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6 Ways Self-control Can Make You Worse Off

Dark side of self-control

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Every virtue can come with its own accompanying dark side: honesty with brutality, courage with recklessness, and self-control with rigidity. It is said that people who seek therapy do it either because they need controlling their impulsive behavior or because they need loosening their rigidness.

Both impulsiveness and compulsiveness are often just two sides of the same coin. Compulsivity differs from impulsivity in that a particular action is repeated over and over. Psychologist Ainslie argues that rigid (or compulsive) behaviors arise as side effects of successful attempts to alleviate the weakness of the will.

Compulsive people are apt to get just as little long-range pleasure as impulsive ones. Here is how:

1. A defense mechanism

Rigid behavior is a defense mechanism in the effort to maintain a strong, consistent, positively valued sense of self. People who are strongly preoccupied with being in control may be struggling against more powerful temptations toward self-indulgence than most of us face.

2. Rigid thinking erodes spontaneity or playfulness

For rigid individuals everything seems deliberate. For them surprise is dangerous. The future ought to be known. They tend to be less spontaneous compared to individuals low in self-control. Thus, there seems to be a tradeoff in that self-control promotes consistency at the expense of spontaneity and freedom. Rigidity stem, in part, from obsession for control. The perfectionist fears that if he let go of it, his world would fall apart. Thus, for these people, impulse is a temptation, which can interrupt their rigid determination.

3. All-or-nothing thinking

Perfectionism (a high level of self-control) is a personality trait that involves habitually establishing lofty or unrealistic standards. Perfectionists compete against themselves, and nothing ever feels good enough to them. The burden of perfectionist expectations is all too familiar to anyone who has struggled to kick a bad habit. Break down just once (e.g., one smoke, or one single drink) it is considered relapse, and you may as well pour yourself two or three more. They are vulnerable to eating disorders because of their all-or-nothing mind-set. They are either on a perfect diet or off the diet completely. For example, women who are high in perfectionism are more likely to see themselves as overweight and to be dissatisfied with their bodies. These unachievable standards increase the chance of failure, the result of which can be the development of bulimic symptoms.

4. Avoiding the real issue

Individuals with high perfectionism may turn their attention to dieting to change their appearance as a way to respond to the experience of negative feelings in other domains (e.g., interpersonal or academic). For example, detailed meal planning or counting calories may permit distraction when they are experiencing stress. Because by dieting, they can gain some sense of control in the appearance domain for a lack of control in other domains.

5. Mental illness

Perfectionists are often at risk for mental distress, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. This is not surprising when you consider the causes of depression include all-or-nothing thinking, and a focus on the goal to the exclusion of any joy in the actual moments in achieving those goals.

6. Perfectionism is considered as a positive trait

Many people associate perfectionism with certain positive traits. People in job interviews mention perfectionism as their personal weakness. They equate perfectionism with attention to details and making sure they do things well.

There must be a balance between expressing and suppressing our urges. Individuals who maintain this balance are more comfortable and healthy. In the words of Oscar Wilde, to get rid of temptation is to yield to it – enjoying a delicious piece of chocolate cheesecake! Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that we shouldn’t underestimate the short-term self. What if the long-term self is misguided? Sometimes we deprive ourselves of perfectly good pleasures, including those involving love and companionship, because of the decisions of the long-term self (e.g., the workaholic who never sees his children).

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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