positive psychology of self-control
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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
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.