How do you define self-control?
For many of you, I suspect you will view it one of two ways. The first being in terms of willpower. In this context, it is your ability to be in control of yourself so that you can push through certain tasks or obstacles. This is mainly achieved through sheer force of mind.
The other way to view it is through the idea of self-restraint. In this way, it is the self that is being held back and controlled in order to avoid a certain impulsive behaviour.
Now regardless of which way you define it, there is a more important question that needs to be asked:
“who benefits from self-control?”
In order to better answer this question, I’d like to run through a quick hypothetical scenario.
You’ve just been kidnapped by a crazy neurosurgeon. He has taken you back to his lab to perform an experiment on you. But since he’s still a nice guy, he gives you a choice between which surgery he will perform on you. The first option is to lose all your impulses, desires, urges, and emotional responses, but still have complete control over yourself. Or, you get to keep all your impulses and urges, but you have zero self-control over them.
It’s a tough choice, but I suspect you’d most likely choose to give up self-control. I mean how could you live without emotion, desires, and impulses. It’s better to not be able to control these responses than to not have them at all.
Now let’s try a new hypothetical situation. A new crazy surgeon has kidnapped you, but this guy has an even more devious plan. He won’t perform any surgeries on you, but instead he has developed a device which will allow him to change the brains of an entire city. He gives you a choice, would you rather have the entire city you live in be full of people who have no control over their impulses and behaviours, or have everyone lose all of their impulses but remain fully intact of their self-control.
Side note: since this crazy surgeon has a soft side, he has allowed you to choose 20 of your closest friends and family who will be unaffected by this change. So in reality, it would only affect the strangers who surround you.
Again this is a tough question to answer, but I would not be surprised if you’d choose self-control over impulsive behaviour. I mean, who can blame you. It would be terrifying to live in a city where at any moment someone could drive a car into oncoming traffic or jump over the counter at Dairy Queen to eat straight from the ice cream machine.
These two hypothetical decisions suggest something very important about human nature. On average, we value the idea of others having self-control more than we care about having it ourselves. If we assume this preference is typically true, we can turn it around.
If I value self-control in others more than I value it in myself, I should conclude that those around me care more about me having self-control more than I do. Therefore, my self-control is more of a benefit to them than it is to me.
We think of self-control as something internal and self-serving, when in reality, we should view it as something we do for others. On a team, in a classroom, and in our friendships, we should see self-control as an action that goes beyond us and actually helps others. By taking a step back and viewing it from another person’s perspective we begin to notice that if we were in their shoes, we would want others to have self-control. Therefore, we should pursue self-control not only because it helps us improve but it also helps those around us. It builds trust.
Self-control is the price of admission to our society. If you don’t control your impulses, you will most likely end up an outcast or in prison. If you do restrain your impulses, you are allowed to freely pursue your goals.
The Bigger Concern
The growing issue that I see in society and more specifically in team sports is a lack of regard for another person’s perspective.
Whether it’s a being frustrated with a teammate who isn’t as skilled, getting annoyed by a better teammate who acts arrogantly during games, or even hearing advice from a teammate who you might consider “not on your level”; in all of these instances you are not taking the other person’s perspective.
One person is just being themselves and doing what they see as the “right thing” to do. Meanwhile, the viewer of that person sees everything they are doing as the “wrong thing”.
The best way I know how to describe this feeling is through an analogy. In a way, it’s almost as if you and another person are watching the same movie but you each have your own special pair of 3D glasses (your filter). But what determines that filter is largely dependent on your own experiences and biases. From an entirely objective standpoint, the same movie is playing itself out, but how you interpret what you see is entirely based on your previous ideas and how they affect what you are seeing.
But that’s the biggest issue, sometimes we don’t even realize we are wearing different 3D glasses. The crazy neuro surgeon scenario perfectly highlights the fact that many of us instinctively want others to see and do things a certain way, yet, we can’t even ask the same thing of ourselves. We want people to see through our filter, yet we aren’t even willing to look through theirs.
We are hypocrites and we don’t even realize it.
To really hit this point home, I’d like to share one more idea. It’s called the Sally-Anne test and it’s designed to evaluate something called Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is essentially your ability to recognize that the people around you have different beliefs, intentions, and ideas from your own.
The image above lays out a scenario where Sally places her marble in a basket and then leaves. But now Anne takes the marble and puts it in the box. If Sally comes back looking for her marble, where will she look?
Countless studies have shown that most people who have developed Theory of Mind will recognize that Sally won’t know that Anne moved the marble, so she will look in the last place she left it. However, those who have do not have ToM, which are usually children 4 years old and under, will think that Sally has the same thoughts as them and thus will look in the box.
Since I don’t think I have many 4-year old readers, you most likely have the theory of mind ability and should be able to deduct that Sally will look in the basket first.
But let me ask you this, how often do you look at the actions of another person and hypocritically reprimand them for not “knowing better” or lacking the self-control to be better?
Chances are high you do this with your parents, siblings, friends, and especially strangers. If you’re a team sports athlete, it’s even more likely that you do this on the daily with both your teammates and your coaches.
It’s so easy to expect things of other people, especially when we choose to only see things from our own point of view. If we never go to the other side of the movie theatre and put on a different pair of glasses, we will never recognize that what we are asking is completely unrealistic. We will continue to be frustrated and wonder why others cannot see things the way we do.
How can you expect others to change their behaviors if you aren’t willing to change yours?
Don’t be the 3-year-old wondering why no one sees the world the way they do.
Be an adult who is unselfish and willing to see the other side. It will end up serving you more in the long run.