What does “control” mean?

When we talk about self-control this month, the hardest piece for most of us is applying a useful definition of the word “control.” Control in this context is a journey, rather than a destination. It’s the work we’re doing, rather than the the result we’ve produced. So if I’m practicing self-control, it’s not that I’ve GOT it; it’s that I’m working on it.

If you can accept that, the rest falls into place. Physical self-control? It doesn’t mean I’ve got total control over my body. It means I’m training, I’m practicing, I’m building the stamina, strength, balance, and muscle memory to get my body to do what I ask it to do. Emotional self-control? It’s not that I choose how I feel. It means that I’m getting better at identifying (accurately and honestly) whatever I’m feeling. It sometimes means I’m feeling the feeling without letting it dictate my behaviors. And it means I’m feeling whatever I’m feeling for as long as that feeling lasts without fighting it, denying it, or covering it up with something else. Mental self-control? It’s not defined by logic, linear thinking, eidetic memory, or necessarily related to cognitive ability or intelligence (whatever THAT means). It’s using the skills and behaviors that allow you to do your best thinking, your best learning, and your best creative work.

When people say they “lack self-control,” they’re often judging themselves by results: I had a cookie, therefore I have no self-control. But what if we judge self-control based on the process, rather than only by results? If I am used to eating 3 cookies every afternoon, and today I only had one (deliberately, as a part of my work on changing my diet for the better), then something in my process is working. That one cookie is actually an indicator that I DO have self-control — it’s a signpost that I’m making progress in this particular journey.

Control takes practice, because control IS practice. Let’s get better at giving ourselves and other people credit for the work they’re doing (as opposed to the results they’re producing) as a way to support their self-control.

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