Can Self-Control Make You Unhappy?
The problem might be the real you
Posted September 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Satisfaction with the exercise of self-control depends on your self-image.
- Your self-image might make you feel inauthentic when exercising restraint, in which case self-control will make you unhappy.
- Changing your idea of self-control to fit better within your identity may help you achieve goals.
Almost everybody faces self-control problems at some point in life. Shedding a couple of extra pounds, turning down the third beer of the night, exercising instead of sitting on the couch watching Netflix, reacting calmly to that annoying coworker: all require self-control. And self-control is not always easy. There is, however, another problem. The real you might be in the way.
Self-Control and Authenticity
In an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my coauthors and I reported on a series of studies on self-control and its relation to a construct called “lay rationality.” Some people see themselves as fundamentally rational while others prefer to be seen as spontaneous and intuitive. People with a rational self-image tend to concentrate on the question, “What should I do?” while people with a more emotional, intuitive view of themselves ask, “What do I want to do?”
In our research, we contrasted subjects' reactions to a number of daily situations requiring self-control ("Will you eat the cake?") and measured lay rationality, satisfaction with the decisions, and a number of other variables. What we found, in studies with more than 3,000 participants, is that satisfaction with deciding to exercise restraint strongly depends on a person's self-image. The reason? Feeling authentic.
If my lay rationality is high, I tend to see myself as under control and I feel authentic whenever I exercise self-control.
If, on the other hand, I am low on lay rationality, then I see myself as somebody who is (at least sometimes) ruled by emotions, and I feel authentic whenever I follow my inner impulses, without thinking about them (“Just do it!”). The problem is that I also feel less authentic when I exercise self-control and I am dissatisfied every time I successfully do so, because “it is not really me,” that is, it does not fit my self-image.
This is a risk for people who think of themselves as, at least in part, intuitive or passionate. To be clear, this is most people, as nobody is really an emotionless being made of pure thought. You have a problem that needs self-control (pick yours—we all have one, or several), but exercising self-control contradicts your self-image, and hence you are dissatisfied every time you do so (maybe without quite knowing why). Hence, you are less motivated the next time that you need self-control, and you fail more often in exercising it. When you do succeed in controlling yourself, you become dissatisfied. You need self-control, but it does not feel like "you” to exercise it. So self-control actually makes you unhappy, and, even if you do exercise it, you will not fully enjoy its benefits.
This is a perfect recipe for unhappiness. Self-control is useful to achieve long-run objectives: a long, healthy, financially secure and emotionally stable life. But if you do not see its exercise as authentic and resist it, such long-term objectives will likely suffer. This may not be surprising in hindsight, but not many people think in these terms.
Self-control is not always inauthentic. It’s all a matter of degrees. Funny enough, we seem to be quite inconsistent in our views. A recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that people often perceive impulsive actions as more authentic for others but self-control as more authentic for themselves: we always think others are worse.
How to exercise self-control and be happy about it
What do we learn from all this? There is no denying that self-control is important. Weight problems, excess debt, conflicts in our relationships, staring at life through your phone's camera, and many other issues requiring self-control are becoming more and more widespread in developed societies. There is, of course, no magic formula to solve these issues. Still, here is a piece of advice that you will not hear too often and might make a small difference: pay attention to your self-image.
If you see yourself as emotional, intuitive, passionate, etc., you will not feel fully authentic when you have to control yourself, and that will make you unhappy. Acknowledge that. You might increase your satisfaction with yourself if you go one step back and make an effort not to restrain yourself again and again, but to consciously change your view of what self-control is and why you use it. View it not as an objective in itself, but as a tool to achieve your long-term goals.
The key is to tell yourself that being self-controlled is not (and cannot be) part of who you are, the same way that having a hammer or a toaster is not a part of your identity. Those are tools, and so is self-control. You exercise self-control because it helps you to achieve a certain goal, and that goal is part of who you are. You might have a weight problem, but you are not the weight problem. You are a person with the goal to live a healthy life, and that is the reason that you decide to order the white fish with rice instead of the steak with fries. Because it’s also who you are.
Satisfaction with your decisions is a matter of authenticity, and authenticity is a matter of your self-image and the image you want to present to others. Many people want to be seen as passionate and intuitive, and concentrate on the superficial characteristics of such an image instead of long-run goals. If you manage to make those goals explicit for yourself, and consistently communicate them to your family, friends, and work colleagues, you will create an image more at ease with the use of self-control to achieve those goals. That will increase authenticity when you exercise self-control, and that may eventually reduce the struggle.
Kokkoris, M. D., Hoelzl, E., & Alós-Ferrer, C. (2019). True to Which Self? Lay Rationalism and Decision Satisfaction in Self-Control Conflicts, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(2), 417-447.
Garrison, K. E., Rivera, G. N., Schlegel, R.J., Hicks, J. A., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2022). Authentic for Thee But Not for Me: Perceived Authenticity in Self-Control Conflicts, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Online First.