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Posted on Mar 7, 2012

What is self-control and how to teach it

As a leader, do you jump at obvious opportunities? What if you discovered a huge gap between the desires of those you lead and available resources?

I recently discovered such an opportunity: we don’t teach self-control.

If you’re thinking “sure we do.” Well, the facts suggest we actually teach discipline instead of self-control. Yet it is our desire to learn self-control, not discipline.

I was doing some work for a client in search engine optimization (SEO) and made a startling discovery:

–       Lots of people are searching about self-control.

–       There are very few resources on this topic.

Last month there were 301,000 global searches on self-control using Google, including “What is self-control” and “How to self-control”. Interestingly, 45% of those were in the United States. [Note: data pulled from the keyword tool in Google AdWords]

While there are many online references to self-control, a specific search for titles with the term “What is self-control” or “How to self-control” revealed zero results. Zero!

[Note: to validate, type into your Google search bar: allintitle “What is self control”]

Yet, there are over 85,000 titled resources specific to “how to discipline”. And most of these appear to address the disciplining of children.

Why do we teach leaders – including parents – to discipline instead of arming them with the tools to teach self-control, especially when people are searching for help on self-control?

The Value of Self-Control

There is little dispute that self-control is an important quality for every soul to possess. It’s even mentioned in the Bible as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).

As a differentiating value, Self-Control means ability to master one’s desires and impulses; resolutely controlling one’s behavior.

While we expect everyone else around us to maintain self-control, how well are we doing ourselves? To live this value consistently, it requires a lot of work. And it never ends.

Effective leaders demonstrate self-control. And followers look for this quality in their leaders.

If you think you have mastered the value of self-control, and are ready to teach others, unfortunately you may find it hard to find resources. There aren’t many to choose from.

Mastering Self-Control

Drawing on the few resources available, here are 9 things to consider when attempting to help others master the value of self-control.

  1. Take a break. Stepping back or moving away from a challenging situation is an important first step. It allows the person to regain focus on what matters most.
  2. Be calm. No yelling allowed. Be matter-of-fact.
  3. Give personal attention. We all need validation that we’re being heard and understood. As the teacher, it is your attention that’s needed.
  4. Identify emotions. Ask ‘how did that make you feel’? It is our feelings that affect the choices we make. Helping others become self-aware of their feelings is the beginning of self-control.
  5. Analyze. Encourage others to think about what’s causing them to lose control. Urge them to think before responding to a situation.
  6. Role-play. Walking someone through different scenarios helps them understand both acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  7. Make it timely. It’s important to link learning to an actual experience, especially if someone is not exhibiting self-control.
  8. Provide rewards. We all need consistent, positive feedback to learn appropriate behavior. Reward desired behavior with praise and attention. Remember to be consistent.
  9. Model it. The best way to learn is to watch it in action. When someone sees you, as the leader, living through a difficult moment and maintain self-control – voila! It sticks.

So why should leaders focus on self-control and learn to help others master it?

A recent article in the New York Times suggests self-control is a great predictor of success in education, career and marriage.

Maybe this is one reason so many people are searching online for help.


What would you add to help others learn the value of self-control?



  1. I believe that PRAYER is essential in helping with self-control. And, I find it very interesting as a parent and an early childhood educator, that we are so concerned with discipline; but appear not to be concerned about self control. I do know that many educators are now addressing this. Self-control is considered “executive thinking” and what we want to help children achieve.

    • Good point, Merry. Prayer is often forgotten or underrated to help with such difficult tasks as teaching self-control.