Self-control & Self-development

Acquiring the skills necessary for successful emotion regulation constitutes a profound developmental achievement. By adulthood, however, emotion regulation is no longer simply desirable, it is absolutely necessary for daily functioning.1

Discriminate vs Indiscriminate Living

Intelligent, healthy self-control is a mark of human maturity. It is essential for a healthy self-image and emotional self-sufficiency, which in turn reduce destructive coping mechanisms for loneliness or isolation. It promotes harmonious social functioning and engagement in productive work,2 as well as one’s continued self-development. Lack of self-control leads to either of two harmful modes of relating to life’s experiences: indulgence or suppression. A middle path of healthy self-control avoids both of these.

Understanding the role of self-control in life requires a brief understanding of the philosophical anatomy of the human personality, which can be considered as comprising two aspects. First is the Self, the unchanging inner subject of all experiences, designated by ‘I’.  Second is the composite body-mind-intellect. The body is the physical or outer personality, and houses the five organs of perception (which receive sense stimuli) and the five organs of action (which execute responses back into the external world). The inner personality comprises mind and intellect. Mind is the non-rational aspect; the seat of emotion, impulse, desire, like-dislike. Intellect is the rational aspect; “the ability to think freely, logically. The faculty to reason and judge without bias”3 and which is designed to “guide, direct the mind and its emotions.”4

The inner personality has two broad modes of relating to experiences: indiscriminate and discriminate. When an activity lacks intellectual discernment of its nature or quality, purpose or consequence, merit or demerit it is indiscriminate. Indiscriminate thoughts and feelings seem to propagate themselves, without the individual providing conscious direction or thought-force. Consider the myriad thought-flows entertained throughout a given day. Estimate the proportion that appeared in the mind unbidden (rather than being consciously initiated). Moreover, of those that simply careened into awareness, how many continued without conscious ‘permission’ from you, the supposed thinker of the thoughts? Such thinking is indiscriminate.

Indiscrimination is inherently problematic for subjective well-being and continued progress through life. It limits our autonomy, the sense of choosing life freely: the way that I experience my life is determined not by me but for me, by the thoughts and emotions that have arisen within. When impulses and urges to action remain unquestioned, the scope of action available to us is limited to the mind’s demands alone. Without scrutinizing our inner world, there is no chance to recognize our biases, flawed assumptions, conflations of distinct concepts, magical or superstitious thinking.

However, the mind can be guided by intellectual discernment towards healthier outcomes: observation and questioning of thoughts, impulses, and demands allow us to determine their source, consequences, and relative worth. We then take charge of the inner personality, and decide for ourselves those activities and objectives that are worthy of our attention and resources. When the intellect is thus applied, activities are discriminate.

Consider analogies to this intellectual discipline. Imagine you become aware that your bank account is being debited $100 per month to maintain a subscription to a website that you never visit, and which espouses an ideology that you don’t support. You would of course cancel the subscription – why waste valuable financial resources on something that is of no interest to you, and that you don’t actively support? So too with the infinitely more valuable resources of thought and emotion, we must learn to investigate our spending. Are we supporting psychological endeavors that we cannot justify?

Or consider the health-food adherent, assiduously scrutinizing the ingredients in every morsel of food. Only food passing stringent health requirements are consumed. No junk food is allowed – after all, you are what you eat. Similarly, thoughts and feelings are food for the personality: ‘As you think, so you become.’ Discrimination must extend beyond food to the nature and quality of the thoughts and feelings ‘consumed.’ It is therefore vital to develop the intellect to enable unbiased evaluation of our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Lacking intellectual scrutiny of our inner world, we lose sight of whether its activities are healthy/unhealthy, appropriate/inappropriate. Having lost the ability to relate to the mind effectively, we risk falling into either indulgence or suppression.

Indulgence

Indulgence is a mode of relating to our own desires or urges, as well as the content of our experiences. Indulgence means that the mind’s demand or desire alone initiates an activity, which then continues without intellectual discrimination of its purpose, consequence, or worth. Our attention is captured completely by the experience, and we lose sight of anything beyond it.

