“The world is so unpredictable. Things happen suddenly, unexpectedly. We want to feel we are in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we’re not. We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.”
In the moment: Do your best to limit the potential negative consequences of losing your self-control, if at all possible. Take a deep breath in and create distance between you and the triggering situation – physically, by leaving the area or taking an actual step back, psychologically by disconnecting and zoning out for a moment. Or manage the emotions for just a while longer by biting your tongue and counting to ten until the impulse passes.
And if the damage is already done – a sharp or angry word exchanged, a difficult encounter deliberately avoided, a whole packet of chocolate biscuits devoured in one sitting – then be prepared to make amends right away: an apology, if warranted, or self-awareness and acceptance instead of shame, self-denigration and loss of self-esteem. Don’t waste time in self-flagellation and lose the opportunity to learn from this.
What’s happening? What is it we think we are going to lose control of? How would we or anyone else know that we were losing or had already lost self-control?
The OED defines self-control as the ‘ability to control one’s emotions or behaviour, especially in difficult situations’. Two things come to mind here: firstly, self-control of the thoughts we have is not mentioned in the definition; and secondly, what defines a situation as being ‘difficult’?
For most people, self-control probably relates to the regulation and expression of emotions, and the display of behaviours that accompany them. For example, we are scared by something, and so we show fear in our facial expressions, even cry perhaps, and adopt defensive or avoidant non-verbal behaviour – such as withdrawing, hunching or slouching our bodies to make us appear to others as diminutive and non-threatening.
Or we become frustrated and irritated by someone’s aggressive behaviour and respond in kind – hostile eye gaze, puffed-out chests, raised voices, accusatory finger-pointing and dismissive head-shaking. Neither of these two scenarios necessarily need us to be physically present with another person: even in reading and responding to a negative, aggressive email you could be subconsciously displaying these behaviours.
The expression of emotions is socially-determined and going beyond the acceptable boundaries risks attracting disapproval. Fear of potential rejection – for losing self-control and displaying inappropriate emotions – compounds the emotional load by adding shame – the fear of being seen by others to be out of control – to the list of other emotions that were invoked by the initial triggering event, whatever that may be.
Plutarch referred to shame as ‘one of the greatest shaking cracks that our soul can receive’. Perhaps it is the anticipation of the shame to come that makes us fear losing self-control more than fearing the actual emotions triggered and their behavioural responses? If so, then being prepared with an appropriate range of options for action after the event might make us fear the actual event (of losing control) a little less. By having a rehearsed ‘set-piece script’ to deploy, then we’ll clearly not have lost that much self-control after all.
Which brings us onto the matter of scale. Losing self-control is not a dichotomous construct: there must be degrees to losing self-control as there are to gaining self-control. It is our emotional-thinking brain that sees the world in these binary categories.
Ask yourself what does losing self-control mean? What emotions, what behavioural responses do you envisage experiencing – or have already displayed in previous episodes, perhaps? Does losing control of your temper in a meeting involve shouting at someone? Could you lose your self-control more? Throwing a glass of water over someone; jumping on the table; running around the office with your pants on your head? There are clearly degrees to feeling a loss of control.
How to make the most of this technique? In the words of the Prussian Field Marshal Karl von Clausewitz, “the only way to maximize potential for performance is to be calm in the mind’.
Once your emotional-thinking brain is in a state of high arousal, it is too late to start to think of new ways of coping with the situation. In the interests of speed, you need to have a plan that can be deployed automatically without the need for conscious thought, or your emotional brain will take over completely with its preconditioned fight, flight or freeze set piece responses.
Be prepared to act. Recognition of the trigger and of your early reactions is key to success. Your aim is no longer to be surprised by surprise: you want to keep as calm a mind as possible, even if the solution to your challenging situation is not immediately evident.
Your emotional-thinking brain might already be looking out for the signs of a threatening situation, especially if you’ve been there before. In that case, it will be anticipating the trigger and already halfway down the road to Conclusions and lining up its habitual response to what it thinks is about to happen.
Of course, it is all down to your own perceptions. What are you expecting? What do you perceive the consequences to be? What do you perceive to be in your control? Based on those initial perceptions, your emotional-thinking brain evaluates the situation and responds with emotions and behaviour accordingly, with the intention of changing the situation.
Acting speedily confers a distinct survival advantage. We speak of ‘impulsive’ behaviour – when we act seemingly without conscious self-control, almost observing ourselves going through the motions as if we’re only passengers aboard our own emotional rollercoaster.
There are degrees of scale to the consequences and control. Our impulsive, emotional-thinking brain tries to answer three questions:
When the threat is right now, right here and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, then it is easy to understand how we can join our emotional-thinking brain in a sense of panic!
More often than not, an actual panic and full loss of self-control does notoccur. You can introduce a little sense of calm by asking yourself some more detailed questions:
Be prepared. Think ahead. Accept your emotions can be challenged. Be ready with some positive, effective and acceptable ways of dealing with the situation.