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More About Understanding Self-Control

Time to munch themSelf-control or willpower is the ability to effectively manage your attention, emotions and desires. Understanding how willpower works can help you better manage your emotions and make the changes you want to make in your life.

When you are working to build more effective coping skills, you may find that no matter how strong your commitment to practicing new ways of soothing yourself, solving problems effectively, or managing your intense emotions in healthier ways, you fall back into old patterns.

Falling back can be discouraging and you may blame yourself for not having enough willpower or stick-to-it-ness.  As we noted in the last post, self-control has nothing to do with your character. It’s a limited resource for everyone. We have to practice and keep going, recognizing that having lapses is just part of developing new behaviors and skills.

If we know some of the ways to enhance our self-control while we are practicing new behaviors, that can help too.

Confidence in Your Willpower May be Your Undoing

Strangely enough, the people who believe they have the most willpower are also the most likely to lose control when tempted. You see, we humans are often not that good at estimating our own abilities. It turns out that confidence does not equal ability.

The most self-confident experts, including physicians, are often not the most skilled. Experts who express doubt, while not as appealing to the general public, are likely more self-aware. Being aware of all that can go wrong turns out to be an important component of a successful outcome. Starting a change process with full appreciation of the difficulties you are likely to encounter is more likely to be successful than not looking at the possible ways you could be sidetracked.

Most people rate themselves as above-average in intelligence. They also rate themselves as above average in driving skills, attractiveness and morality. Does this remind you of Lake Woebegone, where Garrison Keeler says all the children are above average?

Of course it’s not possible that we’re all above average. By definition, average means that 50% have greater ability and 50% have less ability.  We just aren’t that good at knowing our true abilities. In terms of willpower, many people would not say they are above average in that virtue. However, when asked if they can change something about themselves most people are confident that they can.

Believing you can make a change in your behavior regardless of the difficulty makes you more susceptible to those unpredicted roadblocks that happen when you are trying to make changes. Recognizing that changing your behavior will be very difficult and challenging will help you prepare yourself for the roadblocks you encounter.

Three Components of Self-Control

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal suggests that you look at willpower in terms of things you want to do less of or give up (‘I won’t”), things you would like to do more of (“I will”), and an important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on (“I want”).

McGonigal points out that “I will” and “I won’t” are two sides of self-control, but to say “no” when no is the right answer and to say “yes” when yes is the right answer requires that you remember what you really want. If your objective above all else is to keep or develop a positive relationship with your mother-in-law, then remembering that goal when she says you need to take better care of her son will be critical to your success.  Keeping what you want to accomplish and why you want to reach that goal will help.

When you want to make a change, realizing what you truly want is part of strengthening your willpower and channeling your emotions to go in the direction you’ve chosen. McGonigal says willpower is using all three, the “I won’t,” “I will,” and “I want.”  Knowing exactly what you need to say “no” to, what you need to say “yes” to and the reasons you have made the commitment are all part of using your willpower effectively.

Remember to validate your efforts.  Be kind to yourself when you don’t succeed and recognize that feeling discouraged is part of the process.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alin S

More About Understanding Self-Control

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). More About Understanding Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 Apr 2012
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