The Well of Self-Control

Photo by Andrzej O; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Andrzej O; Wikimedia Commons


Picture a well, and imagine that the water in the well represents self-control. When the well is full, you feel abundant strength and energy to engage in tasks that require you to be careful with your behavior, to inhibit your impulses, and to persist in the face of emotional obstacles.

When the well is depleted, however, it becomes much harder to think creatively in the face of challenges. You do not feel like you have the energy to transform bad habits or avoid temptation.

There are many different tasks that use up the supply of water in the self-control well. The water level sinks lower whenever we resist temptation, hold back distressing emotions,suppress forbidden thoughts, and try to make a choice from an overabundance of options.

Add to that list many of the situations that we may encounter on a daily basis, such as resisting potato chips, making sure we don’t speed on the way home from work, and managing the impression that we make on other people.

What is the end result of all of this restraint, suppression, and self-supervision? According to the research literature, the end result is an inability to persist in the face of obstacles. The official name for this is regulatory depletionIt means that if we use up much of our supply of self-control on one task, we have limited self-control available to use on the next task.

Consider the implications for the habit that you are trying to change. Is there a way you can avoid high-risk or tempting situations when you know that your well of self-control is depleted?


4 thoughts on “The Well of Self-Control

  1. I think that if you are conscious of this, that you will do a better job of resisting. It’s like going to the grocery store and wanting a candy bar on the way out, even though you know that in 10 minutes you will be home. You know at home you will have better, cheaper food, so why would you actually want to spend a dollar on a candy bar?

  2. People could probably benefit from having a way to “check in” with themselves on this issue periodically throughout the day–like “how full is my well right now?” Then if the well is depleted, don’t put yourself in any tempting situations!

  3. thinking in terms of limits is a self limiting process,
    thinking in terms of unlimited self resources is unrealistic,
    thinking that is balanced does not need to define physical boundaries,
    thinking is both the problem and the solution.

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