Self Control: Not all its Cracked Up To Be

01 Sep 2010 15:44

This is an expanded version of a post originally published on GUStrength's blog in July, 2009.

More and more, everyone is learning that "diets" don't work. Sure, people drop weight on diets but they fail to make a lasting change. I don't need to go into this, you know all about yo-yo dieting. Despite this there are still plenty of judgmental folks (who probably wouldn't know a problem if it bit them in the tuchus) who will say stuff like, "jeez, what ever happened to old fashioned self-control?"

I was reading a blog the other day that mentioned diets and how they don't work and somebody had to come on and make this comment about self-control. I was taken aback not only by the judgmental attitude but also by the fact that the commenter completely failed to see the point of the post.

Diets are ALL ABOUT SELF-CONTROL. And they don't work. Self control doesn't work. Do the math. Are you getting this? It ain't about self-control.

Self-Control is basically the same thing as impulse control. And it is also pretty much the same thing as self-denial. These are short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

Say you are waiting in line and some obnoxious person butts in front of you and then glares at you as if daring you to do something about it. You quash your impulse to smack him one. That is self-control. Good for you. You have mastered your anger. This time.

Now, lets say that by some quirk of fate this kind of thing happens on Monday and then again Tuesday, Wednesday, and every other day of the week.

Here is the thing. Even though you practiced self-control on Monday it is no guarantee that you will be better equipped to handle this situation when Friday rolls around and it happens for the fifth time. In fact, by that time you will likely be fed up and when buddinsky number five comes along you may just go off like Mentos and Diet Coke.

two liter bottle diet coke erupting from mentos

The Diet Coke/Mentos Theory of Fat Loss
image by Mike Murphy via wikimedia

The reason self-control works for what it is good for…controlling aggressive impulses and other unsociable or inappropriate behavior is because we are not constantly faced with situations like this. That is, in situations where we have to learn not to give in to our more primitive and greedy impulses.

And of course we want to foster self-control! Everyday life is just as much about self-control as it is self-regulation. Think of it as your "rule following" self. You don't need to agree with the rules to abide by them.

But when we treat all our eating habits and exercise habits in terms of self-control we tend to become less able to regulate our behavior well over time. If your entire life becomes nothing more than controlling every "impulse" and those impulses make you feel guilty even when you don't give in to them you become MORE likely to turn to those very activities you are trying to avoid.

Self-control tends to involve a set of rules and regulations that we adhere to. Matter of fact, most experiments involving self-control (in children) have started with a "rule", in a way. Such as leaving a treat in a room and saying you can have ONE treat now but if you wait until I come back you can have TWO.

You are ALLOWED to take the treat. The only reason you must practice self-control is because the rule says if you control yourself and wait for gratification you get MORE. Sounds like the way many people end up dieting! It's a confusing message. If you adhere to the rules you get to have a reward. If you reward yourself you are "cheating" (having a cheat meal).

Now it used to be that guys like Freud said that what starts off as "self-control" gradually evolves into "self-regulation". The idea is that parents and other adults control your every move and thought (stop controlling me, Mom!) and then little by little you turn all that external control into your own inner control. You "become" your parents! Now, I know some of us who have kids have many moments when it seems just that has happened but the Freudian school of thought does not stand up to evidence (which is fairly normal for Freud). Yes, self-regulation (and self-discipline) happens it just doesn't seem to happen the way we used to think. More and more, it seems like self-control as provided by "following the rules" doesn't do much to foster self-regulation.

The key to success, however, is not self-control but self-regulation. This is a subtle but very important distinction. More and more people, of late, are expressing concern over the fat loss focus of diets. Instead, some say, we should focus on healthy practices, which have a built-in reward system and should result, in the long run, in fat loss. Meanwhile, a healthier lifestyle that is focused on health rather than loss of fat will have immediate health benefits.1

Now, I don't know if this dichotomous view of fat loss is the way to go. It may be a bit naive to assume that the simple desire to live healthier will result in an obese person becoming a thin one. However, it should be a distinct improvement for some if the focus on fat is shifted towards health. A more balanced perspective, if you will. Hyper-focused modalities tend to result in these punishment-reward systems that we see in "dieting" and this is the dieter engaging in "self-control". A more balanced approach which has as it's end goal a healthy body and mind should go much further toward self-regulatory behavior. The difference between self-regulation and self-control is that self-regulation means that you are IN CHARGE of yourself. Whereas, self-control is actually placing the locus of control externally rather than within yourself.

