Self-Regulation and Self-Control

The name of this trait has no hidden mystery or many different interpretations to its meaning. Being able to regulate and control yourself means not giving in to your various mood swings, more nefarious temptations, and avoiding addictions. Being able to manage your feelings and behavior is essential to living a healthy existence with other human beings just like yourself—note that I didn't say that changing or eliminating feelings is essential, that's often not necessary or beneficial. Think of a dam holding up the water in a reservoir. No one resents the water in the lake, and the stored resource serves a useful purpose. If the dam for the reservoir fails, however, you will soon have many people living in the shadow of that dam, seriously resenting engineers, politicians, or whomever they can find to blame.

It's never wrong to be angry or to have hurt feelings, nor is it wrong to have feelings that are inappropriate. If you are unable to manage how these feelings are expressed to those around you, however, or you act out on inappropriate feelings (or dwell on them so much that your personality changes), that is when the world is hurt by what is inside of you. The good thing is that as long as you keep yourself under control, any angry thought or bad idea is undeniably a private matter of concern only to yourself; your private thoughts and feelings are the matter of your own private goals and self-reflection. Note! You must seek professional help with any dangerous addictions that are beyond your immediate control.

Now, this is important: I'm not saying you shouldn't be aware of your feelings or never have concern over them. Feelings can often turn into actions, especially when they grow to such a magnitude that they become difficult to control. If you are having some inescapable feelings that make you uncomfortable, it may be to your interest (and possibly your responsibility) to talk to a friend you trust or a professional as appropriate.

Setting aside special situations, self-regulation is all about:

  1. Being aware of your feelings and temptations, and also who you are (this can slowly change over time)
  2. Being aware of your feelings are in any given moment
  3. Being aware of what techniques best control your moods and feelings
  4. Changing the environment into one that makes self-control more manageable
  5. Denying yourself any excuses for poor decisions and taking responsibility for your own behavior, not obsessing on the poor behavior of those around you. You have to be determined to be a positive influence on the world around you

If you look at the list up above, you will notice that three out of five traits deal with self-reflection—an activity that I obviously advocate for anyone concerned with becoming a good person. If you don't have the basic ability to know what your weaknesses are and what is really going on inside your own head, then nothing in the world is going to be able to help you change (well, excepting major medications, maybe). This may seem obvious, but the truth is that most people have so much faith on their own goodness that they are blind to their faults and poor behavior. In extreme cases, some people might feel like they've never did anything that was truly wrong or unjustified—to them all their behavior is simply a mirror reflecting what the rest of the world deserves from them. If you don't let yourself have any responsibility for your actions your ability to be a good person can only depend on how often you are naturally inclined to do good instead of bad, so basically, chance.

That leads us to the fifth point up above, which is to never make excuses for your poor behavior. If you behave inappropriately no one else is to blame for your behavior but you (until you are speaking with your therapist, anyway). After you take responsibility for yourself, you then decide what should you do about those negative relationships or addictions that are making your life so miserable, or what you need to do to improve yourself to protect them.

Anger seems to be the classic example of something that needs to be controlled, so I will often refer to that emotion in the exercises below and throughout the rest of this site when I talk about controlling our feelings and behavior. Inappropriate thoughts and addictions can also can be treated in the same way, however. Meditation might be just as good of a cure for an inappropriate thought as it is for anger. Getting away from the situation is a very good reaction to strong anger, but it can be obviously be appropriate for inappropriate romantic feelings as well. Keep all of these things in mind as you study these exercises below.


  • Keep a Journal: Write down your feelings in detail and keep the book hidden and private enough so you are never afraid to let your feelings come out. Even if you are so ashamed of them that you refuse to have any written record of them, write them down anyway and then destroy the document. It's important that a journal for this purpose is honest and helps you become more aware of what is motivating and bothering you every day. Writing your feelings down makes it seem more "official" and more difficult to ignore. Also write down how you responded to your feelings and what happened as a consequence.
  • 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 try to be creative as well. Sometimes even activities such as brushing your teeth and using mouthwash might help a craving for food or a cigarette. Write down any feasible ideas and try them all. Use the ones that work.
  • Write Down a List of What is Truly Important in Your Life: It is easy to let our emotions get in the way of living a life that best serves those things that are most important to us. Anger can hurt your relationships with your loved ones, friends, and children. Inappropriate lust can side-rail an important relationship if it gets out of hand. There could also be health consequences to certain weaknesses that will affect your life and the life of those around you. Think about what is truly important to you and make an itemized list of those things. Once again, things hold more weight in your mind and are remembered better after they are written down. Then, make a plan to protect yourself from letting these important things slide out of your life and keep that list in your mind as you go throughout your day.
  • Brainstorm with a Loved One: If your weaknesses are no secret, you may want to get the support from a friend you trust. They may be happy to help you, and even help motivate you as you work on your goal.
  • 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—like trying to remove some stress from your life, for example. If you are having feelings for a person other than your spouse (of either kind), you may want to try and strengthen that personal relationship with your spouse so your feelings return where your want them to be (or simply learn to want your feelings to reside there). If you are always around people who indulge in your addiction, you may want to stop having those people. If you have serious problems (and most people have at least one), than 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.
  • Stop Giving Excuses and Begin Explaining Your Feelings: Whenever you are "caught" in the act of something, or are being confronted for your poor behavior, you will inevitably find yourself in a situation where you will be required to explain yourself. It is only natural to want to give excuses at this point and explain to whomever present why your behavior was justified (or at least deserves pity and forgiveness). Instead, describe your feelings and actions in the lens of simply why you acted out. Acknowledge verbally to yourself and those around you that there are no excuses for your poor behavior, but you do want them to know how your are feeling and what thoughts and events led you to express that behavior. People who care for you or are at least invested in some sort of a relationship with you should want to understand what you are going through and the underlining buttons that set off your poor behavior. With any luck you might get some support in changing your environment to better suit your weaknesses and additional help with your plans toward self-regulation in general.
  • Work on Humanity and Wisdom: While many people hurt the ones they care about, it will be very hard to work for the benefit of others if you don't love and feel connected with them. Being wise and having the tendency to make wise decisions will help you avoid the situations where you will need to control yourself in the first place. It takes courage to overcome your weaknesses, but since it is possible to act poorly in the name of Courage (easier than in the name of Wisdom or Love, anyway), this usually shouldn't be your first virtue to tackle when focusing on Self-Regulation.

Your Record

Know what your weaknesses are. Whenever you act out and behave poorly due to some inner emotion or struggle, then mark yourself at "fault" for the day. Whenever you lash out at anyone in anger (verbally or physically), then mark yourself at fault. Make goals based on the activities above or on your own research. When you fail to meet your goals, perform the activities, or improve on your weaknesses, mark yourself at fault.


Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Persian Poet, Theologian, and Sufi Mystic

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

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

Self-control, self-discipline
Self-denial, self-sacrifice

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.

Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications — edited by Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs

This is not a self-help book, but an interesting read for those wanting to learn more about current theories and ideas about self-regulation.

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.

You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you. Brian Tracy