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SocietyJuly 13, 2017

Why I’m not buying the new ‘learn self-control’ mantra

Cute boy hugging his stuffed toy and looking a bowl of marshmallows in white table, in soft pastel colors
Cute boy hugging his stuffed toy and looking a bowl of marshmallows in white table, in soft pastel colors

Messages exhorting the importance of mastering self-control come loaded with cultural assumptions and overlook the hidden costs, writes anthropologist Catherine Trundle.

We have finally unlocked the secrets of self-control. According to one recent article, it takes only 14 simple steps to master your willpower and reach your goals. Visualise. Prepare a plan. Hide temptations. Surround yourself with disciplined people. Self-control will make you happier, more successful, wealthier, a better partner and colleague. Running a 100-mile marathon, we’re told, requires simply applying the three golden rules of self-control: standards, monitoring, and strength. Recently our very own Nigel Latta extolled the virtues of self-control, labeling it “essential to becoming wealthy”.

Such messages are designed to inspire. They’re meant to help us lead healthier lives in a world filled with distractions and temptations. There are many good reasons to pay attention to the science of self-control. The best reason is perhaps the Dunedin longitudinal study, which shows kids with good self-control go on to be healthier, more financially secure, and have fewer criminal convictions in adulthood. Teaching kids conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance are all parental gifts that keep on giving. Especially after the kids have left home and are trying to manage their money, relationships, and wellbeing all on their own.

I have no beef with the Dunedin study. In fact, I think it’s one of the best studies of human development, conducted anywhere, ever. Go New Zealand research. My beef is rather with the enthusiastic wave of self-control mantras that have entered popular culture and public media that proclaim better self-control is the key to transforming your life. Time to take a step back and think about what we’re saying, and not saying, when we tell someone to show a little bit of self-control.

What we see is that our current discussions of will power, self-discipline and self-control lack a very necessary social, historical and political perspective. Rather than uncovering the truth of self-control, they in fact spell out which activities we culturally value as expressions of self-control. Ultimately, they reveal how narrowly we define the idea of self-control in our society.

Activities focused on controlling and disciplining our bodies often dominate our discussions of self-control. The science of self-control offers strategies for exercising more, eating well and losing weight. Discussions about self-control tend to focus on goals for change, transformation and improvement. Getting rich, getting thin, getting the girl, getting the job. They almost never reflect on or celebrate the daily acts of self-control required of us simply to get by in life.

But if we take a wider view we see that people exhibit extraordinary self-control in a whole range of ways in many different areas of their lives. It’s just that these different modes of self-control are not equally valued or celebrated by society. And society expects different people to exert different types of self-control. Gender is an obvious example, with women often expected to be particularly self-controlled in how they express their sexuality, how they control their weight, and how they suppress anger and assertiveness. You only need to look at media coverage of the drinking habits of young New Zealanders to see a highly gendered idea of self-control at play. Inevitably the media uses images of rowdy, out of control young women as the symbol of our youths’ “drinking problems”, even though their behaviour is similar to that of young men.

Some people perform jobs that require immense resolve and patience in handling challenging scenarios and pressures. Flight attendants, nurses, teacher aids for kids with behavioral challenges, to name a few. These professions must practice self-control, perseverance, and self-discipline in often testing situations. But they are rarely deemed worthy of an inspirational article about self-control. Watch carefully the work these people do. It’s often a masterclass in self composure and restraint.

There are countless examples in everyday life where we can spot grit, patience, self-control. There is the challenging self-control required to do a job you find deeply unfulfilling or repetitive, turning up each day without complaint. Or in continuing day after day to look for a job in a town where the industries and big companies have all downsized or moved out. Or the self-control required to not lose your mind when living on a benefit that don’t cover your basic expenses. Or even the calm poise it takes a parent to not lose it with a raging, irrational toddler.

The problem with the types of self-control that we do celebrate is that they reflect such middle-class concerns and realities. Self-control means getting slim, running marathons, climbing mountains, getting rich, or moving up in the company. These resonate less with the realities and needs of everyday worlds, or of economically and socially marginalised communities.

Class intersects with race and gender in determining what modes of self-control we value and notice. Imagine a white male CEO who assiduously saves and invests money, who jogs every morning, who gave up smoking and drinks sparingly, and who sets ambitious life goals. He is the archetypal figure of strong self-control.

But instead consider American academic Robin M Boylorn’s reflections on the everyday racism that black women in the US face in the workplace, and the strategies they develop to survive and thrive. She vividly recalls her mother’s generation’s way of dealing with mistreatment at work. Instead of complaining, she explains,

they woke up early enough to bathe, pull sponge rollers from their hair, apply make up and lipstick, and put on professionally laundered uniforms and comfortable shoes so that they could walk into their places of employment with their heads held high and their dignity in check. They refused to be shamed. They refused to be silenced. They refused to be stereotyped. It didn’t matter that they would never make more than ends meet. It didn’t matter that they were told, repeatedly, that they were replaceable, and talked to in harsh tones for any mistake … They took pride in their work, even when the people they worked for, or with, worked against them.

