Impulse Control and Will-Training: The Art of Self-Management

Last week’s post (see:  Mastering One’s Appetites:  A Critical Character Challenge) dealt with the importance of subordinating our innate desire for pleasure and self-gratification to the greater cause of advancing life .   The pleasure principle was really always meant to have a servant role in our lives but it can, unfortunately and to our great detriment, become an idol of our worship or even our master. And in my experience, the unwillingness to forego pleasure, delay satisfaction, or endure pain in service to the greater causes in life is the hallmark feature of the impaired character (years of abundant empirical research has also attested to the crucial importance of the ability to delay gratification to psychological health).  This week’s post will discuss a “commandment” of sound character development closely related to tempering one’s appetites: exercising control over one’s impulses, as well as the importance of rightly training our wills.

In Character Disturbance I talk about the importance of becoming more “mindful” of our behavior (p. 142).  And in recent years there’s been abundant research testifying to the many benefits of mindfulness.  Taking the time to contemplate our intended actions before move forward is key to acting wisely.  And reasoning through the soundness of what we intend, thinking about the potential consequences to ourselves and others, and weighing other possible alternatives, all takes time.  Of course, there are those rare occasions when a person doesn’t really have the luxury of time to stop and think for a moment about what they need to do.  But most of the time, this is not the case and it behooves us to be more mindful.

Some of the more seriously disturbed characters, especially those I prefer to call the aggressive personalities (In Sheep’s Clothing, pp. 40-46 and Character Disturbance, Chapter 3), have a particular problem with mindfulness.  Sometimes, they’re like walking impulses, always tending to act first and possibly think about (and even possibly regret) their actions later. And because inhibition deficits are such an integral part of the aggressive personality’s’ makeup, it’s hard for the various aggressive personality types to acquire the internal “brakes” they need to keep from acting on impulse.  Add to that a penchant for “impulsive thinking” and an excessive penchant for aggressively pursuing goals and you have a perfect recipe for acting a fool now and possibly realizing the folly of what you’ve done much later.  It’s a real dilemma.  But a person can’t stop and think without having the internal brakes necessary to give pause in the first place.

Both our appetites and our impulses can, of course, be managed, but that takes a lot of willpower.  And that leads me to the next “commandment” of character development:

Perseverance, patience, and endurance are not really virtues in themselves.  A man intent on robbing a large bank may spend hours or days meticulously planning and executing his caper as well as waiting for the best time to strike.  And some criminals remain of solid resolve in their manner of dealing with life no matter how many incarcerations or life losses they experience.  Daring is not the same as courage or forbearance.  Nor is obstinacy the same as strength of will. Still, it is imperative that you develop solidity and strength, as well as rightness of purpose, with respect to your will. (Character Disturbance, page 142)

Some folks are naturally quite willful from an early age but no strong will is naturally disciplined.  And given how important it is to exercise a right will over one’s appetites and impulses, nothing, it would seem, is as crucial to sound character development in our formative years than proper will-training.

Before I began my graduate training in psychology, I happened to stumble on the work of a very early pioneer of the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) revolution (though even this person probably didn’t know of his pioneer status at the time and was never afforded much recognition for his contributions).   This CBT pioneer introduced me to a concept that has proven its value many times over during my years of work with impaired characters.  Responsible adult behavior, he insisted, is not behavior purely driven by one’s wants, needs, desires, and especially, one’s impulses.  Rather, it is behavior guided by one’s will.  As I mention in Character Disturbance (p.143), he also conceptualized the will’s sole function as conferring a final “yes” or “no” to any inclination we might have. And one’s will, he insisted, like any other human capacity, can be developed and strengthened over time and even guided into right decision-making, provided it receives appropriate training.  What a concept!  Our wills can be trained!  And more important than that, by sufficiently training our wills, we can become masters of our appetites and impulses.  We can exercise self-control.  We can go beyond how we’re naturally predisposed to act and behave in a more mindful manner.  Now, many of our parents and grandparents intuitively knew this.  But here was a professional not only affirming it but also providing some helpful hints on how to best go about the process of training one’s will.

