Is self-regulation failure a moral failure?

Today I want to share some insights about self-regulation. What is self-regulation anyway? Is it self-control? Is it motivation to get up and get things done? Are there degrees of self-regulation or is it something you either have or don’t have?

LazyI have asked these questions throughout my years as a psychotherapist working with people who are looking to improve their lives and who struggle with self-regulation. Often their disappointment is framed in judgments like, “It’s because I don’t really care about anything” or “I’m just lazy”, or “she is out of control”, or “he is defiant and oppositional”. Blaming one self or blaming others for various failures seems to be the go to response and may well be associated with a societal tendency toward punitive approaches. These powerful sentiments are difficult to manage and understand. Let’s take a quick look at some definitions from a few self-regulation experts and begin to understand a little more about this largely misunderstood aspect of our humanity.   Here goes and I’ll put my spin on it too.

Bauer and Baumeister (p65) define self-regulation as the “capacity to override natural and automatic tendencies; desires or behaviours; to pursue long-term goals, even at the expense of short-term attractions; and to follow socially prescribed norms and rules”. This sounds a lot like self-control or will power doesn’t it? Students that procrastinate on doing their assignments, or weight watchers that break their diets and shoppers that spend beyond their means are just a few examples of self-regulation failure.   Bauer and Baumeister go on to describe self-regulation as a “strength model”, which draws upon a “common energy supply…like a muscle that grows tired and weak after being exercised, the capacity for self control also weakens with repeated attempts at self control”.

So perhaps self regulation or self control should not be seen as a moral failing rather simply a lack of necessary muscle to fuel ones’ ability to carry the weight of a response at any given moment or that the energy of the muscle has been depleted through use before the demand of carrying such a weight could be completed. This has great implications for how we respond to the youth who misbehaves, the colleague who has not completed a project or a spouse who has gone on a spending spree. Perhaps, the cause of their so-called transgression was not a moral failing but rather simply a depletion of self-regulation energy resource.

The hopeful piece here is that just like a muscle that can be developed to be bigger and stronger so that it can carry a heavier load for a longer period of time, so self regulation can be developed to be more robust and useful for longer periodsarm-muscle-bicep-293x200. Instead of judging or blaming we can think about how to (i) better direct this limited energy resource, (ii) conserve the energy resource so we can follow through on tasks, and (iii) discover the best ways to recharge the energy resource when it is depleted. Lets look at another aspect of self-regulation to enhance our understanding.

Carver and Scheier (p 3) refer to self regulation as “the sense that self-corrective adjustments are taking place as needed to stay on track for the purpose being served (whether this entails overriding another impulse of simply reacting to perturbations from other sources) and the sense that the corrective adjustments originate within the person. These points converge in the view that behaviour is a continual process of moving toward (and sometimes away from) goal representations”. So it seems to me that this model of self-regulation is a recalibration and a lot like our GPS in the car when we are using it to get to a dinner party in an area we have not been to before. If you make a wrong turn, the voice on the GPS says “recalculating” and then tells you to travel along so many meters or kilometers and readjust left or right till the next instructions. Not a bad prescription for life I would say. The famous samurai swordsman and ronin Myamoto Musashi noted the secret to his success was his ability to “respond as the situation developed”. This simple phrase is brought to life in Jiu-jitsu training and in mixed martial arts. Responding as the situation develops positions one in the moment-by-moment interaction with whatever arises or falls away. I’m fascinated to see professional hockey players respond to the situation as it develops at such a rapid pace that it is actually difficult to track even from the birds eye point of view we have from the broadcast. I think what is most encouraging about this model, is that we can practice recalibrating and recalculating in the sports we play so that this feature of self-regulation becomes more robust. But if you don’t play sports, you might notice how one does this driving or even cooking a meal or navigating throughout the office or school day. This is just one more piece to understanding the self-regulation puzzle. I very much like the above self-regulation models. They take the blame out of failure and encourage hope in that there are things we can do to improve our self-regulation strength to achieve the goals we value. So the next time you miss your workout or your spouse leaves the dishes in the sink or your child melts down after school because his computer game shut down, think about how self regulation strength may be depleted and that perhaps responding as the situation develops by recharging the self regulation muscle in a way that brings about rest and acceptance rather than judgment and guilt will ultimately be your best bet in making the situation better.

Reference: Handbook of Self –Regulation: Research, Theory and Applications, Second Edition, The Guilford Press New York, London