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

“Waiting is such sweet sorrow” –quip


The difficulty presented at the onset of personal change is significant and at times daunting and discouraging.  Change to the environment or ones routines can produce an increased level of anxiety, most of the time, in many people.  This only serves to remind us that life is hard,  and life is change.  You guessed it, change is hard.  Ever changing in scope and presentation we are challenged with the task of responding to the changes around us and inside of us.  Personal change in how we handle ourselves and the outcomes of our choices, signals maturity.  Maturity is letting the desires of tomorrow take center stage in the present; trusting that we will benefit as we believe, we will, in the future by putting off our present desires for tomorrow.


This dynamic is best known as “delayed gratification”.   Self-control and delayed gratification are so connected that I can’t even imagine a true delay that you put yourself under not including the self-control required, even in the first instant.  Sure you can wait on things with greater ease, say opening a much-anticipated present and act like an adult about it, but if you are a child with less self-control the task is a steeper mountain to climb.  Self-control is a combination of impulse control, delayed gratification, and patience.  It not only harnesses the power to see our impulses and then resist them with the varying pressure of really wanting what we want when we want it.


Did you just say “now”?  That is when we want what we want.  We want it now. Do we mellow with age and have we become more patient?  Possibly or maybe not really.  We are not always like fine wine; better with age.  Sometimes we are just older and without maturing and without personal change the days have just gone by.  We have to put something before ourselves and learn how to wait to really grow up.   Practical wisdom says that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and in that vein maybe anything worth having is worth waiting for?


There is a commonly known psychological experiment called the Marshmallow Experiment (Stanford’s Walter Mischel, 1960) from which emerged delayed gratification as demonstrated in young children.  What the test did was have a researcher leave a marshmallow with a young test subject instructing the child that if they could wait to eat the marshmallow for when the researcher returned then they would get another marshmallow.  They were going to have to decide if one marshmallow now was better than two; the one they have and can eat now, or wait for that one and the one promised.

As you would imagine some waited for a bit, some waited the whole time, earning the reward, and some didn’t wait at all.

What the experiment proved, after following the test subjects for years after the laboratory test, time and time again, was that those who delayed gratification were more successful in school (higher SAT scores), and in life skills (more able to handle stress, better social skills, lower substance abuse) as time progressed.

As we learn to wait, our ability to delay for a benefit later grows and like our physical muscles we get stronger and better at self-control.


For some, however, the prospect of a future reward is too tenuous or unreliable.  Researchers at the University of Rochester found that if the promise of a future reward has proven untrustworthy then subjects tended to not wait and live for the immediate gain.  The Marshmallow Experiment demonstrated not only the future life success for those who had restraint but also it shed light on why some couldn’t wait. For some that couldn’t, it was in part a lack of trust in the promise of the future reward.  Waiting had proven in the past to produce results intermittently and the lack of a reward at those times proved that waiting didn’t always work out to a positive ending.  This meant that indulging at the moment was the best course of action, for these subjects, to gain the desired reward.

Getting a marshmallow now, when you can’t rely on the future marshmallow is what is smart if the future marshmallow is uncertain.  It is better than no marshmallow or waiting for the extra marshmallow that doesn’t come. When we ourselves produce this failure and when we are the ones promising to our future selves a reward. that never comes we learn to not only to distrust the world and its rules but also to distrust ourselves.


“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.”
— ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War


Trust: Who me?

Self-control is not only about what goals and benefits we decide to pursue today for tomorrow’s gain but the relationship we have with ourselves; how we care for ourselves and what promises we keep.

Delaying gratification will lead to greater success in functional areas of your life but with that comes the responsibility to keep your promises to yourself and reward yourself when you get to the future you suffered and waited for.


If you have laid out a gauntlet of goals too large to measure up to, and never felt the success you assured yourself, then why trust any other agreements you have made with yourself?  Maybe our reducing diets haven’t failed us? Maybe we have underperformed for the unreasonable unfair task master we’ve become to ourselves who, quite frankly, was never going to be truly happy anyway.  Set yourself up for success; mentally create self-acceptance and support, and each day try anew.  Be the supportive friend you always knew you were or you could be, but for yourself.