Let’s Talk About… Self Control

By Jeremy Godwin

What is self control? And, more importantly, what is healthy self control? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.

So, get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 29 May, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 133, and thanks so much for joining me!

I’m Jeremy Godwin and I talk about looking after your mental health. I spent most of the 2010’s dealing with severe anxiety and depression, after a breakdown in late 2011, and that led me to want to learn more about my mental health… so I went back to school and studied psychology and sociology, and now I share simple tips for how to improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges. Each episode I look at how to improve one specific aspect of your wellbeing.

This episode is all about self control and I’ll be talking about what self control is (and what it isn’t), why self control matters, and how to develop a healthy sense of self control. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

Back in 1984, Laura Branigan did a cover version of the song Self Control (which was originally released by Italian singer Raf) and in it she sung about being helpless to control herself when faced with her inability to say no to a night out on the town; mind you, it sounds to me like she’s talking about being possessed by the nightlife rather than just having a lack of self control, which is ironic because the video clip was directed by the same guy who directed The Exorcist so, who knows, maybe she was. Although I have no idea if that can happen from a night out; I haven’t stepped foot in a nightclub since 2009 because the last time I did, within minutes I felt tired and cranky because the music was too loud and that’s how I knew I was officially old. Anyway, enough about my senior citizen issues, back to the topic at hand… self control, which apparently is something I don’t have when it comes to going off on tangents!

Self control is one of those topics that could very easily make your eyes roll back into your head with boredom, because we all know it can go hand-in-hand with willpower and denying yourself of things. But I’m a firm believer in finding a healthy balance in all things so I’m starting off today by saying that you can most definitely have your cake and eat it too; just in moderation (which was the topic of Episode 128). Healthy self control is a balancing act between your wants and your needs, and it’s about making choices that allow you to have fun while also prioritising your long-term wellbeing. 

Like I said at the end of last week’s episode, if we were to just act on every single thought or impulse we have then the world would be an absolute mess… however, the other end of that spectrum is not to go too far from being your true and authentic self, because then you deny yourself your own reality and that takes away from your life satisfaction. So how do you find the balance? Well, I’ll talk about that in a bit but first let’s cover off on some definitions and let’s talk about…

What is self control?

And it’s the ability to control yourself, in particular your emotions and desires, especially in difficult situations (and that definition is adapted from the Oxford Dictionary).

Let’s look at that in a bit more detail. According to VeryWell Mind, self control is “the ability to regulate and alter your responses in order to avoid undesirable behaviors, increase desirable ones, and achieve long-term goals.” (And that article is linked in the transcript on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes; the link is in the episode description). https://www.verywellmind.com/psychology-of-self-control-4177125  

I said back in the procrastination episode (which was Episode 129) that I can sometimes find myself becoming easily distracted; I just did it (without even realising it) while I was writing this very sentence — seriously, for some reason I suddenly remembered that I needed to make sure I had a new pen ready to go before a client appointment in the evening and I could not focus on anything else until I had done it (although, to be fair, that could just be the fact that I was tired and I knew that if I didn’t do it immediately then I would probably forget). The thing about self control is that it involves ideally avoiding doing things that you might wind up regretting later; in my case, that means making sure I do the work so I can stay on track for when this episode needs to be ready. I have a few extra commitments in my diary this week which has meant I’ve had to really knuckle-down and focus on getting this episode written without allowing myself to succumb to distractions… particularly hard to do when there are 1,001 things fighting for my attention on any given day!

I’m sharing all of that because I want to also highlight what self control is not; it’s not a reason to deny yourself or to punish yourself if you make a mistake or become distracted. I don’t really think that self-punishment works all that well; I think you just end up pissing yourself off and all that does is make life feel a bit more crap than it has to. That doesn’t mean that you just give yourself a free pass to do whatever the hell you like (because that would result in carnage and then nothing would ever get done!) but it means that you choose to be kind to yourself if and when you drop the ball, and it also means that you choose to see those mistakes as learning opportunities rather than outright failures.

