Is self-control and discipline about resisting your desires, or about doing what you desire? Depending on how you see and approach it, self-control and discipline can either be a nightmare or an enjoyable act of self-love.
Questions: Assuming you are a 20-year-old struggling with porn and masturbation
- Do you think the rappers who smoke and do drugs have more self-control than you? Do you think they need it?
- Do you think Priests and Monks still have sexual urges? How do they resist?
- Do you know people are less likely to commit crimes in front of a police officer? Why is this so?
- Did you know most drug addicts would resist the urge if there was a gun pointed at their heads? Why is that?
- Do you also know that millions of students stay up all night preparing for their exams? Hmm, I wonder why?
All these questions reveal subtle facts about the idea of self-control and discipline that most of us miss in the quest to magically transform ourselves into flawless, workaholic, robots, rather than humans.
Why You Struggle To Be Disciplined:
We all have a body (with its primal instincts) and much-developed frontal lobes (which we’ll call higher consciousness), and they sometimes want contradictory things. For example, if you are hungry your primal instinct might nudge you to eat so you don’t die, while your higher consciousness may desire for you to starve so you can lose weight. Hence, failing to understand both of them will only lead to friction and frustration.
For example, if you choose to starve, that will only amplify the demand of your instincts. And, the longer you starve, the crazier your instincts get (because it can’t watch you starve to death). And, even when the starvation is not particularly a threat to your life (like say, being sex-starved), your instincts will still go on a protest (because it is designed to push you to make babies).
Note: “Instinct” and “higher consciousness” are popular metaphors used to describe the different regions and functions of our complex brain. It does not mean the brain is literally divided into those two categories.
Of course, your instincts don’t pay attention to the tiny details – you could eat unhealthy foods, or just masturbate and that would appease it because it only measures how full your belly is or if you had an orgasm. And as long as those boxes are ticked, it thinks all is well. It keeps quiet. Sadly, it is this loophole in your instincts that Limbic capitalism capitalised on – that is why we are mostly struggling to quiet things that instinctively feel good, like porn and soda, but which actually add no value (or have dire consequences) to our well-being.
This means, even though our instincts want the best for us, we must use our higher consciousness to guide it. And, that is in fact, what true self-control is. It is not denying yourself, but guarding yourself towards something better.
What Are Self-control and Discipline?
Self-control is not self-denial and self-punishment. It is not forcing or shaming yourself into doing things that you hate. Rather, it is guiding yourself to do things that may be hard but that add immense value to your well-being.
Self-control and discipline are a way of becoming more aware of your instincts and controlling the variables around you so you behave in the most productive way possible for long-term success and happiness.
There is a term in psychology known as “ego depletion“, which simply means you can run out of the energy to control your decisions. So, though there is some level of resistance and effort that needs to be exercised, self-control and discipline can not rely on those alone. For instance, if you had to spend the whole day resisting the urge to yell at a coworker, it may be more challenging to resist your lust later that night.
So, it is no surprise that it becomes increasingly hard to say no to porn after fighting lust for hours on Instagram. The same applies to eating junk food, binge-watching movies, and all other habits that you are trying to overcome.
“A disciplined person follows values stemming from their source – the self.”– Stephen Covey.
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What Causes Lack of Self-control?
Lack of self-control and self-discipline are caused by several underlying factors, broadly categorised into biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
To better understand self-control and what causes a lack of it, let’s use an allegory:
Imagine your body is a car, and your brain is the driver. Just like a car – with all its parts – needs a skilled driver to navigate the road, you need to properly understand how your brain works to practice self-control in order to make better decisions.
- The prefrontal cortex is the steering wheel of the car/brain, allowing you to make quick turns and avoid obstacles. This region of the brain is involved in reducing impulsive behaviour and regulating emotions, thoughts, and actions. When the prefrontal cortex is impaired, it can lead to a lack of self-control. This is why drunk people lose control (because alcohol greatly affects the prefrontal cortex). It is also the reason traumatised people struggle to regulate their emotions as trauma also affects this part of the brain.
