Self-control is an incredibly useful skill. Being able to resist short-term impulses with the potential of a bigger upside in the long term gives you a considerable advantage in life. However, it doesn’t necessarily make you happier as it has its hidden dark side.
The ability to delay gratification was first studied in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment led by psychologist Walter Mischel in 1972. In fact, he performed another test two years earlier with a bit different focus and with cookies and pretzel sticks as an incentive, but it is the later test that is better known. In this test, children between 3 to 6 years old were offered a choice. Either an immediate reward in the form of one delicious marshmallow or two marshmallows if the child waited 15 minutes. Those who were able to resist the temptation were later in their lives described as more competent and had better grades at school.
Finding the right goals
Olga Stavrova, Tila Pronk, and Michail D. Kokkoris took a novel look at how self-control impacts our lives. They postulated that self-control is associated with successful goal progress not only because of the focus individuals give it but also because of the type of goals people with strong self-control select in the first place.
The researchers defined self-control as the ability to engage in goal-directed behavior. Self-control utilizes two ways to achieve positive outcomes. First, it facilitates goal attainment through higher focus and less likelihood of temptations and distractions. Second, those with high self-control develop useful strategies like beneficial habits and daily routines.
“Those with high self-control tend to select goals aligned with their genuine interests and values.”
Stavrova and the team proposed that those with high self-control tend to select goals aligned with their genuine interests and values. Those with low self-control are more willing to yield to social pressure and focus on socially desirable goals rather than on their authentic ones. Those with high self-control are more likely to focus on goals for more intrinsic reasons. It is a virtuous cycle. If you have strong self-control, you focus on goals that have a deeper meaning for you. Therefore you are more motivated to achieve them. Consequently, you exhibit more self-control and are ultimately more successful in getting positive outcomes.
The dark side of self-control
So far, so good. Unfortunately, not all is as rosy as it may appear. While being able to delay gratification will serve you well in life, there is such a thing as too much self-control.
One of the problems is that if you are good at self-control, you sort of mute your emotions. You become a robot. Not only are you able to resist desires, you actually don’t have them in the first place. This leads to an impoverished emotional life. Which can be both good and bad, I guess.
Rebekah L. Layton and Mark Muraven examined the link between self-control and restricting emotions. They discovered that self-control is associated with fewer emotional fluctuations and with lower intensity of those emotions. Self-control can reduce emotional extremes, and even though it is often desirable, there are situations when it can be detrimental.
Emotional self-regulation is desirable in many interpersonal interactions. It helps facilitate better cooperation and communication. However, if applied inappropriately, it can lead to the inability to experience those emotions fully and even to the failure to experience strong positive emotions—a life without happiness.
What researchers Michail D. Kokkoris and Olga Stavrova found is that too much self-control can lead to regret. You probably heard it before, no one on their deathbed regrets not spending more time at work. People often regret exerting too much self-control and not enjoying themselves more.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse, spent several years caring for patients in the last weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
The top five regrets those she cared for most often voiced: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. I wish I’d let myself be happier.
“We regret more not becoming the person we wanted to become than not becoming the person others wanted us to be.”
They are all about being ourselves, being self-aware, being in touch with our emotions, and allowing ourselves to live a full life. We regret more not becoming the person we wanted to become than not becoming the person others wanted us to be. This is being confirmed even by serious research. Researchers found that the biggest regrets involve things we failed to do. It is not the regret of doing something and failing. The regret of not trying in the first place haunts us more.
The trick is in the amount of time that passes. If we do something and fail, our brain will quickly jump in and rationalize the action. We convince ourselves that it wasn’t our fault or it wasn’t that bad. However, if we don’t take action in the first place, it lingers in our memory longer without resolution. So we regret it more.
Long-term virtue or short-term vice?