When desire alone initiates and propels action, the desire becomes more established in the personality, exerting increasing influence over attitudes and behaviors. As it does so we continue to make choices counterproductive to the goals we seek in life, and are left feeling powerless, unfulfilled, and frustrated. As British philosopher C. Joad described:

…the attempt to secure happiness by means of a succession of pleasures is as unsatisfying as the attempt to get a light at night by striking a succession of matches … the appetite for them grows with what it feeds on, so that however much wealth, fame or power you may have, you never think you have enough.5

And psychologists Bergsma et al. have concluded:

Thus the pursuit of luxury does not increase pleasure. What it can do is enlarge your desires, make you run the risk of becoming dependent on them and thus make you vulnerable to the whims of fortune.6

A powerful example of indulgence’s personal and social costs is indulgence in wealth acquisition. The indiscriminate acquisition of ‘more’ is based on the belief that more wealth brings more happiness. (See more on belief, values, and happiness here). Thus, materialism is defined as “the value a consumer places on the acquisition and possession of material objects.”7 Similarly, Parthasarathy notes,

A person is adjudged a materialist or not by the value he confers upon material wealth regardless of the quantum he possesses.8

The unquestioned value for material wealth is thus the root cause of the problem, not the acquisition of wealth itself: not all those who acquire wealth are destined to be unhappy. It is the internal relationship with wealth that determines one’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The mind expects happiness to be commensurate with wealth attainment, but in practice, “experienced happiness is systematically different from projected happiness. Consequently, choices turn out to be based on false expectations.”9

Studies reveal that wealth has diminishing returns on happiness; that increasing wealth does not predict increasing happiness, and in fact has been correlated with less happiness.10 For the highly affluent, indulgent acquisition of wealth leads to the so-named Wealth Fatigue Syndrome,11 a depressive ennui which leaves one unable to gain satisfaction from further wealth and possession. Children from such families are more prone to antisocial behavior and depression, and spouses who have no need to work have the same psychological issues as the actually unemployed. To summarize the psychological effects of indulgent materialism, researchers Polak & McCullough (2006) are worth quoting at length:

…individuals who focus on the acquisition of material objects exhibit reduced life satisfaction… , diminished levels of happiness… , and higher levels of depressive symptoms… In addition to being less satisfied with life as a whole, materialistic people also tend to be less satisfied with other aspects of their lives such as their standards of living, their family lives, and the amounts of fun and enjoyment they experience… Furthermore… adolescents who admire others because of their material possessions are at an increased risk for various DSM-IV psychological disorders… Therefore, the pursuit of wealth and possessions as an end unto itself is associated with lower levels of well-being, lower life satisfaction and happiness, more symptoms of depression and anxiety, more physical problems such as headaches, and a variety of mental disorders… In summary, it seems that people often pursue materialistic goals because they believe that wealth and goods can provide them with happiness. However, materialism has exactly the opposite effect: It has a negative association with nearly every quality of life measure studied to date.12

The social costs of materialism are no less troubling:

…social commentators associate materialism with the squandering of valuable resources, the subversion of traditional religious values, and the breakdown of civic responsibility… For these reasons, materialism is broadly considered to be part of the dark side of consumer behavior.13

The notion of ‘wealth’ can be broadened beyond the material level to any level of the personality – physical (e.g. beauty or prowess), emotional (e.g. popularity, intimacy), intellectual (e.g. book-knowledge, reputation). Again, it is not the pursuit and possession of experiences per se that is problematic, but the indiscriminate nature of the pursuit.

Suppression

Suppression is another unhealthy, indiscriminate mode of relating to the content of experiences, in which thoughts, desires, emotions, or actions are irrationally inhibited. The lack of intellectual understanding or discrimination means there is no genuine inner conviction regarding the reason behind the inhibition. Suppression occurs when the flow of thoughts & feelings is simply blocked, and not intelligently redirected. A thought-flow may be envisaged as having its own mental ‘momentum’ that must be properly harnessed; it is the attempt to inhibit the mind without offering an outlet for the mental energy that is problematic. Suppression also occurs when we refrain from physically acting out a desire while mentally entertaining it (i.e. fantasizing over an experience while forcefully inhibiting actions that would fully express and resolve the desire). This is analogous to pressing a vehicle’s accelerator and brake pedals simultaneously. The internal propulsion to action is engaged, but the natural effect of that propulsion is inhibited.14

Suppression is directly counterproductive to the effect sought. We seek to inhibit a thought or feeling to avoid the discomfort associated with it, yet suppression provides little or no relief from the anxiety we wish to avoid,15 and also makes unwanted thoughts & desires more intrusive, more likely to appear.16 Further, since “desire for anything increases with restriction and prohibition,”17 suppression leads to feelings of increasing frustration and anger; and has been linked to the etiology of numerous mental disorders.18 Other potential effects include impaired memory for suppressed events,19 as well as physiological costs,20 Socially, suppression has been described as “predictive of multiple adverse social outcomes,”21 implicated in inhibiting the formation of satisfying and supportive relationships.

