Lately I’ve been thinking about the subject of self-control— what it is, how it works, why ’s SO HARD sometimes.
Self-control stirs up all kinds of unwelcome connotations: limitations, restrictions, restrain and refrain. But let’s turn self-control upside down for a moment. What if self-control actually gave us more freedom, not less?
Mindfulness meditation is an exceptional gym for the mind. Through various mental “exercises” we train ourselves to manage urges that arise in the moment. We learn to relax our bodies and minds in that exact moment—keeping them from running roughshod over our lives, ruling the day.
When we exhibit greater control over what comes out of our mouths ( as well as what goes in them) we experience better health, have richer relations, and greater trust in ourselves.
I know when I feel content within, I have a greater sense of calmness and less anxiousness over whether or not I will get an urge and not be able to control it. Mindfulness helps me cultivate that contentment and self-discipline—not through exclusion and restraint, but by focusing on creating the change I want to see.
Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford professor who teaches a class called “The Science of Willpower”, talks about three different aspects of willpower in her book, in her book Maximum Willpower. She breaks willpower down as follows:
- I WON’T power – the ability to resist temptations.
- I WILL power – the ability to do what needs to be done.
- I WANT power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires.
Essentially, each of these types of willpower relate to and are governed by different parts of the brain: the left prefrontal cortex is associated with the I WILL power; the right prefrontal cortex is associated with the I WON’T power; and the middle lower region of the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the I WANT willpower.
It’s no wonder willpower—as we commonly refer to it—is so complicated, elusive, and difficult at times!
Good news, according to McGonigal: real, actionable willpower is about harnessing these three powers of WILL, WON’T, and WANT in order to achieve your goals. Mindfulness meditation can help you do that by calming the mind, slowing reactivity, and opening up the unique insights of our seemingly disparate wills to forge a union.
McGonigal offers a simple meditation technique to get the blood rushing to your prefrontal cortex, to help develop your “willpower muscle”:
1. Sit still and stay put. You can either sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on the floor with your legs crossed; you should be reasonably comfortable. The impulse to move will (most likely_) arise pretty quickly; try to resist them. Ignore the little urges to change your position or scratch your nose or sniffle needlessly. Being still is an important part of meditation, as it teaches you not to follow you impulses control.
2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your the movement of your breath in and out. Silently say to yourself “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. If you notice your mind wandering off, gently bring your awareness back to the breath. This focus activates the prefrontal cortex to quiet the stress centers of your brain.
3. Notice what it feels like to breathe. Notice how your mind wanders—without judgement. After a few minutes, see if you can drop the words “inhale” and “exhale”, and focus solely on the actual sensation of breathing. Know that your mind might wander more without these anchoring attention words, but as soon as you notice you are thinking about something else, just bring your attention back to breathing. Start over from the beginning, saying “inhale” and “exhale” for few breaths if you find it hard to refocus. In this way, you’re training both self-awareness and self-control.
Want to learn more? Get in touch for a personalized approach to strengthening willpower.