This is indeed a type of mastery of the self. Like the CEO this life also requires immense patience, strategy, self-possession and skill. It also involves overcoming obstacles and reaching goals. But the goals of women such as this, to support their families, to maintain their dignity, to keep their jobs, to not be worn down by everyday racism, we don’t necessarily acknowledge or prize the work that goes into achieving these goals.

History offers many examples of how ideas of self-control are shaped by the cultural attitudes of the day, and are used to suppress groups that challenge the status quo. Take middle and upper class women in Victorian England who were considered unruly and emotional. They risked receiving a medical diagnosis of hysteria. During this era doctors also deemed some women to be afflicted with nymphomania. This disease caused an “insatiable sexual appetite”. Symptoms included a stronger sex drive than one’s husbands, adultery, divorce, or desiring sex with women.

In 19th century America black slaves were sometimes diagnosed with drapetomania. This disorder, doctors proclaimed, caused slaves to run away from their owners. Fast forward to the 1960s in the state of Michigan. Now black men who vocally agitated for civil rights risked being locked in mental hospitals, labelled as schizophrenic, because doctors deemed their “aggression” and “hostility” pathological.

All of these examples demonstrate that our ideals of self-control are historically specific and often politically charged. They focus on controlling the “impulses” of the body. This reeks of an old hierarchy that elevates masculine, civilised rationality over the feminised, emotional realm of nature. It’s not surprising then that groups long seen as close to nature and emotion, such as women, sexual minorities, and people of colour, are deemed more at risk of ‘losing control’ due to their supposed irrational, base qualities.

This was the reason the colonial “civilising mission” involved teaching manners, decorum, politeness, and modesty to “wild” natives. Self-control in how one dressed, ate, talked or engaged with the opposite sex was the supposed marker of progress, intelligence and enlightenment. The 1880 New Zealand Native School Code made this idea crystal clear. In seeking to assimilate Māori into Pākehā culture, it’s instructions read: “Besides giving due attention to the school instruction of the children, teachers will be expected to exercise a beneficial influence on the natives, old and young; to show by their own conduct that it is possible to live a useful and blameless life, and in smaller matters, by their dress, in their house, and by their manner and habits at home and abroad, to set Maori an example that they may advantageously imitate”.

And these concerns with civility were not just directed to colonies like New Zealand. In the late 19th century the upper classes in England used to also worry about the working classes’ lack of self-control. Social Darwinists of the day believed that the working classes were an inferior race. They risked degrading the overall population stock should they be allowed to breed uncontrollably. The harsh poverty and inequality of the era and the working class’s “inherent irrationality and impulsiveness” were a dangerous mix. It created the perfect conditions for the lower classes to revolt and overthrow the aristocratic system. Cracking down on gatherings, associations and protests, and implementing eugenic policies such as sterilisation programmes were the solution. Criticising a group’s ability to be self-controlled can thus be tied to efforts to entrench and justify social inequality.

Today self-control is also an ideal that underpins a free market economy. Self-control, or its lack, is often used to explain and justify the deepening inequalities that we see. Poor people, this logic dictates, must just lack the discipline to better themselves. Getting a job is about effort and focus. Saving money is about delayed gratification. Stop eating the pies and chips and just get yourself an education, work your way up.

Even if we put aside all these cultural assumptions about what activities we should recognise as self-control, or our prejudices about which groups lack self-control, an important question remains. Is good self-control all it’s cracked up to be? Even if we accept that it correlates with success and happiness, does it have any hidden costs? One recent study suggested that people with high self-control experience higher reliance from work colleagues as well as from their partners. This dynamic means they feel less content with these relationships. Excellent self-control, then, can sometimes be a bit of a burden.

All of these examples do not mean that the science of self-control has no value, or isn’t good for reaching personal goals. When it comes to raising children, teaching self-regulation, delayed gratification and goal setting are all vital tools for ensuring a good life. Kids need these skills to survive and thrive. But the ways we currently talk about self-control ignore whole swathes of daily life that should be celebrated as examples of worthy effort, discipline and strength, and which don’t get a mention. And they do nothing to unpack or challenge the reasons why we value self-control so much in today’s world.

We need to think harder about why we’re so easily seduced by the idea that self-control is the magic solution to the difficulties we face. Perhaps we idealise it so much because we feel increasingly that we are losing collective control of the political and economic institutions that shape our lives, or because our collective ability to rein in environmental degradation and climate change is slipping away from us. Perhaps we feel that our individual opportunities to obtain secure employment, decent wages, home ownership, education and social mobility are all becoming less certain. Maybe we feel self-control is all we have left, the ability to be masters of our own bodies and private worlds. Whatever the reason, the time has come to start talking more critically about our dreams for self-mastery. It’s time we let our discussions of self-control get a little unruly.

Catherine Trundle is senior lecturer in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. 

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