The Hidden Costs and Limitations of Self-Control

Posted on 2017-09-07 By Joanna


Self control is a highly valued asset in our society. The inhibition of socially inappropriate impulses, discipline, some schedule and a routine to maintain - these are all an expression of our drive to control ourselves and our environment. It all starts in our childhood - as we grow older and older, we encounter a progressively increasing amount of things that needs to be controlled – not only our own behaviour but also, ideally, the behaviour of others by pleasing them, securing their approval or even admiration, gaining respect; as well as maintaining material and emotional security. And so, by the age of 25, a typical individual in the Western society possesses either of the viewpoints – that everything within their grasp must be controlled, or that everything is just the way it is and that any attempts at controlling ourselves and our environment are fruitless.

As Alan Watts once said, self control inevitably leads to frustration. The reasoning behind this proposition is very simple – sooner or later we are doomed to fail. Even the best system of control is unable to withstand the unexpected events, throwing the controlled into endless frustration and anxiety. The inevitability of this progression is a natural mechanism operating in life – we even have a name for these comical events which seem to be the result of the Murphy's law. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. But even if we do take up a more positive outlook and diminish the importance of unhappy accidents, to fully exercise the control over ourselves or our environment means to control an infinite number of variables. You start with one element, then you become aware of another element that has the influence over the first one, and then another one, into the whole infinity. This effort could be comparable to a man who wants to control a stream of water. The more he grasps for it, the more he struggles to direct its course, and the more he tries to do so, the less control he has over the flow of water.

On the other hand, letting the control go might lead to the other type of negative consequences – things which we put up for later pile up and wait for the moment to overwhelm us completely. Giving up and following the flow or the wind will present us with a risk of simply following the path of self-destruction, or even, falling into a metaphorical pit hole.

Damned if we do and damned if we don't. Should we restrain ourselves, control every aspect of our being and behaviour at the expense of our individuality and inborn potential, and thus, walk the path of a neurotic rigidity? Or should we let ourselves go 'wild' and uncensored at the potential expense of our health and security, and thus, walk the path of total authenticity and chaos? We might answer 'no' to both questions. In my understanding, the issue presented here is not with the very fact of whether we should invest our time and energy into controlling whatever we can, but with our understanding of what control is.

Common sense dictates that control is about keeping some phenomena in our vision, within the grasp of our eyes. Furthermore, it is a knowledge of when it begins, how it progresses, and finally, making sure that it ceases in the way we want it to cease. For example, if I want to control the car I must know how it works, what to do to make it going, turn the steering wheel in order to make a turn, and finally, to know how to and where to stop it. I cannot just wish for the car to go how it pleases, although our current technology is close enough to the development of such fully automatic cars. If I let go of control of the car during the ride, the consequences will be rather unpleasant – I might crash into a tree or worse, into a person. Regardless, this analogy suggests that to control something is to oversee the whole process from the very beginning to the very end.

Now let's say that you want to control yourself. If we apply the analogy from above, we can already see the flaw in the common reasoning behind self control. To control ourselves would mean to foresee the whole process of our life from the very beginning to the very end. Surely, we might take up the steering wheel in the middle of the ride in order to take the control of the car, but such scenario would imply that we weren't in the control in the first place. And here is another fallacy: we can't fully control our existence – could you control when you pooped when you were 2 months old, could you control how much food you were eating while being in the womb, can you now control the rate of your heart beat or breathing, and so on and on.

Second of all, the fallacy also applies to the other side of the coin, implying that you are not in control. If you are not in control, that means that after 3 days of no-eating you won't reach out for the plate of food that I will offer you, or that you will not fall asleep after 3 days of not sleeping, or that you will not inhale air after holding your breath for one minute. All these actions suggest that you are very much in control. But then you might say - but but but, these are just automatic reflexes, my instinct, my inbuilt self-preservation drive. And here we are again at the point of the absurdity of self control. If you can do things on their own accord, whenever necessary for your survival, what's the point of getting in your own way of controlling yourself?

The whole idea behind what has been written here is that the complete removal of the concept 'self control' will do much more good than bad. Things will usually fall into their own place but at the same time, it takes a little bit of effort from our side to tune into such a state where everything is controlled and managed and yet, we don't put any effort to control anything. When you stop stirring the water, the dirt will fall onto the bottom, as it should. If we are concerned with either self control or lack of control, this is still a control – but instead of being concerned with controlling or not-controlling, we are concerned with being concerned with the self control.

Thus, if both, control and lack of it makes our life more difficult or stressful than it's necessary, we are placed in the middle of this contradiction. Instead of controlling our behaviour or some external phenomena, responding to what happens to and with us doesn't require any control. I throw a ball and you catch it – no control involved. Or, you feel tired and so you go to sleep. Instead of attempting to micro-manage multiple variables in order to create a complex system called 'life', we allow it to flourish it the way it wants but at the same time, we foresee and care for it like we care for a plant in our garden. Self control is thus replaced with self-trust and responsiveness to the reality to the best of our ability. In order to be capable of control, one also needs to be capable of letting it go when necessary. Life is way too complex to box it into mere definitions of control or lack of it. If we limit it to what we can or cannot control, we close ourselves to limitless possibilities lying beyond our understanding of control.

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