Physically, we refrain from acting on a desire while still entertaining it due to an aversion to the possible outcome. For example, a person may have an innocuous desire for alcohol, which calls for him to drink; whereas an irrational, unquestioned notion of the immorality of all alcohol inhibits the action. So he forcefully stops drinking, all the while thinking about alcohol. Since the desire for the action continues to increase, at some point the pressure to act overwhelms him, and the action is taken nonetheless. This often result in feelings ranging from regret to self-loathing, as well as depression and isolation.

Self-Management

Self-control is not self-denial. Self-control is the intelligent management of one’s own life. Whether we choose to refrain from a thought/desire/action or follow through with it, we are intellectually and emotionally satisfied that we are making a sensible, healthy choice. This encompasses two aspects. The first aspect is the alignment of the choice with our own higher values. That is, the choice is directed towards an ideal: a goal in life that lies outside egocentric gratification. To be effective, the ideal must be logically consistent with the intellect’s understanding of what is in the best interests of the situation; and it must find affinity with the feelings of the mind. Thus time and care must be taken in order to choose an ideal that genuinely inspires us towards higher living. (More on the mechanism of an ideal here; more on the meaning of ‘higher’ here).

This confluence of intellect and mind towards an ideal is successful self-control. Self-control therefore also encompasses choosing activities that satisfy the mind’s demands, as long as they are queried by the intellect, and also satisfy the conditions for a healthy spiritual and psychological life.

The second aspect is the use of the intellect to reason through the demand and then choose on that basis. Reasoning through one’s experiences in order to choose the best option proceeds via self-reflection, by questioning the contents of one’s own experiences:

What am I thinking, desiring, feeling? What am I doing? Why?
What is the quality or nature of these activities? What sort of values do they express? Do these values serve genuine well-being?
Is this the person I want to be?
What is my ideal? Who do I want to be? What values do I wish to embody? What actions express these values?

The critical analysis of one’s core values is essential for healthy decision-making and moral/spiritual development. This requires a general awareness of one’s own mind, as well as scrutiny of particular thoughts and feelings as they arise. This unbiased observation and reasoning can only be performed with a developed intellect; an undeveloped intellect will be overwhelmed by the intensity of the mind. Thus successful self-control and healthy living requires intellectual development.


1 Gross & Muñoz. (1995). p.154-5

2 E.g. Davidson et al. (2000); Gross (2001); Gross & Muñoz Op. Cit.; Mauss et al. (2007); Mayer and Salovey (1995)

3 Parthasarathy, A. (2010). Governing Business & Relationships. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. p.22

4 Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. p.12

5 Joad, C.E.M. (1951). The Recovery of Belief. p.88

6 Bergsma et al. (2008). p.400

7 Burroughs & Rindfleisch. (2002). p.349

8 A. Parthasarathy. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. p.212

9 Easterlin. (2001). p.465

10 E.g. Easterlin (2001, 2003); Schnittker (2008)

11 Kirwan-Taylor. (2007). n.p.

12 Polak & McCullough. (2006). p.346-7

13 Burroughs & Rindfleisch. (2002). p.348

14 The effect of entertaining desire in circumstances where it cannot be fulfilled presents the same problems as choosing to suppress an action, although the name suppression in this case might be misleading.

15 Gross & Levenson (1997)

16 E.g. Wegner et al. (1987, 1990); Wenzlaff et al. (1991); Rassin et al. (1997, 2000)

17 Parthasarathy, A. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. p.14

18 Gross & Levenson. (Op. Cit.); Gross & Muñoz. (Op. Cit.); Muris & Merckelbach. (1997); Spinhoven & van der Does. (1999); Wegner. (1997)

19 Richards & Gross. (2000); Wegner et al. (1996)

20 Gross. (1998); Gross & Levenson. (Op. Cit.); Petrie et al. (1998); Wegner et al, (1990)

21 Srivastave et al. (2009). p.893