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Self-control and marshmallows

“The best fighter is never angry.” – Lao Tzu

Last week we discussed the importance of emotional self-awareness. The obvious challenge to that is ‘if you allow yourself to feel emotions, how can you control your reactions to situations?’. Today’s blog (#58) is about the crucial and highly contentious subject of self-control.

What is self-control?

Self-control or self-management is a highly prized character trait in partners, friends or colleagues. Self control is the ability to respond intentionally rather than react. Throughout humanity's history, self-control whether in the 10 commandments, manners and etiquette or avoidance of the 7 deadly sins is largely a statement of self-control.

Self control and the 7 deadly sins

Self control and the marshmallow test

For 50 years two oft-quoted tests were used to 'prove' that willpower was the key dynamic.

1) In the 1970s the Stanford Marshmallow experiment showed that children who were able to stop themselves from eating a marshmallow now for more rewards in the future showed that willpower and delayed gratification were the key attributes for success and the children that were able to resist performed higher on SAT scores

2) In the 1990s Roy Baumeister's team had two groups, one that needed to resist cookies for 20minutes and another that did not. Then both groups were given an unsolvable puzzle to work on. The group that had to resist the cookies worked on the problem for 8 minutes and the group that did not kept going for 19minutes. This provided some evidence for the prevailing theory of ego depletion, that willpower was a limited well and people were depleting it each time they needed to resist things.

If you read self-help books etc. this is all a question of willpower. The problem is both of these experiments were re-run adjusting for demographic factors and the results have not been replicated.

So if not willpower than what?

A good place to help us understand how to improve self control is to think of the scenarios when we have least self control. We tend to have less self control when we are tired, hungry, stressed, directionless, intoxicated or surrounded by temptations (try going into an ice cream parlour on a low carb diet). This provides us with the clues to help us try and improve our self control.

Self control is hard. Here are the three most robust ideas that have come up in my research:

1) Crowd out common situations where you lose self-control. With emotional self-control try and put yourself in fewer situations where you might get annoyed. Or if you have to encounter that situation for example impatiently waiting in traffic, listen to something you are interested in, so that the car in front of you is not your only focus. Appreciate that whilst you cannot avoid waiting (it sadly is an inevitability in life) waiting happily is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon. By creating systems, habits and by anticipating temptations up front you can avoid many of the common places to challenge your self control. If you don't want to eat junk, prepare healthy meals in advance.

2) Activate your parasympathetic nervous system. If you feel your anger levels rising you can engage your parasympathetic nervous system by focusing on your breath. Breathwork is known to help control your emotional arousal and keep you within the right bands. I have found that breathing solely through the nose at these times is a very effective way of regaining perspective and allowing you to proceed to step 3. Going for a walk is of course another. Your need to act decreases as the emotional arousal subsides.

3) Engage your new brain. The urge for immediate action can be considered versus alternative options in a more long-term sense. You engage your new brain when you label your emotions. Whilst your old brain will be urging you to react, once your new brain has been engaged it is much more likely you can appropriately respond. Of all of the benefits of meditation that I can commend, the ability to observe your thoughts and then respond is the greatest of all. This allows you to respond with your higher faculties more frequently.

Under-reactions are bad too

So far I have focused on ways to help avoid emotional over-reaction, but what about under-reaction. Imagine the situation where someone tells you of an awful incident that has happened to them and you look completely unaffected by their plight. That too has harmful relationship impacts. This neatly takes us to next week's blog which is 'What you need to know about empathy'.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Self-control is a highly prized characteristic but the root of self-control is contested.

2) The methods used to enhance self control is avoiding the circumstances where you lose control, engaging your parasympathetic nervous system and engaging your higher brain.

3) It's not a one-way bet. Under-reactions are also an example of poor self-control and meet the needs of the moment.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'What you need to know about empathy'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.

Other blogs in the emotional intelligence series


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