Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated

by Carol Solomon

If there is one trait that is valued in every society, it may well be self discipline. Teachers and parents alike value it in children, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t want to be more self disciplined in some area of their lives.

Self discipline is that ability to marshal one’s willpower to delay immediate gratification, and to persevere in order to accomplish things that are desirable.

In Psychology, of course, one can never win. Those who are undercontrolled are seen as impulsive and distractible. Those who are overcontrolled are seen as rigid, compulsive and joyless. The first is seen as more of a “problem.”

The funny thing is – on the VIA Test of Signature Strengths, almost NO ONE scores high on the strength of Self Regulation. Although we aspire to have more self discipline, it is universally one of the lowest strengths.

Low self control, however, is not always bad; in fact, it is the basis of spontaneity, flexibility (the hallmark of mental health), expressions of personal warmth and creativity.

The Downside of Self Discipline

High self control is not always a good thing. It seems to go hand in hand with less spontaneity, which can spoil not only the fun, but also the savorings of life. A preoccupation with self control is also a key feature of anorexia. It can be a sign of vulnerability, and people so afflicted may suffer so much from a fear of being out of control that they are constantly suppressing their own desires.

While self discipline implies that you are exercising free choice, in fact you are aren’t free at all, psychologically speaking.

Researchers have found that people who can put off the payoff are not just better at self control, but they are unable to avoid it. They sometimes persist in a task, even when it clearly makes no sense to do so, and they tend to swing from one unhealthy extreme to another. We certainly see that in stress eating, dieting and binge eating.

Don’t Make This Mistake

What most people do when they try to lose weight is to install a policeman inside themselves. They create rules and regulations and try to force themselves to follow them. The problem with this approach is that we don’t like to be told what to do, even by ourselves. So this approach invites resistance and rebellion, which of course, results in breaking the rules.

The 50 billion dollar diet industry perpetuates the cycle of making rules and breaking them. Diet programs would have us believe that if you relax your guard, you will devour everything in sight. So if you buy into that, then it’s natural to start creating restrictions and depriving yourself, so that you won’t gain weight.

The “problem” with thinking in terms of rules and restrictions is that this approach creates a feeling of deprivation, which will undermine your attempts to control your eating.

What Counts

What counts is the capacity to choose whether and when to persevere, to control oneself and to stick to the rules. THIS, rather than self discipline, per se, is what we would all benefit from developing – the feeling that we have a choice, and that we can TRUST OURSELVES with our choices. It’s what we all want. We don’t want rules imposed on us, even from within. We want FREEDOM.

2 Types of Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is wanting to do something for its own sake – to read, for instance, because it’s exciting to lose oneself in a story. Extrinsic motivation is when the task itself doesn’t really matter; one might read in order to get a reward, to complete an assignment or to get someone’s approval.

Scores of studies have shown that the more you reward someone for doing something, the more they lose interest in what they had to do to get the reward.

Rewarding kids for good grades, for instance, results in less interest in learning. Some years back, there was a popular program that rewarded kids with pizza for reading a certain number of books. Critics of this program knew that this approach would only result in fat kids who don’t like to read.

Rewards may sometimes produce temporary compliance, but they do nothing to produce responsible, caring, happy people.

You can internalize certain rules and standards so that it feels like a choice. But just because motivation is internal doesn’t mean it’s ideal. If you feel controlled, even from within, you are likely to feel conflicted, unhappy, and perhaps less likely to succeed because of the tendency to rebel.

Control from within isn’t necessarily more humane. We can be harsher on ourselves than any outside force. And the more rigid the control, the less you feel like you have a choice. Some people can marshal the discipline to follow a diet for weeks, even months, but eventually, you are going to feel deprived because you are taking away your own choices.

Permissiveness is less worrisome than a fear of permissiveness that leads us to over-control ourselves and those we are responsible for.

Those who are always able to deny themselves with grim determination may be anxious, driven and motivated by a perpetual need to feel better about themselves.

So go ahead – relax, be happy, enjoy the holidays and have the treat once in awhile. Just make sure it’s you making the choices!

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Psychologist, Master Certified Coach and Certified EFT Practitioner. She is one of the world’s leading experts in using Emotional Freedom Techniques to help people lose weight without dieting, stop binge eating, and reduce anxiety and stress. She is the author of 4 Books on Emotional Freedom Techniques, the EFT Tips Newsletter, the Binge Eating Teleseminar and the EFT Weight Loss CD. Carol has a thriving coaching practice and is passionate about helping others succeed.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Soham May 10, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Self control is not just overrated. It is a myth.

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