There are many controversies about self-control when we are talking about boosting our willpower. Is it true: the more self-control you have, the stronger willpower I have to achieve my goal? Actually, for me, I did believe that statement before reading the book “The Willpower Instinct”, by Kelly McGonigal. I thought, in order to balance better between my personal lives and learning, I just need to push myself harder and harder to reinforce my self-control. Is that working? Unfortunately, my willpower failed.
When I looked up the answer in the book, I found out: “Willpower is about harnessing the three powers of I will, I won’t and I want to help you achieve your goal.”(10) and “I will and I won’t power are the two sides of self-control, they alone don’t constitute willpower.” (9) Therefore, we need self-awareness to guarantee our “I want” power can maintain the effectiveness of self-control to boost our willpower. In order to avoid willpower failure, you should take advantage of self-awareness to help self-control improve on the track of your goal achievement.
Self-control is easily to be misinterpreted, which is difficult for us to improve without self-awareness. Dr.Kelly Mcgonigal believe that “the best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.”(4) When we seeking the way to improve our self-control, lots of people consider self-control as a product only from psychological self-suggestion or self-hypnosis to manipulate their own behaviors. Because it is easy for them to ascribe why we fail to lose control to that we don’t give ourselves enough intense orders to perform well, and ,once we push ourselves harder, we can easily improve self-control as much as we want.
In fact, “Science is discovering that self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology.” (Pg.31) When we making any choices leading to lose of self-control, we are not aware of that those choices are affected by “I will” power or “I won’t” power with complicated sequences.
It looks like your brain is so easy to lose your self-control without any physical interferes or changes. However, with the self-awareness, now it gives us a chance to see what is going on in our brain. Self-awareness is “the ability to realize what we are doing as we do it, and understand why we are doing it.”(Pg. 20) So, first, if you need to find out the way to improve your self-control, you must exert your self-awareness to understand when and how your self-control can be lost control, which is so related with your physiological changes. Second, with your self-awareness, you can know how to mediate your self-control system between “I will” and “I won’t” powers. You can’t just ignore any sides of your body or brain’s reactions and command your self-control to improve as you wish. So, “Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless.”(Pg.20)
Self-awareness prevent self-control from leading us to more stress to give in temptations. Scientists has pointed out that “Stress is the enemy of willpower”, and “anything that puts a stress on your mind or body can interfere with the physiology of self-control, and by extension, sabotage your willpower.”(Pg.39) stress will always make us prone to obey our instincts, like looking for food or pleasure starting from primitive ascents , while self-control help us make wise decisions according to our goals ,like keep health or save money. We definitely don’t want to increase our stress when we are on track of goal achievement. However, as self-control is a serial of psychological processes and “self-control also demands high levels of energy.” (Pg.49), the more we use it, the more our energy is drained from our body.
Now, we are craving for energy replenishment. That is the moment when we get more stress and more obedient to our instincts. So even self-control itself can make us fall in the traps of stress when we are trying to control our behaviors to avoid temptations. With self-awareness, you can find lots of signals that we are moving closer to the threshold to lose our self-control, like our heart rate increasing and blood sugar level decreasing. If you can’t realize that and keep using your self-control until you are exhausted, give-in-temptations will happen periodically, until your motivation and willpower are crashed. So, with your self-awareness, you will find that your self-control has its limits and you will pay attention on how to master your self-control. Don’t let your self-control take you 1 step forward but 2 steps back.
Self-awareness is a magnifier to help you discriminate distractors to conquer temptations. Most of distractors are very deceiving, contagious or overpowering. For me, I find “the promise of relief” is the most powerful distractors for me to indulge to my temptation, smoking. In our brain, we have a neurotransmitter, dopamine, which promises us feel good. The promise of relief is that “we turn to the biggest dopamine releasers when we want to feel better.” (134) This is the culprit why we are more easily to indulge to temptations when we are under stress. When I was studying, I always feel stress because learning a new subject in english, which is not my native language, is a very stress process for me, so I want to use my self-control to contribute much time and energies on daily assignments. However it is not going well as I always fall into one of my temptations—smoking. Smoking is harmful for health, but nicotine gives me a little bit relief from the studying. So, every time after I studied for a while, I would totally shield the side effects and run into smoking. “When you are under stress, any temptations you run into will be even more tempting.”(136) This routine looks so indestructive for me no matter how hard I wanted to use my self-control to change it.
With the self-awareness, now I realized why I feel this routine was so irresistible. It is because the promise of relief. No one can win a battle without knowing where the rivals are. I think once I can recognize this trick, I have half-succeeded. With self-awareness, I realized I cannot get rid of smoking temptation immediately and the harder I pushed myself, the more tendency I would relapse. Using “ten-minute” strategy gave me a good way to take back control rights on the track of my long term goal. It is a good application of self-awareness. The ten-minute rule functioned like a safe net in my mind when I was thinking about “I need smoking now” during the stressful learning. It allowed my body and mentality to seek the promise of relief. But it reduced some of the panic and stress if I just said “no, don’t smoke, I need to focus more on the homework.”
Also “it’s human nature to discount future reward” (163), and waiting for 10 minutes to smoke was no longer as important and urgent for me as I smoked immediate after I stressed out. This new routine was really working well on me. Now, I’m glad I have already had exceptional progress on the track of my goal achievement. I reduced my frequency of smoking from 1 pack in 2 days to 1 pack in 4 days. I’m feeling more confidence and motivated on my self-control to help me achieve my long-term goal. I think everyone can train their self-control like I did. But first and foremost, you need to be aware of what is the key segment to trigger you indulgence. Just a 5-minute meditation or a 5-second deep breath can help you stay on the track of your long term long and also help you improve self-control gradually.
In the end, I’d like to say self-control is a double bladed sword. If you can use it right, it can be a sharpened weapon to help you win the fight. But if you do it wrong, it will hinder you from your goal achievement or drag you into the swamp of depression. So we need our self-awareness to help us rein our self-control to make sure we are on the track of our goal achievements.
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