Now developing self-control is an easier task for some individuals right from the beginning because of some of the constitutional factors influencing their personality makeup.  For example, a child who naturally tends to have a high capacity for anxiety and caution might be more naturally inclined to “look” before they “leap,” so to speak, whereas a child with a penchant for excitement and adventure-seeking and lacking in what psychologists call “adaptive fearfulness” might “leap” before “looking.”  So some folks don’t need as much in the way of positive “will training” to become the master of their impulses while others require lots of training and reinforcement to exercise sound willful self-management.  And because will-training cant just be about developing strength of will but rather “exercising” a right will, training the will of naturally headstrong children can be a particular challenge.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in will-training is that for any kind of learning to take deep root, behaviors must be reinforced.  Over the years, perhaps the biggest failure I witnessed among parents when it comes to helping shape the character of their children is affording insufficient recognition and reinforcement of their children’s willful efforts to do the right thing.  But recognizing and reinforcing those efforts – even the smallest efforts to appropriately handle the conflicts and temptations of everyday life, is the single most important way we help children strengthen a right will.  Unfortunately there are a number of ways we fail to do this. Sometimes we simply expect children to make the right call.  And other times we afford recognition and reinforcement to them only when they succeed, rather than when they make efforts.  But it’s in right willful effort that real “merit” lies, and just as is true in strength training for muscles, no will ever gets strengthened unless even the small efforts get reinforced.  Learning the “art” of overall self-management is mostly all about mastering all the little steps of self-control.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be wrapping up this series on the “commandments” of sound character development.  As always, the comments by readers have contributed immensely to the overall conversation about these important issues and, hopefully, have helped increase understanding of the essentials of sound character formation.

10 thoughts on “Impulse Control and Will-Training: The Art of Self-Management

  1. Dr Simon, I recall that in one of your books you share that there was a time in your life when you did not handle will right, and then you learned some skills that changed your life. Can you tell us more about what you actually did, and what was most helpful?

  2. I’ve heard the word “willful” be used of people, who dominate and control others, in other words, impose their will on other people.

  3. J, another confusing thing for me……what is the difference between imposing your will and boundaries? These things just confuse the Hell out of me and I end up not saying something to someone because I don’t understand if I’m being too pushy (will?) or if I have a right to expect someone to respect my request (boundaries?) ArrrrGH!

  4. Imposing one’s will is deliberately trespassing someone else’s boundaries. If you make a request and another person makes excuses or acts like they didn’t hear it, then you can act in some way that sends the message.

  5. J, could you give an example?………
    I’ll try one…..
    I tell someone something I would like, in a relationship, like……..”it would be nice for me, I would like it, if sometime you would tell me to wait in the other room and draw me a bubble bath, take me into the bathroom and rub my back or just visit with me. Kind of pamper me? They say they want to make me happy, they say they want to know what would make me happy (in and out of the bedroom), I tell them and then they don’t do it……like for a long long time……..never basically. so I’m left not understanding and if I say something……again……..Im being critical.
    Personally I wanted to make him happy and would do what he wanted, within my moral comfort zone and maybe a little beyond if asked. BUT,,,,,,him? yeah, no. Im guessing it was just another Spath game. Some kind of sick game or test. Pathetic.

    1. That sounds like a request.

      However, for example, if someone does something inconsiderate or disrespectful and you tell them to stop it, you’re being assertive, you’re standing up for your rights.

      If they keep on with it, that tells a lot about them.

    2. Those intimate things described, in your post…. I know really the LORD only permittees in a marriage.

      I hope you all know, that Jesus Christ is GOD Almighty. The Infinite One… That He is coming again, but this time it will be as a lion. It is a dreadful day for the wicked… And day of vengeance for GOD. Landmarks of Prophecy episode one from amazing facts by Pastor Doug Batchelor.

      1. Jedi of Christ, I have to say your comment fails to take up nuances from another person’s experience that don’t fit a framework you seem to endorse and thus comes across as ignorant and rude. It may be difficult to study and entertain a different perspective from one you’ve long believed explains everything or accept why others don’t abide by that same belief system. I agree with some commenters on this site that just one narrow perspective is ultimately quite limiting and may not help you do as much good for others and yourself as otherwise.

        Of course, if you aren’t willing to reflect, really reflect, on these words, I request you refrain from commenting here and find another venue for yourself.

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