- The limbic system is like the gas pedal and brakes of the car/brain, regulating the car’s speed and ability to stop. The amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system, is involved in processing emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure. When the limbic system is overactive or not properly regulated, it can lead to impulsive behaviour and a lack of self-control. This is why (abused) drugs manage to influence people’s behaviour be it feeling of relief, relaxation, aggression, or even horninesss. Trauma also affects this part of the brain, impairing its functioning.
- The reward system is like the GPS of the car/brain, guiding you/the driver to pleasurable experiences and motivating you to revisit. If the GPS is malfunctioning, the driver may become lost or follow a path that leads to negative consequences. When you engage in a pleasurable activity, such as eating ice cream or viewing porn, the reward system is activated and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Over time, the reward system can become desensitised to the activity, leading to compulsive, more intense behaviour and a lack of self-control. This is why drug and porn addictions are usually slippery slopes – with the consumer starting with lower milligrams of the drug before demanding more, or consuming softcore porn before drifting to the hardcore categories (or extreme fetishes).
- On top of all these, the road on which the car is running (i.e. your environment) also has an immense effect on the performance and durability of the vehicle. For instance, if you hang around smokers, there is a high probability that you will have to constantly resist the invitation/temptation to smoke which in turn wears away your self-control.
Just as a car needs regular maintenance to function properly, the brain needs care and the right environment to ensure that self-control is functioning at its best.
“Your environments and settings matter. Set yourself up in an environment that encourages the building of self-discipline. Not one that sabotages yourself.”– Jordan Koma
How To Avoid Compromising Your Self-control and Discipline
Below are some strategies that can help you avoid compromising your self-control:
- Create a detailed plan: Having a clear plan and goal in mind can help you stay focused and motivated in doing the things that are most important to you. For example, the rapper who smokes and is addicted to drugs may not think too much about their lack of self-control in that aspect of their life because they know their finances and maybe even relationships are in order. So, before you start complaining that you lack self-control, write down your (most important) goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them.
- Avoid temptation: Self-control is not all about willpower. Rather than resisting, why not remove or reduce temptations that could lead to a loss of self-control? For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier, remove junk food from your home/refrigerator. If you’re trying to quit porn, unfollow and block all the Instagram models on your social media feed. If you’re trying to quit drinking, stop going to the club, and don’t stock your refrigerator with alcohol.
- Manage stress: High levels of stress can weaken your self-control by depleting your cognitive resources (such as working memory and attention), as well as affecting your prefrontal cortex (the steering wheel) and the amygdala (the gas pedal). Therefore, ensure you take breaks and practice stress-management activities such as meditation, deep breathing, or exercise. Also, learn to say no to unimportant work, schedule, and avoid procrastination so you don’t put yourself under unnecessary stress.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can impair self-control to a scary extent. You become irritable, less empathetic, and impulsive when you aren’t getting sufficient sleep because it affects the regions of the brain responsible for self-control (such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, striatum, and so on). So, aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Practice self-care: Taking care of your physical and emotional health can help you maintain your self-control. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and engage in activities that bring you joy. Activities like regular exercise and mindful meditation increase the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine which boost the regulation of mood, motivation, and attention. Hence, these activities help build and maintain your self-control reserves so you can exercise them when need be.
- Build self-awareness: Be mindful of your emotions and triggers that could lead to a loss of self-control. Practice self-reflection and be honest with yourself about your habits and behaviours. You can read this article about self-awareness to learn more.
- Practice self-compassion: It’s normal to slip up from time to time. Instead of being hard on yourself, practice self-compassion and focus on getting back on track. Remember negative emotions only further drain your self-control.
“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”– Lao Tzu
How To Improve Your Self-control And Self-discipline Without Overly Relying on Willpower
Improving your discipline without overly relying on willpower involves developing habits and systems that support your goals and make it easier to take action toward them. Here are some strategies to consider:
- Create a routine: Establishing a consistent routine can help you stay on track and make it easier to follow through with your plans. Set aside specific times for tasks, such as reading or working, and stick to them as much as possible. For example, back when I was in the University, I used to go to night classes with my friends and read from 7pm to 9 or 10pm daily (except on weekends).
