Self-Control, the forgotten virtue…

The individualism of American life, to our glory and despair, creates anger and encourages its release; for when everything is possible, limitations are irksome. When the desires of the self come first, the needs of others are annoying. When we think we deserve it all, reaping only a portion can enrage. – Carol Tavris; Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion


We live in a time and a place like no other in history. Instant gratification has become so much the norm that the idea of waiting or even simply not getting what we want at all seems unfair and even arbitrary. Everything is getting faster and more powerful. This computer is magnitudes faster and more powerful than anything that came before it and excruciatingly slower than anything currently on sale at my local Best Buy up the street.

Faster, higher, stronger, is the motto of the modern Olympic Games. As a society we can add, richer, bigger and cooler to the list as well. Democracy and freedom have made it possible, at least in theory, for everyone to always get what they want out of life. It’s when that theory is proven wrong by experience that most people get angry. They feel cheated or lied to.

I’ve been meditating on the results and causes of this type of anger a lot lately. I recently took part in a biblical study of The Fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, while at the same time reading two books on Anger and Willpower.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Against such things there is no law.

The first book, quoted above, traces the cultural differences in how humans express anger and the ways in which it is used to further our self-interest and to help build or tear down relationships and societies as a whole. The second was by Stanford University Professor, Kelly McGonigal called “The Willpower Instinct; How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and What you Can Do to Get More of It”.

McGonigal is renowned for her work in the area of psychology known as “science-help”, not to be confused with self-help. Science-help is the study of scientific research as it pertains to achieving personal goals in spite of inner conflict. In short, what happens when our personal goals for our future selves conflict with our immediate desires? It’s this conflict between immediate gratification and the future self that most interests me as a financial coach and author in the field of behavioral economics.

As McGonigal explains there are really three aspects of willpower. Once we set a goal for ourselves we must go through a process of planning and determining which behaviors will be most effective in achieving our goal. It’s a process of elimination as much as it is a process of inclusion. By setting a goal and working towards a certain future outcome we are limiting and eventually eliminating all other possible outcomes with each choice we make along the way. Some of those choices will get us closer to our goal while others will pull us away. As time passes our goal becomes more or less likely as a result of those choices. Through this process we must tap into the power of “I want” (goal), therefore “I won’t” (exclusion) and “I will” (inclusion).

In my line of work most people have a goal of future financial independence, or at least financial security. Contrary to a lot of what people might believe about the job of a financial coach, my job is not to help you set goals, most people are already pretty good at that, my job is to coach you in the thousands of decisions you will make along the way either moving you closer to or further away from your desired future self.

There is a lot of joy in achieving goals but along the way there can also be a lot of sadness, mourning and even occasionally a bit of anger as people wrestle through the choices they’ve made. Each choice we make today either strengthens or weakens the person we will be in the future. Some choices even have the potential to outright kill our future selves.

Willpower and Self-Control are virtues that allow us to function in society, aid in both setting and achieving goals and keep us from descending into unadulterated self-interest, gluttony, anarchy and hedonism. Without Self-Control the Fruits of the Spirit are a list of selfish and narcissistic pursuits that have the potential to explode in destructive anger if they are not satisfied and in the process kill our future selves in an orgy of self-gratification in the name of love, joy and peace, etc.

True love therefore has to include some form of self-control in order to remain other-centered otherwise it is nothing more than a selfish pursuit of more. And that leads eventually to some form of anger. I for one don’t want to live in a society without some form of self-control.

  • So what are your goals?
  • What have you given up to achieve them?
  • How are you exercising self-control today in order to achieve something better in the future?









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