Self-control and the Mystery of Self-Mastery: Part Three

Why can’t I get it together and keep it together?

So first we discussed in Part 1 the importance of personal growth as a change process or a necessary functional adaptation to a changing world.  Also, I suggested the importance of setting goals and tackling bite sized, or what I like to call “fun sized” pieces of action for greater success.  In Part 2 we discussed delayed gratification and how it helps you to be successful at change through bargaining with and rewarding your future self.  “Putting off the now for the later” marks a higher level of maturity, diligence, and competence and in turn produces the rewards of a higher functional level. In the third part of this blog series in discussing Self-control let’s talk about what is embodied culturally as willpower.


I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Romans 7:15,  NIV


I cringe at writing or saying willpower because the way it is used sounds to me as if it acts as some inherent personal characteristic like eye color.  “I have it and you don’t” is how it is bantered about. Willpower, as it is commonly termed is batted back and forth as a sort of declaration of defeat over one’s impulses. It has been told in a “have and have not” way, which gets under my skin.  There is this tendency to make victors and victims of this polarity for those that possess it and those who do not. “Well, if I had the willpower you have,” people say meaning that they could do what they set out to do too, “if only”.

I understand what they mean and I wish they too were successful.  Somewhere, however, in buying into this willpower construct, they have already left too much room for failure. With that, I see something I fear they don’t see, which is that each choice has a kinetic potential to help you move towards or away from your goals.  Willpower is a force of choice and grows or diminishes based on the last choice and the next choice.  It’s not this bigger thing you win or lose the lottery for.  You are a product of choice which liberates and humbles us.


No Babies here

So willpower is most definitely not something you are born with.  Have you seen babies?  They do not possess willpower.  All babies.  I’ve never seen one baby gifted with impulse control. Quite the opposite really.  They cry.  A lot.  A large part of what parents do to socialize their children is to make them wait (delay gratification) and share (trust the future return of their toy).

Researchers have taken what we commonly think of as willpower and discovered a measure called ego depletion.  Ego depletion is seen as a diminishing resource of restraint.  This resource is considered limited to a measure of time (day, week, month) and depletes over the time as temptations entice you.  It is a fuel for the fire of restraint and if you use it now then there will be less for later until you get more. They conceptualize the depletion as episodes or assaults that challenge your resource and to varying degrees run down what people usually refer to as willpower.

People say I had the willpower and then challenges to my willpower may have passed successfully but while we feel relatively strong in one moment, in another moment the full force of that wave we were able to sandbag before,  now hits. The assault we weathered and held off is felt later when we may find ourselves unable to ward off any new temptation.

I thought I had it?

This is why our dizzying journey to self-improvement and change can have us riding high one minute and an hour later eating a cake in whole, fork in hand stooped over the kitchen island shoveling faster than we can even breathe. Right, not a pretty sight.

This phenomenon helps to explain how despite our best intentions why our experience of our “power” to follow through on our plans towards our goals can prove harrowing, non-linear, and self-defeating.  As you conceptualize and normalize this constraint as a reserve that we build up and deplete and build up again you may find yourself less likely to give up (on yourself) and quit.  If it is not a game of winners and losers but try-ers who are flawed and on equal footing maybe then we can see our struggle. Taking our hits and misses in stride as a journey towards more success but not success alone.  Self-compassion around the constraints of change and a willingness to work with yourself can only lead to less shame and less discouragement.  If our frame is to cheer ourselves on like a friend we care about and not a humiliating “face in the mud” torturer, and we can celebrate our attempts NO MATTER how lousy.  Then we win. We win the day, to try again tomorrow.


Research into ego depletion also uncovered ways to fortify one’s reserves of restraint.  Like a muscle built up through strengthening and use, restraint reserves or habits can also be concretized similarly.  You can work to make yourself more successful by creating environments which propel you into the change state you seek, such as routines, schedules, or accountability partners.  These muscles build over time and use. Also, for example with a goal to eat healthier, cleaning up (yes, throwing out unhealthy food) your environment and reducing your access to tempting foods that do not reinforce your goals is key to keeping your restraint high.  If temptations arise during certain times or in certain places, reduce your access to triggers or fill your time with activities that create positive momentum toward your success.  I find you can’t eat in the shower or while brushing or whitening your teeth.  (That tip is a little gift, from me to you).


What researchers also found that rebuilds our reserves, yet counter in some ways to healthier eating goals, is ingesting glucose.  What they found is that glucose helped to keep ego depletion at bay.  Of course, if you are keeping your intake of sweets low then this would be a hard strategy to employ.  Actually avoiding glucose would be wise if the glucose calories are empty or lack nutrition and glucose is a binge trigger.  If your goals are to clean your house or finish your homework, first turn off distractions that reduce your resolve, then maybe a healthy but sweet snack like some fruit (fruit sugar is half fructose and half glucose, with nutrition) could come to the ego depletion rescue.

Another large area that many find challenging is the use or misuse of alcoholic beverages.  Not only does the alcohol reduce inhibition, inject us with a lack of care in the moment, (despite our long-term goals in our sober mind, to either drink less, eat less, or control behaviors) alcohol also lowers blood sugar.  When blood sugar is low, ego depletion becomes a dangerous game of roulette; taking pot shots and blowing holes left and right through our best intentions and the promises we’ve made to ourselves and others.

Temptation and access to triggers will wear down your reserves but nothing quite solidifies your arrival in earnest to the land of no self-control like alcohol abuse.

Physically and psychologically we can set ourselves up for failure or success through the change process, yet with determination and self-compassion we can make it.



“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.” Henry David Thoreau