Self-Control: Definition And How To Have It

Updated November 11, 2019

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

We hear about self-control all the time. People often mention it when they want to stop doing something like eating junk food or when they're struggling to manage a feeling like anger. It's a complex topic, but learning how to have appropriate self-control can help you improve every part of your life.

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Self-Control Defined

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition for self-control is "restraint exercised over one's impulses, emotions, or desires." In other words, we can prevent ourselves from doing something we don't want to do or from feeling something we don't want to feel, especially when we're tempted.

It's an incredibly helpful skill. For example, when a doctor urges a patient to lose weight, self-control prevents them from eating too much junk food. If they need to go to the gym, it also keeps them from watching TV instead. When someone has an important assignment or a project due soon, they might procrastinate unless they have enough self-control.

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Emotional self-control is important, too. It prevents us from screaming at others when we're angry or from punching someone when they wrong us. It also stops us from crying uncontrollably when we do not get our way or from becoming distracted in situations that require attention.

Although we learn to self-soothe as babies (by, for example, sucking on a pacifier), we're not born with self-control. We develop this skill throughout our childhood and arguably our entire lives. This is why it's not unusual to see an upset toddler throw a toy across the room, but the same behavior would be bizarre in an adult.

Sometimes, however, individuals reach adulthood with too little or too much self-control. Neither situation is ideal. In addition to the physical and emotional challenges this might bring, too little or too much self-control can also have social and mental effects like isolation, depression, or anxiety. You might be wondering what a healthy amount of self-control looks like, but to best understand that, it's important to know what too much or too little looks like first. We'll start there.

Signs Of Too Much Self-Control

Self-control is usually a quality that people admire. However, when someone has too much of it, they can struggle. Sometimes, people suffering from excessive self-control come off as perfectionists or seem overbearing. Experts call this behavior "overcontrol." Someone dealing with "overcontrol" might experience the following:

  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Distance toward others
  • Rigid personality
  • Overly focused on details
  • Lack of feelings or display of feelings
  • Being responsible (to a fault)
  • Avoidance of risk

In general, people with too much self-control don't stand out as much as those who lack self-control. Why? Because their behavior is often confused with being hard-working, introverted, or highly sensible. With that in mind, how do we know if someone has too much self-control or is simply mature? Well, it depends on the individual.

If someone's behavior works for them and causes little to no distress, it's likely that everything is fine. However, if excessive self-control makes their physical, mental, emotional, or social life a challenge, they may benefit from seeing a licensed counselor.

Signs Of Too Little Self-Control

Someone who lacks self-control is easy to spot. They generally have difficulty committing to positive habits, and they may not be able to regulate their feelings or actions as well as their peers. Signs of low self-control could be:

  • Little or no self-discipline
  • Lack of goals or inability to reach goals
  • Low motivation
  • Little to no willpower
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Lack of attention
  • Quick to blame others
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships
  • Dangerous or overly-passive lifestyle

Having little self-control (or none at all) has a major impact on one's day-to-day life. Not only is it difficult to build self-confidence, but it's also hard to work with others and reach goals. If someone runs into the same obstacles over and over again, they may need to work on self-control. Similarly, if they seem to lack direction or appear immature, too little self-control might be the cause.

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How To Have Self-Control

Everyone has a different amount of self-control, and it can vary by situation, too, but most of us could use a boost to find a better balance between too little and too much. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Relax

It can be hard to have self-control when we trick ourselves into thinking something must be done urgently or stopped immediately. We also struggle with self-control when we're driven by our gut reactions. Imagine you're driving down the road at high speed, and a slow driver cuts you off. Your gut reaction is what makes you want to honk your horn and scream at them or worse.

To give yourself the best chance at a calmer response and a better day, learn to slow your thoughts, so you can postpone your gut impulses. Relaxation can help. Meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness are all excellent ways to practice relaxation. The more you relax, the more likely you are to calmly approach stressful events and choose thoughtful responses instead of acting on impulse alone.

Learn To Plan

Self-control is hard to achieve without direction. For example, if you want to lose 10 pounds, and therefore need to skip your nightly dessert, it helps to plan ahead. Instead of hoping you'll be strong enough when the time comes, think of ways to curb your appetite in advance, so you're more likely to succeed.

To avoid relying on willpower, make a plan for what you will do the next time you're tested. Perhaps you can plan on doing 15 minutes of yoga or reading a good book when you have a craving for sugar. Using distractions like this can help you improve your self-control in the long run. You will eventually learn that you can overcome unpleasant feelings and that you don't need to act on all of your desires.

Find Out What You Want

Sometimes we lack self-control because we're not clear on exactly what we want. For example, if it feels like you're going nowhere in your current job, make sure it's not because you don't know where you want to go next. When you have a clear goal, it's easier to exercise self-control because you can make choices that point you in the right direction.

That said, it's important to have goals that are meaningful to you. Do not set a goal just because someone or something else pushes you toward it. Look deep within yourself, and find out why your goal matters to you. If it doesn't mean anything to you, it will be very hard to dedicate yourself to it.

Remember The Consequences

Often, an honest look at the consequences is enough to motivate someone struggling with self-control. Imagine finding an extra $100. Part of you knows you should use it to pay off your credit card, but another part of you wants to spend it on dinner and a movie instead. To make the right decision for you, consider the consequences.

If you pay off your credit card, will you be working toward financial freedom and taking steps to eliminate your debt? If you treat yourself, will you still have enough money to pay the credit card bill on time, or will you end up with another late fee or worse?

Look beyond short-term gratification, and think about the long-term value. If you set yourself up for success by taking care of yourself tomorrow, your self-control will naturally grow over time as you start to reap the benefits.

Role-Play

If practicing self-control is a challenge for you, role-play with a friend, a family member, or a therapist. This will help you confront your feelings in a controlled environment without the threat of negative consequences. To start, think about a simple situation where you typically struggle with self-control. As your self-control improves, branch out to more difficult or challenging situations.

Get Healthy

As with any proactive behavior, being in the right physical, mental, and emotional place makes a big difference. If it's been a while since your last physical exam, call your primary health care physician, and schedule an appointment. An underlying condition might be exacerbating your self-control issues. To that end, if you're experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, please get help immediately.

And in general, remember to take care of the basics. Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, and get roughly eight hours of sleep per night. This will help you keep a clear mind on your journey to better self-control.

BetterHelp Can Help

Self-control plays a major role in our lives, and it's often a big factor in our overall levels of satisfaction. While it's possible to display too much self-control, a lack of self-control tends to get us into trouble. To master self-control, we need to find balance, and a counselor can help. Reach out to the mental health professionals at BetterHelp to see the best results. You can read reviews for some of our therapists below.

Counselor Reviews

"Erin is an amazing therapist. She listens to me and relates to me very well. I feel very supported and safe talking to her. Erin always helps me set goals for myself and pusx hes me to work hard on my own mental health in a comforting way. I've had a lot of therapists, and Erin is by far the best one I've ever had. She has sincerely helped me turn my life around."

"Diane gets right to understanding the problem so we can find solutions. She's not judgmental or harsh, but she says what I need to hear. I feel like she understands my issues and is attentive and puts as much effort as I am into therapy. I enjoy her approach which is gentle yet assertive and I feel confident in her suggestions. She offers a fresh perspective and I end the session feeling hopeful and motivated."

Conclusion

Self-control can have a huge impact on your life. In fact, it's probably responsible for the life you're living today. A fulfilling, productive life is possible--with the right tools. Take the first step.


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