Self control is really impulse control; in other words, being more thoughtful and considered in the choices you make, in how you act on your impulses, and in your general approach to things. Finding that balance between what you want and what you need is essential in order to support your continued growth as a human being. Why? Because if you act on every single impulse or thought you have, you’ll very quickly find yourself in a total mess; look at what happened to all of those kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for an example of what happens when self control goes out the window. So with that idea of balance in mind, let’s now talk about… 

Why self control matters

And it matters because the choices you make today create your reality tomorrow. What you do or do not do today is going to have a direct influence on what your future looks and feels like, and so a healthy amount of self control enables you to shape your future in a positive way while also not denying yourself (because moderation in all things). 

I’ve mentioned ‘balance’ a few times and the thing is that self control means understanding that balance is necessary between your head and your heart in all things. What does that mean? It means that if your choices and actions are driven too much by your head, or by logical and rational factors, then you miss out on the all the stuff that is emotional (which tends to be what feels more important to us), whereas if your choices are too driven by your heart then you can very easily wind up doing and saying things that create a big old mess. Finding a balance takes time and it is a conscious choice that you make in order to prioritise self control and peace of mind in whatever you choose to do or not do.

Let’s take a moment to talk about discipline and willpower. Having some difficulty with your willpower doesn’t make you a bad person… it just makes you a person. Willpower is one of those things that can mean different things to different people; some of us have lots of willpower, others (like me) can find it tough to resist temptation. That doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined, it just means that sometimes your emotional needs override your practical needs. I don’t see the point in beating yourself up for that fact; instead, I think it’s healthier to see it as an opportunity to build habits and practices in your life that help to create a more disciplined approach to what you do or don’t do (instead of just hoping that you can force yourself to have willpower and then feeling crappy about yourself if you fail). Creating consistent routines helps to lock in greater discipline, and I’ll talk about how to do that in a little bit.

Before I do, let me just say that self control actually ties into lots of different aspects of your wellbeing such as moderation, perfectionism, self-care, finding balance and how you deal with distractions (which are all topics I’ve covered in past episodes and I’ve linked them in the transcript), and I say all of that because these are all aspects of your mental health and wellbeing that you can influence by understanding the role that self control plays for you and coming up with proactive ways to approach them. How do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this episode and let’s talk about…

How to develop a healthy sense of self control

I’m going to start with one of my all-time favourite bits of advice which is clearly define your priorities — and I say this about 84 times an episode because, quite frankly, unless you really know what matters most to you then how can you even begin to know what to do next? You cannot possibly be and do everything in life (I mean, who has the time or the energy?!) and so you need to know what truly matters to you, prioritise those things, and then let everything else just be background noise. Or, in other words, choose to put first things first. That helps you with self control because it reinforces this simple bit of advice I’m about to give: if it matters, make it matter; if it doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter. One way to do that is with my next point… 

Look at the big picture — because we can so easily find ourselves caught up in the day-to-day mundane stuff of life but, honestly, how much of what happens today are you actually going to remember in five or 10 years’ time? Not a lot! Instead of letting every little thing grab your attention, be mindful and focused on the bigger picture of your life and where you’re headed generally. OK, next…

Define what ‘healthy choices’ look like for you — and this is where I start to be a bit more specific about self control, especially if you tend to find willpower to be a bit of a challenge. One person’s ‘healthy’ is another person’s nightmare, so you need to know what ‘healthy choices’ look and feel like in practice for you. The sort-of general guidance I give here is to apply my philosophy of doing no harm (to yourself or others), being kind (to yourself and others) and giving more than you take (from yourself and from others); I suggest using that as a guide to figure out what is healthy for you versus what isn’t (and please bear in mind what I said back in Episode 128 about ‘moderation in all things’ — you don’t need to become a monk or give up all of your worldly possessions to be ‘healthy’… just find balance and don’t overdo things). Which leads to my next point… 

Be proactive about looking after your wellbeing — and by this I mean your overall wellbeing: physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial. Why do I say this? Because they’re not going to look after themselves and nobody is going to do it for you. The annoying thing about being an adult is that suddenly you have to do everything for yourself (and also it’s annoying that having to work out your own meals becomes a thing that you have to do multiple times a day for the rest of your life, but that’s a whole other story!), but the advantage of all of that is that you get to shape your life in the way that you want. And if you’re not happy with something, you get to change it… which is actually pretty fantastic when you think about it! OK, next…

