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The dark side of self-discipline

Do you wish you had more self-discipline? If you do, you’re not alone. Research shows that a massive 97 per cent of us wish we were more conscientious, that we could carry out our work and duties more carefully and consistently. In essence, most of us wish we had more grit. More self-discipline. But is this lauded trait really all it’s cracked up to be? A growing body of research suggests otherwise.

Defining self-discipline

Self-discipline is defined as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses”. Sounds great in theory, right? If only we could motivate ourselves to effortlessly choose a salad over a pizza or resist hitting the snooze button when we made an internal agreement to head to work early the night before.

Self-discipline is, supposedly, the skill that helps us solve all these problems, enabling us to choose our longer-term aspirations over our short-term desires. But, left unchecked, too much self-discipline can turn ugly.

Self-discipline or self-punishment? We all have internal monologues that accompany us throughout the day. Our mind is essentially a radio, broadcasting thoughts and ideas into our consciousness 24/7. With high levels of self-discipline, we can choose the thoughts and ideas we react to proactively.

Say, for example, you really don’t feel like working on your side hustle at the end of a long working day. You’re unmotivated and tired, and turning on Netflix is a much more appealing idea. In circumstances like these, self-discipline would, theoretically, help you overcome these urges and stick to your original plan. But here’s where the risk lies. Too much self-discipline — too much sacrificing our in-the-moment needs and desires — can lead to depression, anxiety and even burnout.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the start-up game. Recent research from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne found that entrepreneurs’ commitment to heedless self-discipline has knock-on effects on their mental health, with most business owners displaying signs of clinical obsession, distress and anxiety.

“You can get into a start-up mode, where you push yourself and abuse your body,” says psychiatrist and former entrepreneur Michael A Freeman, succinctly
describing the risks of determination in overdrive.

It’s not just entrepreneurs vulnerable to the dark side of self-discipline. Anyone can fall foul of over-exerting restraint. Among eating disorder patients, for example, researchers found a positive interdependence between anorexia nervosa and high levels of self-control.

As a correlating study notes, “Individuals with anorexia are often thought to exercise excessive self-control to override food-related needs and desires in their relentless pursuit of thinness.” The disorder is deadly, with a mortality rate of up to 20 per cent left untreated.

Is self-discipline always deadly?

Many self-help gurus, philosophers and successful businesspeople champion self-discipline as the key to success. But clearly, the ability to control one’s impulses can also lead to feelings of sadness, overwhelm and even mental health issues.

So is self-discipline inherently bad? The answer is more nuanced than a Yes or No. It all comes down to how you view, speak to and treat yourself. We all have internal monologues that accompany us throughout the day. The question you need to ask yourself is: Is your inner voice critical or kind?

When you attempt to control your thoughts and feelings, you will likely either come from a place of love or criticism. Here’s what that looks like in context:

Critical thought: “If I don’t succeed, I will be failure.”

Kind thought: “Everyone fails sometimes. What can I learn from this so I grow?”

Critical thought: “I am not good enough. I must change myself.”

Kind thought: “I am good enough. I am imperfectly human, like everyone, and I will look after myself.”

If your mind’s soundtrack is critical in nature, it’s time to pause and assess. As Dr Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, noted in the New York Times: “Self-criticism can take a toll on our minds and bodies. It can lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate ageing.”

From self-discipline to self-compassion

The antithesis of being hard on yourself is fostering self-compassion. Research shows that high levels of self-compassion are linked to “increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure”. The trouble is, embracing selfcompassion is scary for many of us.

A pioneering researcher in self-compassion, Dr Kristin Neff, notes: “The biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps you worry that if you stop criticising yourself and loosen the reins on self-discipline, your chances of happiness and success will fall to the wayside. But the contrary is true. In fact, a set of studies following hundreds of people attempting to meet their goals — from getting fitter to completing their studies and attaining promotions — found that the more people criticised themselves, the slower their progress and the less likely they were to actually achieve their goals. By contrast, people who excel at cultivating self-compassion are more likely to correct themselves after making mistakes and pursue their goals sustainably.

It’s clear that choosing self-compassion is the secret to fulfilment and satisfaction. Rather than making us lazy, it enables us to become more in touch with ourselves, set realistic goals and cultivate a harmonious state of mind.

“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Neff continues. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

For many of us, this is the missing ingredient to the self-discipline equation. Excess self-control, without a deep sense of self-love, only leads to poor mental health. So rather than continue to emphasise self-discipline and arduous self-control, let’s focus on speaking kindly to ourselves and looking after our minds and bodies. Believe it or not, it’s a happier, more sustainable way to find success.

Article Featured in WellBeing 208

Jacintha Field

Jacintha Field

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