Self-Restraint: How to Master The Lock and Key Skill

It won’t matter how many times you say you’re sorry, failure of Self-Restraint can produce lasting consequences. Years ago, my dad sent me an unforgettable story about nails in a fence:

“There once was a boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into their wooden fence. The first day, the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually decreased. He discovered it was easier to control his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father, who suggested that the boy now remove the nails. When the nails were gone, the father gently pointed to the fence and said, “While you have done well, my son, take note of the holes in the fence. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like these.” — Author Unknown

Have you ever spewed “nails” rashly, and then wished you could eat your words? Or conversely, has there been a time when you should have spoken out something right or true, and you held your tongue instead? These two scenarios represent vulnerabilities related to applying too little or too much Self-Restraint.

Understanding Self-Restraint

Self-Restraint means: To hold instinctive desires in check and refrain from giving full expression to them in conduct.

There are times when it is critical for us to think through what will happen, and refrain from spontaneous behavior. Self-Restraint gives us the ability to put our urges on “lockdown.” But how useful is a lock without it’s matching key? In practicing Self-Restraint, it is also important that we not lose the freedom to fearlessly release words or actions for the good of others, or ourselves. Consider the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

Insights into the benefits and vulnerabilities of high and low Self-Restraint

People with high Self-Restraint typically keep their impulses and actions in check. They are usually diligent, reliable and peaceable. Often more reserved than others, high scorers embrace traditional values and are less inclined to take risks. Their decisions and priorities are highly influenced by perceived duties, making them more susceptible to overwork and burnout. Stress may be lurking beneath their outer display of patient well-being. As they are more guarded in expression and action, others may find them delaying, unfriendly, inaccessible or passionless.

People with low Self-Restraint tend toward unfettered actions and attitudes. They like to have fun, pursue exciting risks and be free of boundaries. If they feel something needs to be said, they don’t fear speaking out. While these individuals can be engaging and charismatic, they become easily bored or impatient when gratification is delayed. Their under-controlled behaviors may hinder relationships. People who are unrestrained in their impulses can appear overly aggressive, uncompromising or insistent with others. Careless, headstrong behaviors can have dire consequences.

Those who can moderate this skill understand when it is wise and appropriate to express a particular emotion, when it is best to restrict its expression, and how to redirect and rework thoughts and actions in a productive manner. They are typically resilient, self-disciplined and able to control their behavior in socially acceptable ways. These abilities stem from the strong underlying skills: Emotional Self-Awareness, Self-Assessment, Self-Alignment and Self-Confidence.

Self-Restraint vs. Self-Discipline vs. Self-Control

Like the other Imperatives, Self-Restraint is a skill with “a higher purpose.” It notoriously supports Self-Control: the ability to recognize and regulate one’s behavior—habitually enjoying the good things in life while knowing when enough is enough. Chances are, you’ve seen the Marshmallow Experiment. This and other psychological research make evident that Self-Control is an essential life skill.

But how do restraint, discipline and control differ? If you were to liken your instinctive desires to a coursing river, then self-discipline is learning to channel the cascading water, while Self-Restraint is damming up the river’s misguided offshoots. Self-Control is self-discipline exercised over a long period of time.

As an example: Selfdiscipline is when your alarm rings at 4 a.m. and you wake up and resolutely sit along your bedside in preparation for your morning run. When your mind starts telling you to crawl back in and sleep for another 10 minutes, Self-Restraint kicks in and you say to yourself, “NO!” (recalling your super-objective: You love running marathons way too much to let yourself go back to sleep). Self-Control is when you have completed your morning runs every day for a month straight.

“Won’t”, “Want” and “Will” Power

Commonly misunderstood, mere Self-Restraint or won’t-power, won’t get you far. Remember, it’s intent is to dam up the river—to deliberately suppress unruly urges and surges. The guiding force behind behavior is want-power, therefore, it is important to reflect upon and decide what your best self truly wants. Do related behaviors align with your “Ideal Self?” (See Self-Alignment). Fully discerning and dealing with the source of any problems in your want-power is the best way to steer clear of undesirable actions.

Self-discipline, fueled by want-power, is a healthy structure that you practice in order to “take hold” of your heart’s desire. And while it necessitates Self-Restraint or won’t-power, it’s goal is to attain what will be. Over time and with continued refinement and repetition, want-power evolves to willpower—healthy Self-Control. Power, love and Self-Control win out over fear or recklessness.

