Many of us have developed at least one way of acting that can hurt ourselves, annoy others or damage relationships. Something is lacking self-control. Examples include over-eating, untidiness, nagging, and telling lies. If we keep doing these things they become ingrained in our behaviour and may seem impossible to change.
The Basics of Self-Control
Yet we weren’t born with these actions and what is learned can be unlearned. Gaining better self-control over our behaviour can be done but requires a conscious effort and persistence.
To stand any chance of gaining self-control we need to be completely clear about why we want to change. Often our family and friends are more aware of our problem behaviour than we ourselves. We may not always realise when, and to what extent, we are at fault.
It might help to find out from somebody else at what times and in what situations where we are going wrong. What harm am I doing? What is embarrassing, upsetting or irritating for me or for others?
Our Free Choice
It’s never too late to stop a bad habit. When we have dug ourselves into a hole, the best policy is to stop digging! After all no-one is compelled to be untidy, to nag, be argumentative, tell a lie or get drunk. It just seems that way at the time.
We need to be especially on guard at the times when we are most at risk of relapsing into our old ways. We have reached a choice between yielding to, or exercising self-control over undesirable impulses. Having a sense of freedom in choosing between alternative actions is a familiar experience. It confirms out ability to make real choices.
Many self-indulgent desires are represented in images we remember seeing in the mass media. Because we merely have some connection with them, we need not allow ourselves to become enslaved by them but are free to ignore them. Because these impulses are not entirely part of us we can disown them.
For many moral issues call us to a deeper conflict. The tension is not just between indulging self and exercising self-control. Neither is it just about doing what is thought by others to be right or wrong. It is also about choosing to follow our inner conscience or not. When we try to have self-control over what is bad in our lives because it goes against our inner conscience, then temptation combat becomes inevitable.
Religion says to gain self-control we need the spiritual help of a higher power. Many alcoholics feel they have failed, despite doing all they can, to overcome the ‘demon drink’ and so many members of Alcoholics Anonymous surrender themselves to a higher power, many call God, believing that only with the strength of this force for good can they stay sober.
Having a belief that we are not fighting alone means a huge sense of confidence that the battle can be won. The problem drinker also has a part to play – it would be no good believing in a higher power without acting on that belief for example by resisting the temptation to buy alcohol at a shop or visit a drinking establishment.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg makes an important distinction between on the one hand the notion of resisting bad impulses by our own efforts alone and on the other hand resisting them in God’s strength ‘as of ourselves’. In other words we need both God’s strength and our own effort to turn away from what is wrong about our living and instead embrace what would be right.
In line with this teaching he criticised the orthodox Christian doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ that gives the only emphasis on belief in God at the expense of our additional responsibility to gain control over our own behaviour.
Importance of Our Own Efforts
The bad news is that if we make no effort to resist our own demons, no attempt to stop pandering to our baser instincts at the expense of our higher impulses, then we have taken a backward step towards gaining any control over our faults. What is bad in us will have acquired power over what is good in us. On the other hand if we do try hard to take control over the selfish and greedy desires, in God’s strength, then the divine spirit can then give us a new direction. This means self-restraint as well as enlightenment and inner happiness to replace the illusion that we are enslaved to self-indulgence.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems