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Why is self control important?

April 7, 2010

in Spiritual Growth

Having struggled for years with a chocolate addiction, I know the territory well. I used to eat one bar of chocolate a day. I slowly lowered that to zero chocolate. Then, a few years ago, I decided to go easy on myself and allow myself one bar (200gr) a week. I stray a bit above that every once in a while, but am pretty successful at my goal in general. But it does take self control. You know what they say: once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. I’m afraid it’s the same with chocolate: I’ll always be a chocoholic (yes, that’s a word).

Never mind that research shows that pure chocolate, in small amounts, is healthy. Never mind that research shows that in women eating chocolate is actually correlated with psychological health. The amount I ate was too much, and with the sugar and fat content, could not be considered healthy. And of course: eating chocolate means eating less of the food we all know is healthy too: vegetables, fruit, protein etc. I was long past finding excuses for myself.

The reason I am writing this piece is that one of my favorite psychological blogs (no idea why they are on spring.org.uk) did a series on self control recently. Surprisingly enough the result of research is apparently that there are roughly two things that will help people gain self control:

This is interesting. First of all, it explains something about some theosophists I know: they seem a bit overly self controlled, which this research suggests is due to too much abstract thought :) Of course the reverse could also be said: studying the more analytical spiritual traditions (Theosophy, Vedanta, Buddhist philosophy, Kabbalah etc.) will help you gain self control. For most people this is probably a good thing.

In passing this explains why those kids who do better in high school, are less likely to have sex early on: they have more self control.

But to me the second part is more surprising: affirmations as a help for self control. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the claims about affirmations, but this does give them validity. Affirmations don’t help because they create the reality people need to live in, they help because they help people get more self control, which in turn helps them achieve a greater percentage of their goals.

On the other hand, exercising self control is tiring. I think we all know this. The way to avoid eating chocolate is not to have it in the house. Having it there means eating it. That way the only moment to exercise self control is when you’re in the shop, passing the chocolate corridor. One way to be sure to give into temptation is to make it easy to do so.

So, did theosophy help me gain self control over my chocolate addiction? I’m not sure. I grew up in a home where abstract thought was normal. We discussed science and politics over breakfast. Theosophy fit into that pattern, just adding a religious and spiritual dimension.

My addiction went in stages. First, I went into addiction by treating chocolate as the cure to my problems. Then I was in denial for some time. Then I was out of denial and started fighting it. The whole process took years. I was a theosophist for most of that. But yes, theosophy was on my mind during that whole time and probably helped me stay on the track of abstract thought my parents and genes had already put me on.

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