- Have sacred spaces: Dedicating different rooms/places for different purposes is very helpful. It’s hard not to see a movie when you are in the living room with the large 8K TV turned on. This is also why me and my roommate made it a habit to go to lecture halls at night to read, despite having a comfortable room to ourselves.
- Break down tasks: Large tasks can feel overwhelming and make it harder to take action. Break down tasks into smaller, manageable steps to make them feel more achievable. For example, my friends and I didn’t try to understand everything about a particular course a night before the exam. It would have taken an incredible amount of willpower (which we didn’t have) to do that. So, we started early each semester to read one topic at a time.
- Find accountability: Having someone to hold you accountable can help you stay motivated and committed to your goals or principles . Consider finding an accountability partner or joining a support group. My friends and I were our own support group. We called each other when it was time to go to the night classes, and we ensured none of us was distracted talking to boys or girls during that time (because I had both male and female friends). That’s a good use of peer pressure.
- Use positive reinforcement: Celebrate your successes and progress towards your goals. This can help you maintain motivation and build confidence in your abilities. As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t have to go to classes on the weekends. That time was reserved for fun – be it video games, movies, or sex. Besides, getting good grades on assignments and tests was a sort of subtle reward for the effort we were putting in.
- Join a community: It is hard to go the distance on your own. Sometimes, a small group of friends may not be enough; you’ll need an entire community. For example, it would be very hard for me and my friend to draft out the syllabus for ourselves. This is where the University comes in.
In all these, it is important to remember that self-control and self-discipline are not things we do to hurt ourselves, but rather things we do because we love ourselves. This means the most important step is accepting yourself with all your flaws and shortcomings, and then trying to understand yourself better.
I’ll discuss this a little more in the section below before concluding this piece.
How Can Self-acceptance Lead To Self-control
When we accept ourselves for who we are, including our strengths and weaknesses, we are more likely to have a positive self-image and greater self-esteem. This, in turn, can lead to a greater sense of self-control.
- First, self-acceptance can reduce negative emotions such as shame, guilt, and self-doubt. These negative emotions can lead to impulsive behavior and a lack of self-control. When we accept ourselves, we are less likely to be driven by these negative emotions and more likely to make deliberate, thoughtful decisions.
- Second, self-acceptance can increase our sense of autonomy and personal responsibility. When we accept ourselves, we take ownership of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This can lead to greater self-control, as we are more likely to take responsibility for our behavior and make intentional choices.
- Third, self-acceptance can improve our ability to regulate our emotions. When we accept ourselves, we are more likely to be kind to ourselves and less likely to engage in harmful behaviours (like smoking, drinking, gambling, and so on).
This is why people who seem to be doing all the productive and amazing things we wish we could do don’t see it as punishment, but a quest to love themselves more. They work out, read, and do all these seemingly hard things with the thought that they are showing love to themselves.
So, it is no mystery they have fun practising self-control and discipline. And, I think this is the same mindset children have, which enables them to play till they are exhausted and sometimes injure themselves, and still remain excited to do it all over again the next day.
Conclusion: Self-love Is The Key To Self-control and Self-discipline
Over the years, I’ve struggled with habits that I considered bad; and I hated myself for those (especially when I was still religious). However, as I grew in my personal development journey, I found some of those habits to simply be my natural inclination as a human. Of course, I am deliberate about avoiding sugar, alcohol, and other excesses, but I’ve also learned to find healthy expressions for my hubris, libidinousness, and logorrhea.
If you are struggling with self-control, ask yourself, “Why is this an issue?”, “Is it harming my health?”, “Is it hamstringing my goals?”, “What natural instincts are responsible?”, and “Is there a healthy way I can pacify the burning urge?” Your answers will guide you on what to do. Perhaps you need to make a plan for your goals, or maybe you need to reward yourself in some way.
Whichever case, loving yourself, and paying attention to what your goals and needs are is key. Self-love is the key to healthy self-control and discipline.
P.S: If you are struggling with an addiction that is harming you, you may want to do more than embrace and understand it. I recommend you seek help from a professional.
A Self-Help Writer And Editor Who Keeps It Simple (Yet Elegant)