Here’s this idea simplified: “I want to suspend judgment and I want to listen well to others so they will know their opinion is valued.” Let this objective prompt you to deliberately restrain unhelpful urges—“I won’t interrupt in conversations.” Now practice until you’re a natural. On the flip side: You might need to refrain from suppressing your thoughts out of fear and start speaking up. Why? You want to provide feedback so that another person feels truly loved or better equipped to grow. In any case, find a “sponsoring reason” to assist you in dialing up (or down) your level of Self-Restraint.

Boosting Self-Restraint

Developing Self-Restraint is like eating an elephant…one bite at a time. The good news is that learning restraint in one area makes other areas easier as well!

  1. Recognize. When you sense a “rise” in the river of your emotions, use your body to downshift: Breathe deeply three times. Suspend all hasty judgments. Make space to think clearly so that you can choose constructive words and actions. Awareness is the first step to change, so become mindful of where you need more restraint. Do not “waste” your restraint supply by adding unneeded demands to your personal and work habits.
  2. Assess. Look at the circumstance, take stock and identify what “triggers” the problem or situation, hear what is happening and reflect. The time required to sort through emotions so that you can offer a confident, measured response can range from a few seconds to days, but it gets better with practice! When possible, decide in advance how you want to respond versus react.
  3. Align. Dig deep to understand yourself and what you genuinely want. What do you love? Is this ideal? What is your ideal? Which mindsets and practices will take you in that direction? Does what you’re about to do/say reflect who you are or want to be? How will these behaviors add to your happiness, relationships and productivity? Will you decide to work on these? How? When?
  4. Discipline your response (don’t react)… again and again! Enticed by the superior pleasure of your “want” power, decide which positive words or actions you want to put into effect. You can even enlist a coach to help you train. Through practice, you can master a sense of control in your life—ultimate freedom to consistently choose statements and actions that lead to productive outcomes. You can be a person guided by willpower.
Loosening Self-Restraint

While Self-Restraint is a skill that is meant to prevent us from indulging, it is possible for a person to indulge in excessive Self-Restraint! If there are signs of over-restraint in your personal or social behavior, you may need to take steps to relax and let go.

  1. Realize that over-restraint might bring about more serious stresses and personal problems. Additionally, it can hinder your interactions and prevent you from enriching or otherwise helping others with your thoughts or actions.
  2. Assess your tendency to keep your emotions bottled up. Be aware of your inner dialogue. How is it serving to open you up (or shut you up)? Establish where in your life you would like to become more carefree and what you want to do or say.
  3. Find Alignment. Who are you? Stop worrying about the judgments and standards of other people which make you apprehensive and lead you to overthink your actions. Cultivate a strong connection with your true identity, and know that this will allow you to behave naturally and respond to circumstances wholeheartedly.  People respect this!
  4. Nurture Self-Confidence. Lose control! Stop being uptight. Practice carrying a genuine smile on your face, as a pleasant demeanor will invite others to you. People often mirror what they see: if you are smiling, others will smile, and if you frown, the others will frown. Mingle with the people around you, and practice starting the conversation.
  5. NO negative self-talk. Focus on the external environment more than the chatter in your head. Speak to yourself in the same manner you speak to someone for whom you care deeply. Be involved in your environment. Enjoy the conversation. Live in the moment, not in what should have been or should be. Carefree people live in the moment.
  6. Practice. What might you do in the next 24 hours as a safe step to dialing back Self-Restraint? Could you volunteer and participate in a group activity? The more you mingle, the more fear you overcome. If you usually hang back and let others take the spotlight, write down some points you could add to the topic being discussed and speak up. Host a party with some close friends. This will help you practice for other events which involve unfamiliar people. Practice opening up and sharing your feelings. It makes you more human and liberated. Try it! Think of any area where you can “branch out” by taking a well-thought-through risk. As you work through inhibitions and find your voice, you will be free to contribute more to others.

A healthy balance of Self-Restraint lies at the foundation of every person who has made a significant impact in this world. Too little, and that impact leaves lasting scars. Too much, and the good in you may never be realized by another when it’s most needed. Mastering this skill is often the first step to mastering your future.

What lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do. — Aristotle