People who want to effect change in their life often complain about a lack of willpower. Conversely, people who meet their goals easily often judge those who don’t as being “weak willed”. But focusing on the will like this is misleading; it suggests that the key to making good choices in the moment is just a matter of willing it — wanting it — enough. And this just isn’t true. Rather, what we commonly call willpower is referred to by people who study human development and change as self-regulation, which is a skill that can be learned and developed like any other. And this is the character trait we’ll be exploring this week.
According to the VIA Institute on Character, “If Self-Regulation is your top strength, you self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.” In the Institute’s recently released companion book, The Power of Character Strengths, Ryan M. Niemiec and Robert E. McGrath note that self-regulation involves a “highly developed sense of control in managing [eating, drinking, exercising and sexual] behaviours, pursuing … goals, and living up to certain standards.” This, they say, results in “a sense of balance, order and progress in life.” This suggests that an important component of self-regulation is delayed gratification, the ability to say no to immediate positive stimuli in order to pursue bigger and more important goals or values. The opposite of this is called “delay discounting,” which involves giving up “a better long-term outcome for one that is more immediate.”
The benefits of self-regulation are many. Long-term cohort studies have shown that children with higher self-regulation are more successful academically and socially in later life. People with high self-regulation are less prone to anxiety and depression and are better able to control their anger. The trait is also associated with achieving goals and better personal adjustment and resiliency in the face of difficult circumstances.
Self-regulation is an area of human nature around which Christianity has an inherent negativity. The assumption of most of the Christian tradition is that, since human nature has been broken by the Fall, we are practically unable to make the right choice left to our own devices. The famous words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7 ring true both to many of our experiences with trying to cultivate self-regulation and the tradition in general:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
But even within this pessimistic understanding of the human condition, this isn’t the end of the story. For Paul — and the whole Christian tradition after him — the ability to choose and live rightly is restored to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful. Using the metaphor of two ‘laws,’ Paul says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8.1-2). God sent Jesus, Paul continues, “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v4).
Regardless of what we might think of Paul’s pessimism for humanity at large, it’s clear that the New Testament teaches that it is not only possible but expected that those who follow the way of Jesus are to make the right choices and by so doing, grow and develop into the “full stature” of what it means to be human.
This connection between self-regulation and growth clarifies that, both within the Christian tradition and in the research of positive psychology, self-regulation is a supporting character trait: One doesn’t become happier or holier simply by knowing when to say ‘no’; rather, it’s a trait that helps us bear good fruit in other areas of our life, enabling us to build better relationships and achieve goals relating to our deepest values and sense of vocation.
But like all of the character traits, self-regulation can go wrong. On the one hand we have the absence of it, a lack of discipline, and opposite, the active rejection of behavioural boundaries. This may be one of our culture’s preferred vices right now. We’re all about the quick fix, immediate validation, and instant gratification. Boundaries, particularly surrounding sex, are looked down upon as inherently repressive. The idea that saying no to something pleasurable in the moment can actually be freeing or set us up for greater pleasure in the future is pretty foreign to the sensibilities of our particular moment. And yet, self-regulation has been identified as being of value throughout history in all cultures, and so this likely says more about us than it does about the trait itself.
The opposite extreme is just as dangerous for our wellbeing. This is a withholding and repressive attitude towards self and others. It’s important to be able to say ‘no’ to unhelpful distractions and temptations, but it’s also important to be able to say ‘yes’ to helpful distractions and things that add to our relationships and relaxation. A life defined by ‘no’ is no life at all. Again quoting Niemiec and McGrath, people who self-regulate to an excess are “inhibited or constricted,” “overmanaging themselves in a rigid and sometimes detrimental way.” This is, of course, the basis of our culture’s suspicion towards boundaries and discipline. But there is a whole lot of middle ground between the two extremes of being unable to so yes and unwilling to say no.
The trick is to find the golden mean. Or better, it’s about being intentional and mindful of saying yes to the right things — to the things that build stronger relationships, that further our goals, and lead us further along our spiritual journey — and no to the wrong things — to the distractions that tempt us from who and how we want to be in the world.
How then might we cultivate a healthy self-regulation in our lives? Here are some suggestions:
- Focus on your values and goals and use them in your decision making;
- Think back on a time when you were successful; how did self-regulation play a role in this achievement?
- What areas of your life are best regulated? Which could use improvement?
- What strategies do you use in the well-regulated areas of your life that you could try out in other areas of your life?
- Chose one goal you’d like to attain and write out clear steps that could get you there and obstacles you’ll need to overcome and strategies you could use to overcome them
- Read a book on habit change and see if anything helps. My suggestion: Better than before by Gretchin Rubin: she provides twenty-one different strategies for habit change; they won’t all work for you, but some of them will!
- Choose something small and commit to monitoring it throughout the day. (e.g., if you have bad posture, commit to checking and correcting your posture every half-hour — you can set reminders in your phone or computer to help you remember)