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An Essential Self-Regulation Strategy

It’s not about self-discipline. It’s knowing what really makes you feel better.

We can all feel caught between our long-term goals or desires and our short-term cravings or desires. Whether it’s a fitness/weight-loss goal versus a sweet dessert now or a career goal that requires work now versus “just one more episode” of your favorite Netflix series…we can all lament what seems a lack of willpower to make the right choice.

Why is it we feel unable to self-regulate?

I think a key misunderstanding is the over simplification of self-regulation as a problem of under-regulation. We think about self-regulation as simply the exertion of more effort to resist. In this sense, we’re framing self-regulation as not working hard enough, an under-regulation problem. We have inadequate strength to resist or persist, or we might even have set deficient standards for our behavior, the “bar is too low” sort of thing.

When we think of self-regulation and self-control this way, it’s all a matter of willpower. However, willpower will and does fail us.

The other way to think about self-regulation, particularly self-regulation failure, is that we hold false assumptions or beliefs about what will make us feel better. Eating cake (or another slice) will make me feel better. Avoiding that task today will make me feel better. Buying that item (with credit that deep down, I know I can’t afford) will make me feel better.

The emphasis in each case is on short-term emotion regulation or, more simply, mood repair. When we put too much emphasis on short-term mood repair, we neglect other aspects of ourselves, aspects that are just as real and important, such as our long-term desires and goals.

This is a case of mis-regulation, because we have our focus on feeling good now. Ironically, by giving priority to short-term emotional repair–feeling good now–we typically feel worse in the long run, even though priority was given to feeling good.

Understanding this difference between under- and mis-regulation, a key coping strategy becomes obvious–at least it has in my own life. Instead of thinking of how awful, weak, or inadequate I am when I feel like “giving in to feel good” by breaking a nutrition plan, skipping a work out or avoiding an aversive task, I reflect on what’s really going on in my head and “heart” at that precipitous moment of choice. I feel like giving in to my craving or to avoiding the workout or task because I believe I will feel better for doing so. But the truth is, I won’t. In fact, even a little bit of reflection quickly reveals how I–particularly future me–will actually feel worse for this choice. Both personal experience and research make this clear.

With this in mind, I then ask myself the simple question, What’s the next action I need to take?

I move my focus off of my emotions and over to action, and I keep that action very small. It could be as simple as “say no” to the dessert being offered, or get up and leave the table now. It could be that I just put on my running shoes and step outside, or that I step up on the elliptical machine and move my legs. And, of course, it could be that I open my laptop and put my fingers on the keyboard so that I can begin to write. The action is a small first step, a small threshold to cross, so I just get started.

Why is this so important? Well, if I tell myself, “I shouldn’t eat the dessert” or “I should do that workout or that task” my emotional reaction is typically resentment…don’t tell me what to do! Silly, isn’t it? You bet, but it’s real. We don’t like “should” even when we’re saying it to ourselves, and we have a tough time forcing ourselves to do things that we “should do.”

The secret to the strategy I'm advocating is that I understand that it’s not a matter of forcing myself to act, but it’s a matter of me understanding what choice is really in my best interest. I will not feel better if I give in to my momentary craving. Given that I won’t feel better, why would I do this?

My choice to focus on action instead of emotion, instead of feeling better right now, pays many dividends. It builds a strong foundation of self-esteem, self-efficacy and pride in being the person that I want to be. I’m not weak-willed and lazy. I’m just another human who prefers short-term gain, but who can learn to see past the trap of these specious rewards.

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