9 Ways to Practice Self-Control and Improve Your Life

Maintain balance by establishing a personal set of rules you can live by.

Posted May 09, 2019

johnhain/Pixabay, used with permission
You're in control.
Source: johnhain/Pixabay, used with permission

Physical and emotional wellness and balanced living—not depriving yourself of the things you want but, at the same time, not overindulging—are goals most people strive for but sometimes have difficulty achieving. Self-control is a bit like willpower but more about establishing long-term patterns of choice and behavior, rather than exercising in-the-moment restraint.

Self-control is not about self-deprivation, and it’s certainly not about punishment. But it is often about redefining what is pleasurable to you in order to keep destructive behaviors in check. It is about taking power over your own actions and learning to ignore immediate impulses, no matter how powerful they may be. When you exercise self-control, especially in a difficult situation, you send a message to the world and, more importantly, to yourself, that you care enough to take responsibility for yourself. 

There are many ways you can help yourself by exercising self-control, and the more you practice these behaviors, the sooner you’ll find them turning into new and healthier habits that may become permanent lifestyle changes. Some examples include:

  1. Mending personal relationships. Self-control means changing habits that have only served to hurt you and the people who care about you. By looking deeply into yourself, taking responsibility for yourself, and taking steps to improve destructive aspects of your lifestyle, you may be able to resolve many of the past problems you’ve had with family and friends. 
  2. Forgiving mistakes. That includes forgiving others and forgiving yourself in order to release the hold that negativity has on you. The better you get at forgiving, the less you will give in to feelings of anger, bitterness, and shame, and the less often you will lose control and act on these emotions.
  3. Putting an end to negative self-talk. Negative self-talk includes anything you say to yourself that chips away at your self-esteem and makes you feel bad about yourself. It may be, “I’m so fat,” “I’m such a loser,” or, “I have no self-control.” What you’re doing is forming a negative opinion of yourself, lowering your own self-esteem and telling yourself you don’t deserve anything better than what you have in your life. The best way to stop a habit of negative self-talk is to be mindful so as to catch yourself in the act and then immediately substitute positive thoughts for negative. For instance, when you find yourself saying something like, “This is never going to work,” substitute sit for, “I will take small steps, one at a time until I get this right.”
  4. Journaling. Whether you are trying to eat better, exercise more, stop drinking alcohol, forego gambling, recover from substance abuse, or simply feel like a better person, writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you sort them out, retrace steps, and better understand what drives both your thinking and your behavior.
  5. Setting personal boundaries. Your boundaries reflect the physical and emotional limits that set you apart from other people. They are like invisible lines of responsibility for your own feelings and behavior and those of others. Setting boundaries establishes how you will allow other people to treat you. It’s a way of reminding yourself and the world that you deserve civility and respect. You set boundaries for yourself when you take time away from others to read, meditate, take a yoga class, or simply sit quietly and alone. You set boundaries for yourself when, for instance, you avoid bringing home unhealthy foods or driving past a liquor store. You also set boundaries for yourself by recognizing the needs of others to live their lives in the manner they choose. 
  6. Letting go of emotional dependencies. Take control and take responsibility for what you feel and how you respond in emotional situations. That means not letting other people, or any external circumstances, control your happiness and well-being. Letting go of those dependencies means you don’t need other people to be happy and you don’t need to be a people-pleaser or submit to other people’s whims in order to hold on to a relationship or avoid rejection. It says you’re in control and feeling secure in yourself and your future.
  7. Eating a balanced diet. It’s only recently that well-balanced and nutritious meals have been linked to better mental health as well as better physical health. If you’re not sure what a healthy, balanced diet looks like, do some research on a Mediterranean-style diet which, year after year, is voted one of the healthiest diets by medical and nutrition experts alike.
  8. Reducing stress. The way stress affects you depending on how you react to it. If you react negatively, such as with anger or indulging in overeating or substance abuse, stress will take a toll on your mental and physical health. Self-control means developing good coping skills so that you can handle stress in new and healthier ways. That can mean practicing flexibility so that you can adjust plans when things don’t go as you hoped; facing fears, especially fear of failure or fear of success; leaving room in your schedule for unexpected events, and having an advance plan for handling stressful situations that are out of your control and are likely to come up again and again.
  9. Finding ways to stay motivated. You might be tempted to say, “Why bother?” about many situations that require self-control. In that case, think about the things that matter most to you. That’s why you bother! If you need help staying motivated to make changes, reach out. Whether it’s a friend or a professional counselor, a good coach can help you stay motivated by keeping you focused on your goals.