

A coupe of months ago, I went to my sister's family dinner. A boy shouted across the table as soon as I walked in: "Uncle Paul, you are ugly. Why are you so ugly? " Is his remark cute or rude for an eight-year-old grade-two child? Is it proper for adults to grant children the license to ridicule other people's physical appearance? Is it advisable to create a permissive environment so that children can freely express themselves and do whatever that strikes their fancy? Is it possible that children can naturally become the "noble savages" as theorized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

Regardless of how we answer the above questions, no one can deny that children need to learn self-control. Self-control encompasses the skills to gain control over their own behaviors, such as following instructions and rules, focusing on the task at hand, and taking responsibility for their actions. Without self-control skills, behavior problems will multiply and serious learning cannot take place; without a sense of responsibility, they are not ready to join society. That's why parents and educators are very concerned about teaching children self-control skills.

It is important to remember that children are not miniature adults. They cannot handle the same kind of freedom as adults. They need to learn the importance of boundaries and following rules. However, too much control by adults can be just as counterproductive as too much freedom with respect to the development of self-control skills.

Even adults will experience all sorts of problems, if they have not learned adequate self-control skills in today's complex and fast changing society. Just consider the following scenarios:

  • A careless word or a caring touch can ruin one's career in the minefield of political correctness and litigation craze.
  • In a global village with competing worldviews and civilizations, one has to be sensitive to other people's values and traditions. Such awareness requires a certain amount of self-control and humility in order not to fall into the easy trap of ethnocentric arrogance.
  • To stay competitive in a knowledge economy, one needs many years of higher education and professional training. Prolonged education means delay of gratification.
  • Given the breakdown of traditional values and conventional morality, coupled with the daily onslaught of temptations from TV and the Internet, individuals must follow their own moral compass in order to avoid "shipwreck".
  • Life is full of frustration and injustice. But this does not justify outbursts of rage and violence. When anger is not properly managed, it can destroy one's life.
  • Addictions, eating disorders, and all sorts of adjustment problems are related to self-control issues.

Self-control is necessary not only for personal success but also for spiritual progress. All major religions emphasize the virtue of self-control.

"Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city." (The Bible, NIV, Proverbs 16:32)

"Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self control." (The Bible NIV, Proverbs 25:28)

"With the conquest of my mind, I have conquered the whole world." (Sikhism. Adi Granth, Japuji 28, M.1, p.6)

"He who conquers himself is strong." (Tao Te Ching 33)

"Man makes a harness for his beast; all the more should he make one for the beast within himself, his evil desire." (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.1)

"Faring far, wandering alone, bodiless, lying in a cave, is the mind. Those who subdue it are freed from the bonds of Mara. (Buddhism. Dhammapdada 37)

"Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal." (Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 6.36)

The danger of excessive self-control

More is not better when it comes to self-control. We need to lighten up and grant ourselves permission to be a fool from time to time. Do take ourselves too seriously. Remember that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a virtue.

Those who attempt to exercise perfect self-control will become a killjoy for themselves as well as others. Their self-imposed caution and rigidity will rob them of whatever spontaneity and fun they may still have. Their fixation in naval-gazing will make them vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

Worse still, there are those who exercise perfect self-control in order not to blow the cover of their true identity. Their every action is measured and every word is carefully selected. They seldom reveal their emotions, and their behaviors are always proper for the occasion. They are the smooth operators, skilful in the art of deception and manipulation.

To them, self-control is simply one of the tools they use to maintain a positive public image. They are driven by an ulterior motive, a secret agenda. They are the charlatans, the con artists, and the under-cover agents for the Devil. They may be the politicians, the religious leaders, judges, lawyers, teachers and pillars of society. They will go to any extent to maintain their fašade, regardless of the cost.

These hypocrites never fail to send chills down my spine. I can detect them miles away, because I have suffered much in their hands and have witnessed the many evils they have done in the name of God and morality. In order to ensure the rule of law and the well-being of ordinary people, we need to expose these wolves in sheepskins whenever and wherever we find them. We need to have the courage to shout: "The emperor has no clothes", but we have to be prepared to pay the price.

Conclusion

Much has been written on this subject. A lot of theorizing and research has been done on self-control and self-regulation. But, most of the writers tend to focus on self-control as an individual enterprise.

However, the self does not exist in a vacuum. The social, cultural and spiritual context in which one moves also matters a great deal. I propose that the positive psychology of self-control must be modulated by shared control and external control, especially, the invisible hand of a sovereign God. We can experience the freedom and benefits of self-control only within these constraints.

The intricate and delicate checks and balances between the three types of control are difficult to maintain, but without which we cannot develop healthy self-control mechanisms. Any kind of imbalance between these three types of control will result in personal and social problems. Therefore, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are sitting on a wobbly three-legged stool, while enjoying the intoxicating beauty of a set sun. But be careful lest we fall.