According to Peter A. Facione, in Critical Thinking: What it is and Why it Counts, self-regulation is defined to mean the ability to "self-consciously monitor one’s cognitive activities, the elements used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis, and evaluation to one’s own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming, validating, or correcting either one’s reasoning or one’s results.” Self-examination and self-correction are not really part of most people's training or fat loss plans.

On the other hand, self-control, according to Michael Kellerman in Enhancing Recovery is a "mode of volition in which an individual works according to an internal model of an action requested or desired by another person without necessarily integrating this model into his own system of belief."

Requested by another person and NOT integrated in his own system of belief. That is the take home point. The "other person" is the person who wrote the diet plan you happen to be using. Or, we could just replace person with plan. The point is we don't get anywhere in the long run because the behaviors we use during periods of "self-control" do not become a part of our own governing system. Kellerman says that in the long run this results in "alienation" where a person becomes unable to behave according to his or her own needs.

Self-control of this kind tends to work for a short term and then fail, followed by a reversion to previous negative behaviors or by leading directly to negative results. Each negative consequence leads to the person going further and further into a downward spiral.

Fat loss is not the only area that suffers from the misunderstanding of self-control. Most strength training ideas are built on ideas about self-control, after all. Even worse the "fitness" gimmicks such as "Fitness Boot Camps" and other such nonsense that makes it seem like fitness is about having some guy in BDU's yell at you.

There is an older thread in the GUS forum that calls attention to the idea that good strength training involves "not being a pussy" or "a slacker" and that people need someone to call attention to those times when they are slacking and give them a "kick in the pants." Basically you are supposed to 'force yourself' to train and go in and just get the job done. Be assured that you will NEVER succeed in your training if you regularly must force yourself to train and no amount of yelling will change that!

As I said in the thread many people think that self-control and self-denial is the key to success in training, fat-loss, everything. They think that these factors are synonymous with "discipline." The "just get it done" attitude of many trainers is inherent in the so popular cookie-cutter strength training programs that I am always complaining about. The ultimate result of relying too much on self-control is a loss of autonomy and this results in the chronic inability to self-regulate. In other words, the longer you engage in this sort of behavior, the more difficult it will be to come out of it and develop behaviors centered on self-direction and self-regulation. The end result is failure in every sense of the word. Autonomy means being IN CHARGE rather than 'in control'.

You may never have thought of it before but the idea of being in control means that you are otherwise bound to be out of control. So instead of focusing one's energy on reigning in out of control behaviors one should focus on continual regulation of behavior in the first place. I'll see if I can describe this with an analogy:

Have you ever walked by a patch of fresh wet cement on the sidewalk and been tempted to put your hand print or foot print in it? Or sign your name? Or, in some instances, even been tempted to walk right across the thing? I have. It's a bit like the urge to jump off a high object…perverse but there nonetheless. Yet, as inviting as a nice smooth patch of wet concrete is most sidewalk surfaces are free of hand-prints and signatures. Sure it happens but not nearly as often as one would think. That is, not nearly as often as one would think if people were out of control. But people largely self-regulate themselves and the urge to deface a patch of cement is fleeting and weak. In fact, they don't place orange cones and yellow tape around fresh sidewalks patches to "control" people but mostly to warn them so they don't accidentally blunder in. So, I'm saying that maybe smooth sidewalks exist because people are able to self-regulate and they don't need barriers to keep them defacing wet cement.

Self Control, Self-Discipline, and Otherness

An interesting aspect of self control and self discipline is that they can both give rise to a sense of "otherness" but the former type of otherness is negative while the latter is positive. These two senses of otherness are associated with either "less" and a restrictive lifestyle or "more" and a lifestyle of accomplishment. Self control as defined by diets and rigid lifestyles limit social participation and enjoyment, thus setting us apart and making us feel abnormal. Self discipline, on the other hand fosters a more optimistic sense of otherness that comes with accomplishment. "I can do more and live better. I can accomplish much. I am confident." All these are aspects of self-discipline, and thus self-regulation, as opposed to "self control".

The same type of self-regulatory behavior that keeps your hand out of cement or that keeps you from testing your theory that you could land a 30 foot drop is the type of behavior that will lead to success in fat loss, or fitness, or strength training. When you self-regulate it means that you are OKAY with your life-style. You are happy and satisfied with it. Little urges stay little urges and when you give in to them you give in to them in reasonable ways. For instance, maybe you just poke the tip of your index finger into that cement. Fun stuff. Or, instead of trying the 30 foot drop you go for 15. That keeps your life balanced and controlled without a sense of denial and restriction and you don't "go off" like Mentos and Diet Coke!


This page created 01 Sep 2010 15:44
Last updated 27 Sep 2012 02:05

© 2014 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.