Therapist: “Your problem is that you’re spoiled.  Your whole life is centered around instant gratification.”

Carrie:  “Instant gratification takes too long.”

———————————————— Postcards From The Edge


Self-Control gets a bad rap. We want to be “free,” do what we want, get out of the confines of society and our upbringing, “reward” ourselves.  Too often though, that kind of thinking results in reckless indulgences.  We become addicted to the body’s sense pleasures. We start relying on the money, the cigarettes, the sex, the alcohol, the pipe, the drugs, the entertainment, the food, the gambling, the television, the internet surfing, the phone, the massages, the fill-in the blank - as a way out of the suffering of being human.  

When we hear the term Self-Control it sounds like a downer.  We often just want more instant gratification when we get bored, restless, or uncomfortable.  Being addicted to the pleasures of the senses is essentially an addict’s mind set.  In the U.S. it’s not hard to see that a lot of our problems have to do with this out of control seeking for pleasure and avoiding pain.  We are not entirely, but are largely, a society of addicts.  We use the most recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, have some the most lavish forms of lifestyle in the world, exert the most influence on the world stage, and still have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide -  what’s up with that?  One possibility is that we are out of control much of the time. 

We forgot about the joys of Self-Control.  To be truly healthy psychologically we have to know where the line between risk taking and recklessness is.  We have to know the difference between enjoying the pleasures of the body and becoming spoiled, entitled children who don’t know when too much is too much.  We have to know there are things that just aren’t good for us:  heroin, cocaine, pornography, prostitution, too much alcohol, being stoned all day, hoarding resources, too much food, too much entertainment, too much money (huh?), etc.  

Anyone who has gone from obesity to fitness has discovered the challenges of not eating the whole tub of ice cream and of moving their body.  In that process they may have dealt with deep fears that arise when they give up self-soothing fatty foods.  They may come to know that the fat they carried acted as a kind of wall that was used for psychological protection, and that, in facing their fears, they realized they did not need this kind of demoralizing “protection”  in their life.  They come to see they are strong enough to protect themselves without destroying their health.  They develop a new empowerment and joy of who they are by learning Self-Control.  

Anyone whose done serious addiction work and recovered has experienced the pain of detox involved in Self-Control.  In giving up their “best friend” (i.e. their drug of choice), they may discover a new capacity to achieve, serve others, and the joy of developing a relationship with their “higher power” - as defined in twelve step programs.  Self-Control, as it turns out, saves an addict’s life.  

A person who gives up addictive sexual practices with real or virtual partners may go through the pain of facing their own sense of unworthiness without medicating it with sex.  Currently, with the advent of virtual reality, virtual sex is reaching a whole new level of absurdity combing the computer with rubber dolls.  The inherent desperation of someone indulging their senses with a head-set on while having sex with a rubber mannequin is all too obvious. By learning Self-Control someone involved in compulsive sexuality can discover the joys of being in integrity with themselves, and resetting their sexual templates for greater intimacy in the bedroom. 

Most of us have small ways we indulge the senses that are just enough to short circuit parts of our lives.  We may watch just enough television, Netflix, or Hulu to avoid our creative work, we might watch just enough pornography to keep us out of relationship or out of our sex life with our partner, we might eat just enough sugar to keep our energy continually lagging, we might go to a spiritual service but be too involved in getting stoned to practice the teachings, we might continually oversleep complaining that, “My bed is too comfortable to get out of it.”

Self-Control sounds like a drag to the spoiled child part of ourselves.  To our adult self it is food for a healthy life.  As we see spoiled children often turning into entitled, out of control adults, we can be careful about “spoiling ourselves” - knowing our limits, not giving in to temptation.  If you look closely enough you might see an addiction in your life, or at least an indulgence that is costing you more than it’s giving - bad health, depression, anger issues, anxiety, poor finances, lack of achievement, social isolation, etc.  

Can you exert a little more Self-Control?    Can you give up saying things like, “I don’t know why I can’t stop” - as you finish the whole pizza - again.   In twelve step recovery there is a concept called willingness, that elusive attitude of being willing to take “contrary action” when a craving hits.  It can also be said that the ability to develop Self-Control is about learning to give up control. Say what?

Cravings to indulge our senses often come from unaddressed shame we are hiding, denying, and trying to control.  The sense indulgence is a way of satiating the shame, medicating it, shoving it down.  If we can give up controlling the shame, we have a better chance of exercising Self-Control.  When you want to over eat, (or other favorite compulsive behavior) try saying to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I want to over eat to get away from my self-loathing and my loneliness.”  This creates some space between you and your thought to act out on a craving.  What if you then honored your feelings of shame, self-loathing, loneliness, or unworthiness?  Perhaps you can practice compassion for the shame.   Put a hand on your body where the shame feels intense and say, “I’m not the only one who feels this.  Many people have the same feelings of unworthiness.  It’s ok to feel this feeling, I love myself just as I am.  There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel deep compassion for my loneliness.”  This welcoming in of the shame, cognitive distancing of the triggering thought to act out, and Self-Compassion can help us develop Self-Control.   We may also need to share the feeling in therapy, with a trusted friend, a sponsor, or anyone who can gives us the comfort that we are not alone, that our feelings are normal, and they we are loved.   In the end Self-Control, as boring as it sounds, could be the key to your greatest joy.

Click on the picture below to see Jonathan Bricker’s Ted Talk on Self-Control: