Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Self-control may be defined as the exercise of internal control over one's own actions. This exercise may take the form of mental regulation, emotional management, goal setting, self-monitoring and making responsible choices.

In spite of this simple definition, we need to appreciate the complexity of self-control. The following represents the different facets and distinct functions of self-control.

* To the extent that self-control can be acquired through socialization and education, it can be considered a skill.
* Self-control becomes self-discipline, as long as it requires intentional effort to exercise self-control.
* However, when it is practiced habitually for some time, it becomes a personality or character trait.
* When one resists temptation in order to achieve a desired goal, self-control becomes a virtue.
* Self-control becomes a thought process, because of the cognitive processes and mental regulations needed to implement self-control.
* When it is the by-product of spiritual transformation, then, it may be considered as a spiritual gift.
* When self-control is tested by unrelenting pressure or prolonged deprivation, then its continuation depends on internal resources such as character, courage, faith, purpose, endurance. In this case, self-control may be considered a resource, an important part of a cluster of inner resources.
* Finally, self-control requires motivation. Even when one possesses all of the above, in certain situations, such as a special celebration or an artificial psychology experiment, one may decide to briefly give up self-control for the occasion.

Unlike physiological mechanisms, most self-control mechanisms need to be acquired through conditioning, learning and socialization. As adults, we are held responsible for our thoughts, emotions and behaviors to the extent that these are subject to self-control.

An important part of self-control has to do with regulating one's own emotions so that one's behavior is situation-appropriate and socially acceptable. Even though feelings are generally considered uncontrollable, their intensity and expressions can be regulated.

The importance of self-control

We admire the spontaneity and transparency of little children. They have no guile and no disguise. They can be engulfed with the sheer joy of the moment, unencumbered by the past or the future

A coupe of months ago, I went to my sister's family dinner. A boy shouted across the table as soon as I walked in: "Uncle Paul, you are ugly. Why are you so ugly? " Is his remark cute or rude for an eight-year-old grade-two child? Is it proper for adults to grant children the license to ridicule other people's physical appearance? Is it advisable to create a permissive environment so that children can freely express themselves and do whatever that strikes their fancy? Is it possible that children can naturally become the "noble savages" as theorized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

Regardless of how we answer the above questions, no one can deny that children need to learn self-control. Self-control encompasses the skills to gain control over their own behaviors, such as following instructions and rules, focusing on the task at hand, and taking responsibility for their actions. Without self-control skills, behavior problems will multiply and serious learning cannot take place; without a sense of responsibility, they are not ready to join society. That's why parents and educators are very concerned about teaching children self-control skills.

It is important to remember that children are not miniature adults. They cannot handle the same kind of freedom as adults. They need to learn the importance of boundaries and following rules. However, too much control by adults can be just as counterproductive as too much freedom with respect to the development of self-control skills.

Even adults will experience all sorts of problems, if they have not learned adequate self-control skills in today's complex and fast changing society. Just consider the following scenarios:

* A careless word or a caring touch can ruin one's career in the minefield of political correctness and litigation craze.
* In a global village with competing worldviews and civilizations, one has to be sensitive to other people's values and traditions. Such awareness requires a certain amount of self-control and humility in order not to fall into the easy trap of ethnocentric arrogance.
* To stay competitive in a knowledge economy, one needs many years of higher education and professional training. Prolonged education means delay of gratification.
* Given the breakdown of traditional values and conventional morality, coupled with the daily onslaught of temptations from TV and the Internet, individuals must follow their own moral compass in order to avoid "shipwreck".
* Life is full of frustration and injustice. But this does not justify outbursts of rage and violence. When anger is not properly managed, it can destroy one's life.
* Addictions, eating disorders, and all sorts of adjustment problems are related to self-control issues.

Self-control is necessary not only for personal success but also for spiritual progress. All major religions emphasize the virtue of self-control.