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On Self Control

Growing up, I remember my mom telling my sister and me to “be kind, be responsible, be self-controlled.” It was a litany that was repeated whenever we were going over to someone’s house. And, as far as anyone can remember, my sister and I always were kind, responsible, and self-controlled – my parents can’t remember a time that we caused any trouble or were disruptive or were anything other than what my mom expected us to be.

Being kind, responsible, and self-controlled is not only good advice when you’re a little kid, but also a good way to live your life when you’re an adult. And (one might even argue) it’s especially important when you’re an adult with a mental illness. Not being obligated to behave in a specific way by any authority figures means you can act however you want. You largely have a free pass to treat people however you like, to treat yourself however you like. But, having lived with schizoaffective disorder for 10 years, I’ve learned that having self-control, especially, is important for my long-term mental health.

This month, I’d like to focus on the self-control aspect of my illness, and the larger implications of being self-controlled.

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My good friend and I were talking about self-control the other day as we got coffee. He mentioned an article he’d read where they’d done a study on people’s self-reported levels of self-control (i.e. how self-controlled they thought themselves to be). The article explains that those who reported higher levels of self-control were those who didn’t put themselves in situations where they needed to practice self-control in the first place. One might conclude from this that those participants who reported having more self-control really didn’t have self-control because they weren’t practicing it, but I think this makes a basic, inherently incorrect, assumption.

I’ll call it The Brute-Force Nature Assumption: that self-control is something which you must possess or act upon in an act of mind-over-matter. That “control” means actively doing something to restrain yourself. In a way, it’s a sort of savage way of thinking about self-control – that you can will your way out of doing something you know isn’t good for you, and that self-control is a kind of active resistance, a kind of rebellion against your natural inclinations.

In the discussion that ensued between my friend and me, our conclusion was that self-control requires a kind of repurposing of your brain – a perspective shift. It’s not only that you need to avoid the things that trigger you or that are harmful for you (be they the pastry case at a coffee shop or the bar down the street), but that you need to rewire your brain to think in a different way. To focus on how much you want a pastry, to focus on how much you want a drink is only going to make things worse. But to shift your perspective, to essentially hack your way of thinking to turn what would otherwise be a torturous (and ultimately futile) effort to manhandle your way toward being self-controlled and instead incentivize yourself to behave differently, is far more valuable.

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I’ve spent the vast majority of my adulthood being triggered by crowds. It used to be that I’d stubbornly go to church every Sunday night and then get psychotic on the way home because the combination of the crowds I’d been exposed to and the reflective Plexiglas windows on the train back home would drive me to the brink of insanity and eventually right over it.

I was seeing a Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist at the time and when I brought this to her attention we focused on various techniques to try to get me to withstand the crowd. I started carrying Play-Doh around with me so I’d have something to play around with while I sat in the church (and thus distract and ground myself), we practiced grounding techniques, we practiced breathing techniques; I would sometimes take medication to calm myself down. There were any number of tricks available to me.

And sometimes they worked, I’d come home from church, get off the train, and I would be able to talk to my dad on the way home. I’d be normal, I’d be responsive, and everything would seem okay. But oftentimes the psychosis was merely delayed by a couple-three days. The various tricks and tactics I employed to get me through the immediate trauma of being in a crowd would work at staving off psychosis, but eventually the stress would have to work its way out of my system. My illness was bent on expressing itself and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

One thing I’ve learned from my ten years of being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder is that the more psychotic episodes I go through, the less stable I am. They add up, they take their toll. If I can do anything to limit the number of psychotic episodes I go through, it’s worth doing because it’ll improve my overall mental health greatly.

Stress is one of the primary causes of my illness expressing itself. I’m on SSDI because my mind’s response to simple, everyday stresses like going to school or having a job is to shut down or torture me with psychosis, dissociation, delusions, paranoia, mood swings, and all of the other torments that come with schizoaffective disorder. And the large crowds I faced at church were stressing me out.

Yet I still put myself in those stressful situations. I thought if I just manhandled my brain skillfully enough then I could master the crowd at my church. In a sense, my reasoning was that if I only had self-control (in the mind-over-matter sense), I could will myself against my mind’s natural reaction to large crowds, to stressful situations.

It didn’t work.

Self-control is not about over-powering your natural tendencies. It’s about re-purposing your brain, it’s about shifting your perspective; it’s about working with your brain instead of trying to overpower it.

In Taoism, there’s the image of the reed in the stream. The reed that survives is the reed that bends with the current. The reed that dies is the stiff reed that resists the ebbs and flows of the current. Eventually, it breaks off under the mounting pressures of the flow of the stream.

I was inflexibly committed to exposing myself to things that traumatized me, and so I snapped again and again and again. I wasn’t bending with the current. To bend with the current, to remain whole and therefore healthy, I had to accept my limitations; I had to find another way to go to church – one that wouldn’t traumatize me. I can’t overpower my mental illness with sheer willpower. I can’t only embrace and accept it.

So I don’t go to a physical church anymore. What I do is set aside a day in my week to listen to the sermons at two separate churches over the Internet. I practice self-control by shifting my perspective from one of “I must gain mastery over my mental illness in order to do this thing” to “I must master myself by finding another way to do this thing which otherwise triggers me.”

I think people often assume self-control is a sort of savage act: mind-over-matter. That having self-control means being able to expose yourself to temptation or else to situations that trigger you and come out victorious; having not gone overboard with temptation or having not been triggered. It’s not that simple. The human psyche is a vastly complex thing – it takes a lifetime (oftentimes with the aid of a professional) to unravel the mysteries of your psyche. There are things going on inside our heads that we aren’t even aware of, and yet they influence our decisions and guide us to make the choices we make.

Self-control is not a savage act, it’s not a matter of over-powering your will to get the results you want. It’s a perspective shift. It requires thinking about your behavior in different ways. It’s about trying to trick yourself into a certain behavior that maybe your conscious mind wants but your unconscious mind does not want. I want to go to church, but I can’t handle large crowds – the solution is not to force myself into a traumatizing situation, it’s to figure out a way to go to church without the large crowd.

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