Can Self-Discipline be Learned?
Why didn’t I stop myself from eating that fifth piece of pizza?
Why can’t I make myself finish that project at work?
Why did I skip the gym YET AGAIN?
What is wrong with me?!
The only thing worse than struggling with self-discipline is serving that struggle up with a generous dollop of self-directed anger and self-blame. In my twenty plus years as a psychologist, I have listened to questions like those above uttered countless times by intelligent, competent people who are caught up in an endless, frustrated cycle of “why can’t I?”
We human beings are not born with an innate ability to regulate and control ourselves (self-discipline). These are actually vital skills which become wired into our brains when we receive the right kind of emotionally attentive parenting in childhood. Here’s how:
- When your mother called you in from playing with your neighborhood friends for dinner, whether she realized it or not, she was teaching you how to stop yourself from doing something fun and rewarding in order to do something healthy and necessary. She was teaching you that some things must be done, even if you don’t feel like it.
- When your dad gave you the weekly chore of cutting the grass and then followed up in a loving but firm way to make sure you did it, he was teaching you how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do and the rewards of that.
- When your parents made sure you brushed your teeth twice a day
- When they said no to dessert
- When they set aside and enforced “homework hour” every day after school because you’d been slacking on homework
- When they continued to love you but set your curfew earlier as a consequence for your having broken it….
All of these parental actions and responses are internalized by you, the child. These actions set up a system in your brain during your childhood that will allow you, later on as an adult, be able to override your own desires. When our parents do this right for us, we not only internalize the ability to make ourselves do things and to stop ourselves from doing things, we internalize our parents’ voices, which later in adulthood become our own.
Now let’s take a moment to talk about Childhood Emotional Neglect.
What is “Childhood Emotional Neglect?” It’s a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. In this way, Emotional Neglect is not something that a parent does to his child; instead, it’s something that he fails to do for his child. You may be wondering what this means, and how it is relevant to self-discipline.
Although there are a number of possible underlying causes of self-discipline struggles, like depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD), I often have found that the cause is actually invisible, unmemorable, Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Many people who were emotionally neglected in childhood freely describe themselves as procrastinators. Some call themselves lazy. Common are battles with over- and under-eating, excessive spending, or over-drinking. Many emotionally neglected people also have difficulty forcing themselves to exercise, do menial tasks or do anything that’s not immediately fun or rewarding.
The truth is, all forms of self-discipline can be boiled down to two basic ingredients, which are:
Making yourself do things you don’t want to do — and stopping yourself from doing things you want to do but shouldn’t.
One of the infinite number of ways that a parent can emotionally neglect a child is to fail to provide enough structure and consequences for the child. Many loving, well-meaning parents do not understand why this is so important. They prefer not to fight with their child. They want to avoid conflict. They want their child to be happy all the time. Perhaps they are distracted by their own interests; perhaps they are addicted, exhausted, self-centered, widowed, struggling financially, or depressed. So they let the child stay out playing far too late; they mow the lawn themselves, because it’s easier; they let the child eat dessert too often; they let that curfew-break slide by. They may feel that letting the child do whatever he wants to do makes for a more peaceful, “happier,” household.
I believe that most parents would not opt for the more peaceful household if they understood that they were failing their child. They would instead choose to enforce more rules, assign more chores, and dole out more consequences, so that their child would learn how to:
Make herself do what she doesn’t want to do, and stop herself from doing what she shouldn’t do.
If you struggle with self-discipline in a certain area(s), I encourage you to consider Emotional Neglect as a cause. The good news is this: if your brain wasn’t “programmed” in childhood to have this skill, it’s not too late! Once you understand why you’re struggling with self-discipline, you can stop blaming yourself. You can stop calling yourself “lazy” or “weak-willed,” or “a procrastinator,” and instead start on a clearly laid-out road to recovery.
If you would like to learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website. To see my recovery program for Self-Discipline problems caused by Emotional Neglect, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To get it in paperback, Kindle or Nook, click HERE.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral