Personal Growth

Self-Control Isn't Always Good for You

Self-control is one of those things that pretty much everyone wishes they had more of. If only you had the willpower to get up early for a run, to stick to your diet day after day, to avoid overindulging at the bar, to resist the temptation to spend your entire paycheck at American Science and Surplus. But some psychologists suggest that we as a society might be overemphasizing the importance of self-control — and missing the moments when maintaining control is actually hurting us.

Restraint Is Holding You Back

That's what Bar-Ilan University senior lecturer in psychology Liad Uziel says in a new publication in Current Directions in Psychological Science. He isn't necessarily saying that self-control is a bad thing, just that it's a little more complicated than just being a positive or a negative trait. For example, we've already told you about how wishing that you had more self-control actually makes you less able to resist temptation. Taken on its own, that seems like a good enough reason to stop emphasizing self-control so much.

But Uziel points out that there can be much greater dangers to focusing on self-control than it simply draining away (it's not a finite resource, anyway). Somebody with a lot of self-control might adhere to harmful societal norms, even if their instincts tell them not to. They might stay in an unhappy marriage, for example, and strictly control how they appear and behave around their spouse.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Uziel cited previous studies that show that people with high and medium self-control are actually more likely to engage in frequent binge drinking. That might be because you can draw on that resource to overcome the pain when your body is screaming, "Please feed me water!" and shotgun another beer instead.

Self-Control Only Goes So Far

It makes sense when you think about it: Self-control on its own isn't inherently a good thing. Your sense of self-control might give you a stronger work ethic, sure, but that might translate as working to an unhealthy degree, to the detriment of your health. Or worse, you might use that self-control to make a habit of overexercising, undereating, or generally avoiding enjoyment of normal activities.

Instead of thinking of self-control as the ability to resist a temptation when it's right in front of you, the key to healthy control is to know when you can't afford to be tempted in the first place. You don't buy a pack of Oreos to prove that you can resist them — if you know they're your weakness, you don't keep them in the house at all.

The Neuroscience of Lies, Honesty, and Self-Control

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 6, 2018

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