It isn't too hard to envision a Roman soldier in his battle gear as a rather stern, serious individual. That probably isn't entirely coincedental since sternness was a virtue that they admired. The Roman Virtues describes sternness it as a sense of "gravity, and self-control," but since we already have an entire section on gravity (consider this a second seal of approval from the Romans on that virtue), I will focus on self-control for this section.

Why is self-control so important? Even if you consider spontaneity and freedom of self-expression important, you really need to be able to control your worst impulses if you want to have a better personal and responsible social life. In your personal life this means that you don't over-eat or over-spend (see frugality on this matter) and that you don't repeat the same mistakes that have gotten you in trouble over and over again. As far as a responsible social life is concerned, this means that you control impulses that lead you to harm others or your relationship with them—and if you think you do not have these impulses, this self-pride has probably caused you some trouble that you have not let yourself be aware of! Self-control in an inevitable part of living a full and responsible life.

The question is, then, how do we get self-control? The first step is determination. If you are looking into this website to improve upon your virtues, then you are probably looking to control some of your worst impulses. The trick is to motivate yourself from thinking "wouldn't it be nice if I stopped spending too much", for instance, to being determined to make big changes that will get you to meet those goals.

Once you are truly determined to meet those goals, the correct path might be more difficult to pinpoint due to the circumstances of your personal situation. If you need to control your anger, for instance, then there are ways that will work best for you and not necessarily for another struggling with the same problem. An eating disorder might involve avoiding junk food or making subtle changes to your schedule, and for others nothing short of therapy or a complete life-style change will do! Like I emphasize throughout the rest of this site, you will need to use self-reflection in order to determine what your own, personal problems and solutions are.

After you decide to make self-control a part of your life, discover what your worst temptations are, plan how to overcome them, and follow through—and even then you are not quite through yet. For those temptations that are an inherent difficulty and a part of who you are, you will have to work all your life—or at least perform a regular check-up—to make sure those bad habits and behavior never creep back. Don't worry and fret yourself over guilt for these inclinations, however. You are only a "bad" person if you fail to take responsibility for your problems, and you become a "good" person the moment that you control those impulses! There is nothing necessarily inherent in a person that is makes someone good or bad.

If you have decided to follow this path that the Romans called "Sternness," then these activities may help you.


  • Keep a Journal: Write down your feelings in detail and keep it private enough so you are never afraid to let your feelings come out. Don't let yourself be embarrassed to go through this stepdestroy your more sensitive written records if necessary (but only if so). It's important that a journal for this purpose is honest and helps you become more aware of what is motivating your troubling behavior. Writing your feelings in stone, so to speak, gives it a more official tone, helps your understand them better, and keeps them more firmly in mind. Also write down how you respond to challenges and what happened as a result of the choices you made.
  • Brainstorm Some Ideas: You need to try some techniques to cope with your weaknesses. Try the ones you've probably heard of before (like leaving the scene, counting backwards, meditation, etc.), and be creative as well—you must know something unique about yourself that you can exploit! Even innocuous activities like taking a bath instead of a shower or brushing your teeth immediately after eating can make significant impacts in personal behavior (in this case, maybe by calming you down or by helping stave off cravings) . Write down any feasible ideas and try them all. Use the ones that work.
  • Change Your Environment: This activity is also listed as one of the crucial steps of self-regulation. If you are always angry all the time, maybe you can try to change your environment into one that makes you less angry—removing some stress, for example. You may not always have full control over your surroundings, but use everything you can at your disposal. Make sure your loved ones understand why you are making changes and why it's important for you to do so (and be open to at least listening to their advice if they've got some). If you have serious problems (and most people have at least one), then changing your environment might not be enough by itself, but often times this will be the most important thing you can do to keep your emotions from spinning out of control.
  • Work on Discipline and Tenacity: These three Virtues go hand-in-hand in many ways, and you may even consider working on all three in tandem, or at least right after each other if that is too much for your plate (and it will be if you are seriously struggling with one or more of these issues). You may accidentally develop self-control when you work on the other virtues, and your work in this virtue may support the others.
  • Get Help: This could be from a spouse, a friend, or a trained professional. There is no shame in needing help, only in doing nothing about your weaknesses. If you need, or could even strongly benefit from professional help, the most responsible thing to do would be to seek out that help.

Your Record

After you evaluate what your needs are, and discover how you can both change your environment and use techniques to improve your self-control, make goals based on these observations. Whenever you exhibit a lack of self-control or fail to meet these goals, then mark yourself at "fault". Use the activities above to help improve your self-reflection.


Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

Benjamin Franklin

Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.

Leonardo da Vinci, Renown Italian Engineer, Architect, Painter, and Sculptor

Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself.

St. Teresa of Avila, Spanish Nun and Writer

We cannot always control our thoughts, but we can control our words, and repetition impresses the subconscious, and we are then master of the situation.

Jane Fonda, American Actress

Golden Mean


Recommended Reading

The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life — by Thomas M. Sterner

This book is all about being satisfied with the present moment, and not being focused on instant gratification or filling in every moment with excessive emotional content. A good guide for those looking for new ideas for Self-Discipline.

The Science of Self-Control — by Howard Rachlin

This isn't a self-help book, but rather a study into the psychological science of human behavior and self-control. An interesting education if this topic is to your interest.

General Rules

Practice virtues daily so that they become ‘habits of the heart’.

Don‘t strive for perfection.

Never give up! Remember: even the greats have off days.

Rely on your intuition.

Avoid extremes. Strive to achieve the golden mean between excess and deficiency of a virtue.

Have fun and enjoy the program with humor and optimism.

By constant self-discipline and self-control you can develop greatness of character. Grenville Kleiser