Kris Wise MSW, LCSW
Why self-regulation is important to each of us.
One’s ability to practice self-regulation is as predictive in life outcomes as a person’s individual intelligence or their family of origins socioeconomic status. Self-regulation is essentially the ability to focus one’s energy and actions towards a goal. Self-regulation is often learned during childhood, but is also a skill practiced, enhanced, and mastered throughout life. Whether we are facing current adversity in our life or maintaining a healthy mindset, self-regulation is at the core of our daily interactions and existence. Achievement of short-term and long-term goals are heavily influenced by our ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation plays out in our day to day lives on a regular basis. For example, if the goal is to lose 10 pounds, our ability to manage stress in the moment impacts whether we make healthy food choices when we have a bad day at work. Self-regulation is at the core of whether we reach for a candy bar or an apple. This skill impacts how we effectively overcome adversity, synthesize time management, and achieve an endeavor. In essence it is how we maintain focus on the long-term goal beyond immediate gratification. The ability to persist when the current step towards the goal is difficult, trivial, or ambiguous can impact how we self-regulate. This plays out in the moment with how we talk to ourselves. When we are having a bad day and are tempted to reach for the candy bar what do we tell ourselves? ‘One candy bar won’t hurt?’ or ‘I want chocolate, but I’ll have an apple’. Recognizing the temptation or immediate gratification of relief is key. Validating one’s emotions in the moment of feeling stress is not only affirming, but also allows ourselves to feel the emotion and shift to problem-solving a healthy response. This pause allows us to break out of the automatic pilot existence and into the present. The art of applying delayed gratification isn’t easy and in our technology based world we wired ourselves for the immediate which has its pro’s and con’s.
Teaching Children Self-Regulation
We can teach children delayed gratification by prompting or giving positive descriptive messages to children during natural weight times. For example, you’re in line at the grocery store check-out.
- Acknowledge the difficulty of mastering the skill
- Describe what the child is doing while waiting that is positive self-regulation
- Prompt imagination or end point.
For example: There are two more people in front of us waiting to check out and then we will pay for our groceries and leave. If you could be any animal in the world what would you be? What would be fun about being a giraffe? What food would a giraffe get at the grocery store? I see you’re singing a song to your little sister, that is a great thing to do while waiting.
How can you build further self-regulation as an adult or practice the skill?
Avoid environments or activities that sabotage your goals. For example, place healthy snacks in plain sight, and put candy out of plain sight. When we are exposed to multiple temptations this will drain our reserve of self-regulation. For example, an alcoholic should not choose a home where their street is lined with neighborhood bars. Self-regulation is a muscle we must exercise and strengthen. Just as a bicep will become fatigued during the 4th repetition of weight lifting, it will gain further strength over time. When the muscle of self-regulation is exhausted or attempting to dodge the 4th impulsive choice, our motivation to stay on goal can lessen. HALT- is an acronym that can help us stay on target and recognize the mind body connection.
Ask yourself am I feeling:
Hunger– eat regularly throughout the day and eat well.
Anger- acknowledge that anger is a healthy emotion and reflect on what is causing you to be angry.
Lonely- have you withdrawn yourself, connect with your support system.
Tired- sleep and rest is critical for our bodies. When energy is low and we need rest our physical and emotional ability to think clearly, cope, and stay focused decreases.
- Visualize yourself taking action in a calm manner.
- Affirmations- talk to yourself about being in control of yourself. Choose thoughts over emotions.
I am in control of my reactions
I am in control of my emotions
I am in fully control of myself
I am full of inner strength today
I am making healthy choices
I am working towards my goal
- Create visual reminders throughout your work and home life to remind you of the goal you are working on.
- When your actions waiver from the goal forgive yourself, and build in positive reinforcement of the desired behavior.
- Break long-term goals into short-term more immediate milestones driving towards the long-term goal.
- Create specific goals that are clearly defined. For example, saving a small amount of money out of each paycheck towards the larger amount you’d like to put away.