Ran Kivetz and Anat Keinan summarized this in their research and proposed that choosing long-term virtue over short-term vice leads to increased regret. With time we feel more missing out on the pleasures of life. This is an irony of modern life as we are bombarded with advice on increasing self-discipline and resisting hedonistic temptations. In fact, it is one of the key skills I suggest you build to live a life worth living. The trick here would be not having the desires in the first place so you can’t regret them later on.
“Choosing long-term virtue over short-term vice leads to increased regret.”
Most of the research up to this point suggested that people succumb to temptations they originally planned to resist and later on regret that choice. Even though that may be true, excessive overcontrol can also be harmful. This often manifests in the form of people being willing to make short-term sacrifices in the hope of some future benefit. A benefit that never comes. Thinking like, “I will be happy when I get the next salary increase or promotion.” Or “Things will improve, and I will have more time for exercise once the current project finishes.” These are moving targets. The chances are good that when you get the promotion, you will start working on the next one; when you get the salary increase, your spending will also rise, and you will need more money; and when the current project ends, there will be two more waiting. You are making sacrifices and postponing pleasure for a later time. A time that will never come. And then the regret kicks in.
“Time enhances a regret of righteousness and decreases a regret of indulgence.”
The time separation between the event and our evaluation of it makes all the difference. Time enhances a regret of righteousness and decreases a regret of indulgence. Regret follows a systematic time course. Actions or errors of commission cause more regret in the short term. Inactions, or errors of omission, cause more regret in the long term.
It is not only about emotions and regret
Self-control is a trait of supervillains. Research suggests that even though self-control leads to less antisocial behavior, as people with strong self-control can resist the urges and temptations to do something they shouldn’t, it also has a negative side. Once they commit to a misdeed, they are less likely to get caught. High self-control is linked to success, regardless of whether you engage in good or bad behavior.
“High self-control is linked to success, regardless of whether you engage in good or bad behavior.”
Another problem with extreme self-control is that others recognize it in us and will abuse it. People tend to rely on those who have strong self-control and who are able to stay calm under pressure. This then leads these superhumans to be overloaded by the work put on them by others. So even though self-control benefits interpersonal interactions, it also has its costs.
Be self-compassionate and find the right balance
There are times when a bit of self-compassion is required for our mental health. Self-compassion includes self-kindness, not being overly critical of ourselves; common humanity, seeing our experiences as a part of broader human experience; and mindfulness, having painful feelings balanced awareness rather than identifying with them. It is about positive self-attitude that protects us against self-judgment, depression, narcissism, and anything that gets our self-esteem out of balance.
“Self-control is beneficial for those who use reason as a primary tool for decision-making, but may have a less positive effect on those who use emotions when making decisions.”
Researchers Kokkoris, Hoelzl, and Alos-Ferrer found evidence that individuals experience higher satisfaction with restraint the more they rely on reason than on feelings. Authenticity, or being true to yourself, impacts how you feel about your choices. This ultimately leads to the conclusion that self-control is hugely beneficial for those who use reason as a primary tool for decision-making and for dealing with the world but may have a less positive effect on those who use emotions and feelings when making decisions.
Both the lack or over-reliance on self-control can lead to regret. It is the art of life to find the right balance between focusing on the short-term versus the long-term, living in the moment, and enjoying life as it is. The right mindset is the key here. If you have desires and need self-control to deal with them, you get regret in one form or another. If you are satisfied with how life is and don’t have too many desires, then there is nothing to regret. The unchecked desires, whether short-term or long-term, will lead you to trouble and cause lots of painful regret in your life.
“The unchecked desires, whether short-term or long-term, will cause a lot of painful regret in your life.”
With more self-control, you can focus more on aspirations and less on preventing hindrances along the way. The natural consequence is that those with higher self-control tend to have more satisfying and happy lives.
To sum it up, everything in life needs to be taken in moderation, and that also applies to self-control.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that self-control is a good thing? In what situations is too much self-control harmful? Do you know someone with superior self-control skills and how do they behave?
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