Self-Control: Definition And How To Have It

By: Stephanie Kirby

Updated July 17, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Self-control is something we hear about all the time. Often, we think about it when it comes to stopping a behavior we dislike, like eating junk food, or in the context of managing a feeling like anger. However, the true definition goes beyond these ideas. Here is the true meaning of self-control and how you can master it for yourself.

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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.

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.

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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.

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. A licensed therapist can help you figure out exactly what motivates you, and can be a powerful tool in helping you reach your goals using self-control. 

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.

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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 pushes 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does self-control mean?

The definition of self-control is having the ability to exercise restraint over your impulses, emotions, or desires at the appropriate time. Everyone has been in a situation where it may have been difficult to exercise restraint or control over our emotions. For example, if you're in a heated argument with a spouse or family member, you may be tempted to say something hurtful, that you know you will regret later. Self-control means learning how to control one's feelings.

Why is self-control important?

A part of the definition of self-control has to do with timing. Self-control is a muscle that has to be exercised so that we learn how to respond to upsetting situations without making them worse. There are three forms of self-control that have to do with controlling your impulses, emotions, and desires. This doesn't mean you aren't allowed to have these experiences, it means that self-control allows you to express these feelings, emotions, and desires at the right place and time.

How do you get self-control?

In the definition of self-control, we learn that having self-control means to contain our emotions and desires -- until the right time. But how do you learn to have this type of self-control? The best way to learn how to exemplify the definition of self-control is to talk to a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or a therapist. Licensed therapists at BetterHelp can help you with issues related to self-control.

What does self control in the Bible mean?

The definition of self-control in the Bible is concerned with remaining in control of one's emotions in the face of temptation. The self-control definition in the Bible teaches that having strong self-control can lead to rewards and higher status in society.

What are the characteristics of self-control?

Synonyms for self-control include words like "composure, restraint, coolness, will-power, and self-mastery." These are all examples of dictionary definitions of words from self-control. Other definitions for self-control include words like "self-contained" and "containment." If you're looking for a full definition of self-control, these characteristics paint a clear picture of what self-control looks like.

How do I stop losing self-control?

One of the important words from self-control definitions is "restraint." Learning to have restraint is one of the primary skills that you need to stop losing self-control. Talking to a licensed therapy provider can help you learn better coping-skills for keeping your cool under pressure.

Why do people lack self-control?

Some people lack self-control as a result of learned behaviors as children. Children who grew up without clear boundaries and expectations may grow up to be adults who have little to no self-control. A licensed therapist can help you get to the bottom of low-impulsivity control, and lack of self-control issues.

What are the disadvantages of self-control?

It is possible to have too much self-control. A person who has too much self-control may appear rigid, unable to relax, and inflexible. Someone who has too much self-control often picked up this behavior in early childhood as a result of childhood trauma or early exposure to adult responsibilities. People with too much self-control may have trouble maintaining close friendships and relationships due to their tendency to appear "cold" or "detached" from their relationships.

What are the types of self-control?

There are three components of self-control. These types are impulsivity, emotions, and desires.

When it comes to the topic of impulsivity, this has to do with our ability to resist the urge to make quick decisions without thinking them through. An example of self-control over impulsivity is someone teaching themselves to resist buying anything off the candy rack at the grocery store checkout.

When it comes to self-control over emotions, having the ability to control your emotions in the face of painful or dangerous circumstances is critical. The third component of self-control over desires is necessary to prevent physical or emotional desires from interfering with good judgement when it comes to what behaviors we choose to engage in.

What is lack of self-control?

Lack of self-control is the inability to restrain one's emotions, desires, or impulses. Having a lack of self-control can result in undesirable negative consequences like being arrested or losing a good friend. It's important to learn how to use self-control to make better decisions regarding your life and relationships. If you're struggling with self-control issues, talk to a therapist at BetterHelp.

What are benefits of self-control?

The benefits of having self-control are better decision-making and fewer negative consequences. Taking the time to assess a situation and choose the appropriate response versus an emotional response can make your days run more smoothly. People with good self-control tend to suffer from fewer bouts of stress and anxiety than those who are lacking in self-control.

How do you show self-control?

People understand that you are exercising self-control when you choose your reaction in an uncomfortable situation. For example, if someone is yelling at you and you aren't sure why -- your first impulse may be to start yelling back at them. Using self-control, you take the extra step to assess why they might be yelling at you and choose how to verbally respond (or not).

Is temperance the same as self-control?

Temperance and self-control are essentially the same. Both deal with the idea of restraint and using better judgement in the face of one's passions or when in distress. The word temperance is more commonly used when referring to the religious or spiritual aspects of self-control.

What does self-control mean?

