Self-control refers to our ability to restrain acting on momentary urges, impulses, and wants in favor of longer-term goals. Who doesn’t want more of that?
Most of us think that it’s important to have a lot of willpower, to be able to resist temptation. We all hope that we’ll be able to avoid giving into that impulse to eat more ice cream; keep ourselves from expressing anger at a loved one; or make ourselves finish an important project even though we don’t feel like it. And generally, self-control is a good thing. Society needs people with high levels of self-control, those who can inhibit their momentary desires, think about long-term goals, and take well-thought action toward them.
What if we can have too much of a good thing?
So if a little is good, a lot must be better. Right?
Or could it be that there is such a thing as excessive self-control? New research suggests so.
This body of research shows that excessive self-control can actually be a problem for some people. This is the central idea behind Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT), a new evidence-based therapy for people who engage in excessive self-control, or, people who are “overcontrolled”.
Overcontrolled people are typically:
|Conscientious and responsible||Risk averse and overly cautious|
|People who have a hard time relaxing and “taking it easy”||Perfectionistic|
|People who have high personal standards, even if they feel like they can’t always meet them||Excessively rigid and rule governed|
|People who pay attention to details||Focused on details at the expense of seeing the bigger picture|
|People who tend to keep their true opinions or feelings to themselves until it feels like the “right time”||Mask their true, inner feelings|
|Reserved, taking a while to get to know||Aloof and distant in their way of relating to others|
These patterns of maladaptive overcontrol result from a combination of hardwired, genetic and temperamental factors, and family/environmental factors that serve to reinforce these ways of coping.
While being overcontrolled may serve some adaptive functions, it unfortunately tends to come at a high cost, particularly in terms of people’s relationships and sense of connection. Specifically, the behaviors characterizing overcontrol tend to interfere with the formation of close social bonds and, as a result, people who are overcontrolled typically suffer from strong feelings of loneliness. They may often spend a great deal of time around others, but walk away feeling disconnected, unappreciated, lonely, and exhausted.
Since overcontrolled people are generally responsible, reserved people, they don’t garner a lot of attention, but instead suffer in silence. Most often they suffer with problems including chronic depression, anorexia, or obsessive-compulsive personality.
People who are overcontrolled tend to answer yes to questions such as these:
- Does it feel like no one really gets what it is like to be you, especially some of the people closest to you?
- Have you learned to mask, suppress, or control hurt and tender feelings?
- Is it hard for people to get to know the “true” you? Do you consider yourself reserved or shy?
- Do you pride yourself on your self-control and yet at times feel overwhelmed and under-appreciated?
- Is it hard for you to enjoy or even take downtime or to break one of your own rules?
- Do you sometimes feel all alone, even surrounded by people, and no one would guess how miserable you feel on the inside?
Many treatments focus inward, attempting to help people better regulate their emotions, change dysfunctional thinking, or learn to restrain problematic impulses. However, RO DBT is based on the idea that people with excessive self-control don’t need to learn to work harder, think more correctly, or better restrain their emotions. Instead, RO DBT focuses people OUTWARD, helping overcontrolled people change the social signals they emit, so that they can engage in more flexible ways of engaging with others.1
Overcontrol can severely disrupt the fluid and natural give-and-take that is part of relationships when they are functioning well. RO DBT teaches skills that help people relate more effectively with others so that they can change their relationships in positive ways.
Rather than applying more self-control, RO DBT teaches skills for being more spontaneous in social situations, how to take it easy, how to make true friendships, and how to activate the neurologically based systems that regulate more friendly and fluid ways of interacting with others. Other skills address the rigid thinking and perfectionism that can interfere with learning how to adapt to constantly changing life contexts.
So can you have too much of a good thing? Research seems to say that the answer is ‘yes,’ at least in relation to self-control.