Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Self-Control—The Weak Link in the Psychological Chain?

And how you can find the strength to self-regulate

Self-control may be one of our hardest psychological challenges. How do people manage to find the strength to self-regulate? Many people find strength and inspiration from their interpersonal relationships or the way they find meaning in the world. Perhaps these people's stories will inspire you the next time you wrestle with temptation.

Self-regulation is the ability to maintain emotional, cognitive, and behavioral control, even during times of stress. It is the ability to experience and cope with feelings without becoming overwhelmed. It also involves the ability to make good choices even when tensions are high.

Interpersonal Relationships as a Path to Strengthening Regulation

Perhaps the most common source of stability people discussed was their interpersonal relationships. At our research center, many people spoke of family members who helped them to build regulatory skills, especially during adolescence. A 21-year-old woman looked back at the positive influence of her uncle, who helped her to overcome substance abuse and delinquency during her teenage years: “He’s taught me…don’t let your friends, don’t let your peers, peer-pressure you into doing crazy things….He’s always told me to follow what I believe, stand up for what I believe, be a leader, not a follower.”

As people enter young adulthood, regulatory problems do not disappear, but romantic relationships increase in importance and become potential sources of regulatory improvement. A 21-year-old man cited his girlfriend as a turning point, helping him to build long-term, goal-oriented regulation: “I straightened up and just quit partying, all that stuff. Just started…working, going to school…trying to be successful and achieve my goals. Be somebody.”

Becoming a parent was a common motivation to become better regulated. A 32-year-old woman spoke of her love of her unborn daughter: “I was on drugs and everything before I got pregnant with my daughter, and I thank God every day that I have her because she straightened my life out. I promise you that.”

Meaning Making As A Path to Strengthening Regulation

Religion and spirituality also often provided meaning, a purpose for living, and motivation to achieve greater emotional and behavioral regulation. A 44-year-old woman spoke of overcoming her substance abuse problems, attributing her success to her relationship with God: “I was drinking and taking my pills and stuff and I got with God…in my younger days I used to drink a lot. As a matter of fact, I drunk so much, I had a miscarriage…but, when I turned to God, everything turned for me.”

A 57-year-old woman discussed how her faith gave her perseverance and psychological endurance during a health crisis:

That illness was straight from hell.…I went from kickboxing, just really strong, to nothing….I mean it was bad and depression was really bad, so I think that just persevering in that, and believing in, not in me, but in Him to carry me and bring me through this …. Suffering is such a part of life. We’re all going to go through suffering and it’s how you handle it….It’s like you flex your spiritual muscles: “Yes, I see now. Thank you, God, I can do this.”

All of us experience temptation at some point. That's completely normal and probably unavoidable. The next time you feel the impulse to do something that is not healthy or helpful, think about what inspires you to be your best self.

The Data Doctor

Notes: Have a question for the Data Doctor? Send an email to or or put it in the comments. See more of Dr. Hamby's articles at

The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.

More from Psychology Today

More from Sherry Hamby Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today