Plan ahead — and if you are easily tempted by the things that aren’t necessarily healthy for you (or which are just downright bad for you) then I’m just going to go ahead and say this really bluntly: unhealthy choices come with unhealthy outcomes, and so if you want to improve your sense of self control and create more discipline then you need to plan for how you’re going to do that and, more importantly, how you’re going to avoid temptation. One way to do that is to have a plan B for things; for example, if you’re in a social situation where you might be tempted to have a drink but you’ve decided to limit your alcohol intake, be prepared for that by either seeing what non-alcoholic options are available or even taking some with you (I just went to this trivia night thing a couple of weeks ago and I took along my own sugar-free alcohol-free cocktails because I wanted to have something other than just a regular soft drink or water but I’ve been sober since July 2018 so I needed to plan ahead). And so that leads to my next point… 

Create healthy habits and routines for yourself — which goes beyond the planning thing I was just talking about and looks more at how you create greater discipline and structure for yourself in line with your goals. It’s not really the things you do every now and then that shape your life; it’s the things you do daily and weekly. Think about food: the odd unhealthy meal once a month or so isn’t going to make that much of a difference, but eating poorly will definitely have an impact if it’s something you do daily or several times a week. I talked about habits back in Episode 29 and motivation in Episode 117, so you might find those helpful. I will also say here that you can build those types of routines for all aspects of your life, including your relationships with others; for example, by planning and being consistent in terms of what you will or will not do if you’re dealing with specific situations or triggers (and I covered triggers in Episode 91). I keep coming back to the idea of planning ahead this episode and it really is something that can help you to stay on track with the things that matter most to you. Which brings me to my next point… 

Focus on just one or two goals at a time — because the more you try to do, the harder it will likely be to maintain your full focus and that will leave you more open to temptation and distraction. In the words of the ancient philosopher Plato, “do one thing and do it well.” OK, next… 

Know your ‘why’ and remind yourself of it daily — and I say this one because we can often get so focused on what we’re doing that we forget to think about why we’re actually doing it… and it’s the ‘why’ that matters far more than the what. For example, if you’re trying to adopt a healthier approach to food and exercise then yes there are physical measures on that (like your weight and waist size) but I’m going to guess that the real reason why you’re doing it is more about wanting to be healthier or wanting to reduce health problems (or both). Don’t just do things for the sake of it; know your why and remind yourself of it every single day, because that helps to reinforce why you’re doing what you’re doing and that contributes to a greater sense of discipline and self control. OK, next…

Start small and build your self control over time — because Rome really wasn’t built in a day (unless you’ve got one of those Lego city kits and a spare afternoon). Last week in the discomfort episode (Episode 132) I said that trying to go from never running in your life to immediately competing at the Olympics might be a stretch too far; actually, it’s probably fairly likely to land you in the hospital! Make small changes and implement them gradually, increasing as you go along, and that way you’ll be able to build your capability in line with your slowly increasing sense of self control. Okay, next…

Trust your instincts and be kind — I think we all have a fairly good idea of what is ‘right’ for us versus what is not, or what maybe isn’t in our best interests, and while I’m not going to get into any notions of black-and-white right-and-wrong, I will say that if you follow your instincts they will steer you in the right direction when you’re deciding what to do or not to do. And, as always, remember my motto: do no harm, be kind and give more than you take (and those three things apply to how you treat others as well as how you treat yourself). Alright, next…

Identify the impact of having low self control — and really this is just about being honest about where you may be doing harm to yourself. For example, if you’re depending on substances or food (or whatever) to get you through issues, there are likely negative consequences of that… be honest with yourself. I had to do this myself a few years back when I finally confronted the fact that alcohol was doing too much damage to me, and it’s what helped me to find the determination I needed to stop drinking once and for all (and to stick with it). This point applies to lots of different situations, however I will note specifically about addiction that if you’re dealing with that then I covered that topic back in Episode 34. OK, next…

Stop multitasking — because when you try to do lots of things, you tend not to give any of them your full attention and then it’s easy to be distracted. As I said before: do one thing at a time and do it well. Speaking of being distracted, my next point is…

Shut out distractions — and this is something I often consciously do when I’m writing; for example, I’ll switch on my Do Not Disturb for an hour and put on noise cancelling headphones, because those actions serve to limit my exposure to the things that could very easily tempt me away from what I need to get done. It’s the same principle of not buying junk food if you’re focused on healthy eating, so that it’s not in the house and you don’t become distracted by it. Do what you can to support your self control and willpower instead of making it super-easy to get distracted by everything other than what you want to or need to do. OK, next…

