The Power of Self-Control

Joan F. Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California
September, 2002

"He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king" ~ John Milton

Although I will frankly admit that control in and of its own is not the most admired subject on my list to discuss, I cannot deny that self-control is a topic worth spending a few lines on. According to, self-control can be defined as "Control of one's self; restraint exercised over one's self; self-command." Gul and Pesendorfer (2001) state that a person has self-control if "temptation is resisted []," and Sellers (2001) even plunges this topic in the management pool by citing Jack Welch, former GE CEO, as follows, "Ego, after all, is your sense of self. What you [] need is to exercise some self-control. And to do that, you have to first recognize that you have a problem. If you can learn to control your ego, then you are ready to move on to the next step: managing other people's egos."

As presented above, self-control has its advantages. It can be perceived as the ability to manage ourselves in refraining from performing any act that we would dread afterwards. And, truthfully, there is no way of denying that self-control is necessary in a world where there are established rules. Imagine what would happen if everybody could just unleash their inhibitions and act in the spur of the moment: sexual harassment, for instance, would not be a seen as a problem, because self-control was an unknown phenomenon. People would mercilessly steal, kill, cheat (would it still be considered cheating?), and lie. Not to mention the fact that productivity would be nil, because everyone would freely give in to his or her desire to stay in bed in the morning.  Perceived this way, self-control is almost the same as self-discipline: one encourages the other. Hence, we can conclude that self-control makes sense in an orderly society, whatever that may mean.

Unfortunately, self-control can get to the point of aggravation as well: people can control themselves so strictly, that they forget to be natural. I am now referring to the people who almost never laugh out loud, who speak extremely articulated ? even in the most informal moments -, and who will never show any emotion in public. Those are the ones that look down on everyone who dares to express any sign of spontaneity. And they can't imagine ever being in a state of ecstasy for whatever reason. Now, tell me, who wants to be around someone like that? Someone who has transformed him- or herself into such a phlegmatic personality, that you never know whether he or she enjoys anything you present him or her? These are also the people that are hardest to work for or with, because you can never detect when they are satisfied with your performance. They don't show it, because they feel that any expression of happiness is inappropriate. They misinterpret Philip Massinger's statement, "He that would govern others first should be the master of himself."

Now picture their private lives: these people who can sustain their sobriety even in the most passionate moment, are either not as passionate and involved as they want their partner to believe, or they forgot that human beings are as much part of nature as animals, plants, water, and air. They can drive their partner to a state of devastation by refusing to give in to any "irresponsible" behavior, simply because they are so overly themselves! Fortunately, most people do have the ability to govern their self-control and act spontaneous under certain circumstances.

So, what can be some possible indicators that someone around you may possess a concerning dose of self-control?

1. The way he/she walks, talks, and/or shakes your hand: if everything is done very carefully, you can almost bet your bottom dollar that this person is no fun to hang out with.

2. The way he/she behaves in general. This, of course, can only be detected at a later stage: when you get to know this person better. But if he/she turns out to be one that has everything in perfect order, meaning: even the flowers on the toilet paper never upside down, you might want to consider whether you want to stay around and under what conditions.

3. The way he/she laughs and cries ? or worse yet: fails to do so. People with an extreme amount of self-control never laugh too hard ? if at all -, and definitely never cry or display their emotions.

Concluding, I would like to state that ? like everything else ? self-control can be useful, and maybe even necessary if you want to remain a respected and accepted member of society. Virginia Woolf stated it excellently by asserting: "To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves." However, moderation is the key here. We may not really know what our ultimate mission on earth is, but we should absolutely make it fun as long as it lasts. And always being inhibited and controlled is an unhealthy and unpleasant way to get through this journey. The best guideline toward moderation and good judgment may be this remark by Eileen Caddy: "Seek always for the answer within. Be not influenced by those around you, by their thoughts or their words." And keep the child in you alive... at least sometimes.

* Gul, F., & Pesendorfer, W., (2001Temptation and Self-Control. Econometrica, 69(6), 1403-1435.
* Sellers, P., (2001). Get over yourself. Fortune, 143(9), 76-88.
* Various. (1999, Sun, 31 Mar 2002). TPCN - Great Quotations. 2000 Cyber Nation International, Inc. [2002, Sep. 11].