Understanding self-control

We all have the experience of making resolutions, only to find ourselves breaking them with little or no awareness. I have often resolved to avoid having soda at lunch and then, when out with a friend, I find myself ordering the soda before any real awareness sets in.
This phenomenon, called automaticity (or automated behaviors), is at the core of addictive disorders — and every other emotional disorder, for that matter. Automaticity is the result of a battle between the regions in the brain that process higher-order reasoning and those that handle lower-order urges. When the lower win, automated behaviors result.

Self-control is a neurological skill that we can learn to develop

Neuroscientists make a useful distinction between these two areas. All higher-level processing, i.e. those that are unique to humans, take place in the neocortex (think of it as the film that covers all those undulations in the outer surface of brain). The neocortex is the most sophisticated apparatus in the universe; anatomically, it is what most distinguishes the human brain from that of other animals. Beneath these folds, there is the limbic system, which looks much more similar to the cortex found in animals (hence it is called paleocortex, since it is older in history); the limbic system processes sense data, memories, and emotions.
Much of the behavioral difficulties we humans encounter come from our not learning how to control ourselves. Self-control, or temperance, is not an inherent trait; at some point it must be developed, in a way similar to the way muscles are developed. Kids tend not to have it. Their parents, hopefully, do have it, and have some to spare to make up for what their kids lack.

Exercise your neocortex to develop better self-control

No one would be surprised to learn that there is a biological change when a person grows in physical strength — their muscles get bigger. But people are often surprised to hear that there is a biological change when self-control increases: our neocortical pathways that inhibit the limbic system grow in size and strength.
Children do not yet have fully developed frontal lobes, which is the part of the neocortex that inhibits limbic (i.e. emotional) impulses. They seem to be built with the need to rely on their parents’ frontal lobes to perform this limbic inhibition until their frontal lobes are up to the task. The process of maturing that children undergo causes a gradual increase in the power of the neocortex to “balance out” the drives and urges of the limbic centers. Eventually, instead of throwing a tantrum when denied a purchase in a store (tantrums are limbic events), the adolescent learns to come up with a plan for making money to buy it themselves (planning is a neocortical event), or they engage their parents in more reasoned, dispassionate appeals (both reasoning and talking are neocortical events). The very mature are eventually able to identify their desires but decide, for reasons of their own, not to act on the desires, and instead let them pass. This demonstrates self-awareness, mindfulness of oneself and one’s thoughts and emotions — in many ways, the most subtle and most powerful operation of the neocortex.

addiction and other coping methods wear away at our self-control

When we experience strong emotional urges, the immediate thing we “want” to do is to act in a way that releases the urge. The stronger the urge, the more intolerable it feels, and the more we will be inclined to act automatically in order to make it stop. But acting on an urge only reinforces it, guaranteeing that it will come back and wax stronger; each time this cycle is repeated, the urge grows in strength and longevity.
The urge and the “plan” for our automated behaviors are generated by our limbic system; but in order for the plans to be executed, the limbic system needs the help of the neocortex, which controls the movements of our limbs. If the urge isn’t acted upon it will intensify at first but then, without being “fed” by the movement of our limbs, it extinguishes. The more this extinguishing cycle is repeated, the more the urge is weakened.

mindfulness rebuilds self-control

To not be bested by our limbic system and its automated repertoire, we have to restore the balance of power back to the neocortex. We do this by engaging in cortical activities: planning, reasoning, talking, even reading or doing calculations; but above all, we do it through mindful self-awareness.
Mindfulness does not have any of the pitfalls of the other cortical strategies. Unlike reasoning or planning, it can’t get disoriented and led to support acting on the urge. Unlike talking about the difficulties, it doesn’t require that another person be there; and talking can also be hijacked into supporting the urge. Mindful self-awareness turns the urge into an object of awareness — and so the neocortex escapes becoming subjected to the urge. When one holds an awareness of an urge in one’s mental view, studying it, measuring it, experiencing it just as it is (not focusing on the trigger of the urge; just on the urge itself), one gains a perspectival distance with regard to the urge. This distance is the difference between mindlessly acting on an urge, and mindfully allowing the urge to be there, but not to be acted upon. Since this mindfulness is so highly neocortical, the more one grows in it, the more the balance shifts from one’s limbic system; one also secures in this way the neocortical controls of the movements of the limbs. This is important — the limbic system needs those controls to get its urges acted upon. Mindfulness allows one to stare the urge in the eye, so to speak, and simultaneously secure control of the limbs. Then it watches the urge flare and extinguish itself. Then it goes back on its way.

How to build awareness – the first step to self-control

If you are struggling with an addiction, get a notebook. And a timer. When an urge strikes, rate the urge on a scale of 1-10, and set the timer to two, three or five minutes (however long you can be absolutely sure you can go without acting on the urge); when the timer is up, rate the urge again, and set the timer again. This ensures that you will maintain that perspectival distance from the urge. Being aware of the urge is not the problem; the only problem is acting on it.

Get help

Get help with Optimal Work, an online platform for practicing mindfulness, framing, focus, and much more. Some people report that OptimalWork gives them the skills they need to develop the awareness and focus needed for self-control.