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, self-control means restraint exercised over one’s impulses, emotions, or desires. To put it in your own words from the dictionary, self-controlimplies a person is in control of their thoughts and actions. It is a necessary trait to have when working toward goals. As it relates to control (noun), a person has the power to make decisions.

Why is self-control important?

Self-control plays a significant role in the decision-making process. It shows you have the ability to regulate your feelings and emotions. It helps you stay focused on getting things done and helps with goal setting and personal achievements.One can control their emotions during stressful situations. The importance of control (noun) relates to the ability to manage your mood by staying calm during conflict.

How do you develop self-control?

Developing self-control takes practice and consistency with thoughts and actions. Self-control involves looking at all sides of a situation and understanding how to make the best choices. Get to know more about yourself and your strengths. Take care of yourself with plenty of rest, exercise, and healthy lifestyle habits. Avoid making decisions when your fatigued or stressed. Use your time wisely by planning. Set your goals one at a time. Work on setting short- and long-termgoals. Learn relaxation techniques and meditation.Control (noun) also relates to the ability to manage problems through problem-solving techniques.

Scientifically speaking, the prefrontal cortex helps the brain exert self-control. It is one of the last elements in the brain to develop fully. The prefrontal cortex includes the front portion of the brain toward the forehead. It helps the brain with aspects of self-control, including executive function, personality traits,competing stimuli, andgoal setting.

Executive function relates to behavioral elements associated with control and physical energy. It indicates the state of one’s mental health and their self-control ability. Certain behaviors raise risks of mental health concerns such as bipolar disorder. An individual with behavioral problems may struggle with self-control. For example, a person with bipolar disorder may have problems regulating their mood.

The prefrontal cortex helps you avoid temptation via impulse control. It plays a role in helping to ignore distractions when setting goals. It also helps delay gratification when working toward bigger and better things in life. Studies reviewing the results of a marshmallow test help prove this theory. The marshmallow test helps measure aspects of self-control and gratification in children. The marshmallow test studied how children would wait for treats based on quantity.

What are examples of self-control?

Self-control helps you make better decisions as it relates to your emotions, feelings, and actions. You may want to eat a slice of cake, but you choose not to through willpower because you know its not good for you. You like to stay up late to watch your favorite show, but you have priorities tomorrow, including appointments and errands. You choose to go to bed early to get plenty of rest so you can get things done.

Self-control is exercised in different ways. Others view self-control through control synonyms such as self-discipline or self-restraint. Examples of other control synonyms include self-mastery and calmness.

What are the characteristics of self-control?

When it comes to control, self-controlled individuals demonstrate emotional and physicalstability. They are in control of their thoughts, emotions, words, and habits. They understand how to manage temptations and what is behind such desires. They use their mental energy as a strength to help themselves control impulses. Positive psychology studies focus on strength characteristics related to living a meaningful life. Such elements determine thoughts and actions in achieving life outcomes people want to live. Aspects of positive psychology and self-control may contribute to living a happier life.

Can self-control be learned?

There are ways to practice self-control, with many taking time to learn methods best for them to achieve long term goals. How self-control is learned also depends on the circumstance. Parents can help their children learn self-control through play and by suggesting alternative behaviors. Adults can learn greater self-controlby growing their willpower to help stay focusedwhen working on long-term goals.

What happens without self-control?

Without self-control, a person has problems making the right choices, and they may have difficulties regulating their feelings and emotions. The problem is noticeable among peers if they appear careless or engage in reckless behaviors. A person may experience issues and long-term consequences if they lack self-control.

Why do some people lack self-control?

Many experience ego depletion or lack of willpower and self-discipline. Others fear they will fail at something before they give it a try. Some get comfortable being lazy and rather not put in the necessary effort to achieve a favorable outcome. A person may avoid doing something because they lack inner strength, or they are not open to doing things that will make them better.

What are the three components of self-control?

Some researchers believe self-control is a limited resource, but others say it’s driven by personal motivation. Understanding components of self-control make it easier to achieve long term goals, adopt healthy habits, and take advantage of opportunities encouraging personal growth. Self-control is broken into three parts, including:

  1. Self-awareness of your feelings, actions, and thoughts thought monitoring.
  2. Establishing guidelines to make decisions and how to respond through standards.
  3. Using personal energy to control impulses through strength.

What is poor self-control?

A person with poor self-control takes risks, is insensitive, and impulsive. It may lead to struggles with problem-solving in relationships, your career, and hold you back from being where you want to be in life. Some are more likely to make statements of contradiction, self-contradictory responses that make their actions and beliefs look off-balanced. Poor self-control is a problem when you don’t practice good habits or understand the consequences of making poor choices. A person is more likely to act in a manner different than what is expected of them with thoughts contradictory, self-control actions being limited or non-existent.


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