A version of this article was first published in my monthly column for Troy Media.
This weekend I was admiring a burst of tulips in the back garden. I commented on how striking they were. My husband commented on how they were ill-placed. Irritated by his lack of appreciation for the riot of colour, I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped them off and announced he would no longer need to be annoyed by their poor placement. At that moment, I completely lost my ability to self-regulate. Self-regulators do not stomp into the garden and clip tulips just because someone suggests they are planted in a poor location.
It is difficult, at this moment in time, to argue that the ability to self-regulate is one of the most important success factors in work and in life. There are examples of leaders around us who are impulsive and imprudent. But I think they stand out because they are the exception rather than the rule. In most instances, the ability to demonstrate consistent and mature control over emotions and impulses will help us succeed.
What is self-regulation and why is it so important?
Self-regulation allows us to set aside our immediate emotional reactions and choose how we want to respond to situations. It directs us to be nice when we could be surly, to restrain ourselves when we could let loose, to pause before we do something stupid. It helps us sit back when we might be tempted to dominate, choose our words carefully when conflict is in the air, and show patience when we are tested. At its essence, self-regulation helps us present our best selves during our potentially worst moments. The ability to be selective in our response can mean the difference between building bridges and burning bridges.
Self-awareness is at the heart of self control.
Without being aware of ourselves, what we are thinking and how we are reacting, it is impossible to choose or change how we respond to people or events. This idea goes back a long way in human history. To quote Plato, “The first and most important victory is over ourselves.” One of the unique features of human consciousness is our ability to observe ourselves in thought and in action. Philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism incorporate this act of self-observation (and self control) as a key principle and practice. It is also at the core of mindfulness meditation, which has taken western culture and workplaces by storm.
Objectivity helps us over-ride our impulses. Humans have very big brains, but also very sensitive emotional wiring. We develop ‘hot buttons’ - beliefs, associations and attachments to things that bypass our brains and trigger our emotional impulses. ‘Cognitive distancing’ is the process of stepping back and shifting into self-observation. From this neutral place we can observe what we are thinking, how our brain is processing, and reflect on our emotional reactions. When someone says ‘you need to be more objective and not take this so personally’, this is what they are suggesting we do. When we don’t take advantage of our ability to step back, our emotional triggers can ignite and we end up saying or doing something we regret.
We have the power to choose how we respond. Psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl said it powerfully: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We have all had the experience of reacting to something without thinking, and then regretting it. Like me, you have probably apologized once or twice for something you said or did in the heat of the action. If we operate from a place of awareness, we are in a position to take advantage of the space between stimulus and response, and choose how we want to react. We have the luxury of considering options, and their implications. We can take thoughtful, positive actions and avoid the career- or relationship-limiting ones.
Self-regulation puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of our own life. It isn’t easy. It takes practice. We aren’t always going to get it right. But we can get better at it.
For those interested in building up self-regulation, there are a number of best-selling resources including Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul, the works of author and Stoic Ryan Holiday, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.