Most of us get shy and shameful when we hear the word “self-control,” mainly because most of us aren’t good at it. Self-control is discipline’s ugly big brother that is almost impossible to get right, and nearly as difficult to talk about. Every since I was eight years old, the very term has made me fidget in my chair. It’s uncomfortable for me because I’m bad at eating healthy and I really like buying shoes.
On a deeper level, there are other things I want to abstain from in my mind and my spirit, but my human greed wants them so bad it hurts. That is where it gets tricky. It a challenge, but if we can watch out for the right things, we can all get better at self-control. Maybe if we can manage to stand up to ourselves in the same way we stand up for ourselves, it would change the trajectory of our thought processes. Of course, there’s grace when we mess up (because we will mess up, and often). But learning to recognize and guard against the big enemies of self-control can help free us from bad habits—and the guilt that often comes with them.
Here are a few enemies of self-control to be aware of in moments of weakness.
1. “I Just Feel Like It!”
The idea of risk reversal was created long ago to help ease a buyer’s mind in the buying process. This is where all the “love it, or your money back, guaranteed” stuff comes from.
Unfortunately, however, life can’t be undone and exchanged for store credit. Mistakes that don’t wear price tags can cost you much more than you bargained for. Ephesians 5:15-16 warns us about these kinds of decisions. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey says, “The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person.” Being a proactive and wise person requires the ability to recognize your own impulsiveness, pause before you make a snap decision, and ask, “How does this fit into the value lane I’ve created for myself?”
Ahhh mannn! That’s boring, right?
The truth is, this doesn’t have to be restricting. In the face of a generation that says spontaneity only involves “doing what you feel” and chalks most poor decisions up to #YOLO, self-control introduces a different perspective. Choosing a few areas in your life as non-negotiables can actually provide incredible freedom and clarity, and help you define what you want your life to look like in 10-20-30 years.
If you hold onto those values with everything you have, you can be free to live incredibly spontaneous and whimsical in all the other areas of your life, without fear of flying off the tracks.
2. “Just This Once”
Another large threat against self-control is the whisper that says “It’ll be OK just this time.”
Clay Christensen, a Harvard business professor and world-renowned innovation expert, addresses this brilliantly in his book How Will You Measure Your Life. He says,
Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. If you give in to “just this once,”… you’ll regret where you end up.
It’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.
Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.
It is easy to slip into bad habits and temperaments when you accept a “just this once” mentality. But this causes us to live in fear of the unknown, wondering if we’ll have what it takes to make the right choice tomorrow or next week.
But self-control says, “I will stand up to myself, and conduct myself against the same code whether the moment is chaotic or calm, complicated or clear.”
3. “It’ll Make Me Happy!”
Where the Fruit of the Spirit live in Galatians 5, the word self-control in the original language is closer related to the ability to master desires and passions, especially sensual appetites. One of the ugliest ways to undermine self-control is through pleasure, settling for the immediate “good feeling” over the longer-term, sustainable benefits.
A popular study done by Stanford University tested preschool-aged children’s ability to delay gratification. They sat a child down in a private room with a single marshmallow in front of them on a table. The mediator told the child that he was leaving the room, and the child could eat the marshmallow while he was gone. But if the child did not eat the marshmallow, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows when he returned. But if the child chose to eat the marshmallow, they would not receive another.
It was a choice of one now or two later.
No surprise, the camera footage of the children alone in the room was quite hilarious. Some ate the marshmallow as soon as the door shut. Others squirmed for a few minutes examining, or even licking, the marshmallow before choosing to devour it piece-by-piece. But there were a few who chose not to eat the treat.
Though this experiment became quite popular when it was published in 1972, the really interesting reports didn’t come until years later. After performing follow-up studies over the next 10-12 years, the researchers found that the children who were able to wait for the two marshmallows were found to have higher SAT scores, lower susceptibility to substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better social skills and better response to stress.
The ability to delay gratification—and choose sustainable happiness over short-term pleasure—has been proven to be a core quality of successful, happy people. Just take it from the kids: pleasure is not happiness, and we’d do well to consciously choose the latter.