Use rewards thoughtfully — so, don’t be afraid of a little healthy self-bribery if that works for you (you know, like “do this chunk of work and then I can watch YouTube for 15 minutes”), however I would say to do that in a thoughtful way, because the last thing you want is to become dependent on getting a reward for doing everything! It’s helpful when you’re really stuck or on an important deadline, but I don’t think it’s particularly healthy if it becomes a daily thing, so just be mindful. And speaking of being mindful, my next point is… 

Practice mindfulness — and no, I’m not talking about going off to a silent retreat or hiking to the top of a mountain so you can commune with the clouds (although good on you if you want to do those things!); mindfulness simply means taking a few minutes every now and then to be fully, 100% present in the moment. You can do that simply by shutting off distractions and focusing on one thing like watching the clouds for a few minutes, observing your pet playing, even stirring your tea or coffee and then drinking it in a way where you savour how it impacts on all of your senses. The reason why I suggest this here is that being able to consciously bring your attention to the present moment helps to drown out all the noise of your worries as well as thoughts about the past or the future (or both), and the more you become comfortable with doing that the easier it becomes to improve your self control if and when you need it. I covered mindfulness in Episode 42 and being present in Episode 83 if you’d like to explore that in more detail. Next…  

Monitor your progress — because in order to know how you’re going, you need to know how you’re going! Small steps add up over time to create big results, which is great, however it’s worthwhile to take some time at least once a month to look back and consciously notice the progress you’ve made… because that helps to put things into context of the bigger picture and it helps to show you how far you’ve come (which, in turn, helps you to feel more motivated to continue). And by the way, I covered motivation in Episode 117 if you’d like to explore that in more detail. OK, next…

Be proactive about managing stress — because stress can lead to greater temptation as you find different coping mechanisms; the more you do to manage stress proactively, the less it has control over you. I talked about how to do that in Episode 8, about stress, and I also covered burnout back in Episode 18. Alright, next…

Be kind to yourself if you drop the ball — because we all make mistakes sometimes. Your mistakes don’t define you; how you recover from them and learn from them is what defines you. One of the things that often gets in the way of maintaining our self control is that we mess up or we have a setback and then it feels like we’ve failed; you haven’t failed, you’ve simply dropped the ball. Pick it back up and keep going. I talked about dealing with failure back in Episode 84 and I’d recommend checking that out for more on the topic. OK, next… 

Get support — because, as I say in most episodes, you don’t have to go through challenges alone and nor should you! Talk to a trusted friend or family member or, better yet, seek support from an appropriate professional (especially if your lack of self control is doing harm to you and others). 

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to self control and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Finding it challenging to maintain your self control consistently doesn’t make you weak or a bad person… it just makes you a person. We human beings are full of flaws and I think nobody puts high expectations on us as much as we do to ourselves. I don’t think that gives you an excuse to go nuts and do whatever you like, because that will end up creating an enormous mess that you’ll have to clean up later, but I do think it gives you a reason to be kinder to yourself and to forgive yourself if and when you struggle. All you can do is take things one day at a time and learn from your mistakes if and when you make them, and you can also choose to be proactive about building your sense of self control and discipline each day so that you’re making progress little by little and focusing on the things that really matter to you.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Eleanor Roosevelt, and it is:

“To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Next week I’ll be talking about communication. I talk a lot about how our interactions with the world around us contribute to our overall wellbeing and the main way we connect with others is through communication. So I want to explore the value of healthy communication and also how being honest and communicating with others, as well as with yourself, helps to shape your reality. So next time I’ll be talking about what communication is, why it matters, and how to communicate in a healthy way for the sake of your mental health.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 5th of June, 2022. 

If this episode helped you then I’d love it if you left a five-star review on the platform you’re listening to me on, or head over to my Instagram @ltamentalhealth and let me know. And if you’d like to support me and my work then I have a Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters; you’ll find the link in the episode description, plus it’s linked on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au (where you can also sign up for my free newsletter, where I share a quick dose of mental health inspiration every Thursday).

And I also have a YouTube channel where I publish new videos every Wednesday… so, if you’d like even more content about looking after your mental health, join me over there (and that’s linked in the episode description as well)!

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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