Once upon a time, self-mastery/self-control was a highly valued trait for a Christian to have. Unfortunately, what passed for self-mastery was too often little more than repression and denial. Of course, neither repression or denial are held in very high esteem these days (and for good reason!). But the downfall of repression and denial has in turn lead to the virtue of self-mastery being downgraded from a highly sought after virtue to barely an after-thought in the Christian life.
The reason that self-mastery has traditionally been held in such high regard among Christians, is because it is held in high regard by scripture. 2 Peter 1 connects self-control with partaking of God’s divine nature, for example. Self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. 2 Timothy 1:7 lists self-control alongside power and love as the result of God’s spirit. Proverbs 25:28 says that a person without self-control is like a city whose walls have been breached. When Paul was imprisoned by Felix, he taught “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” when asked to preach on faith in Jesus. I could go on, but the point is that even though we’ve rightly tossed out the practice of repression and denial, we ought to cling to and work to develop self-mastery as part of our Christian faith.
So . . . the question becomes how to cultivate self-control once repression and denial are no longer desirable tools. It just so happens that self-control is something I have spent a lot of time helping my children to develop over the years. Unfortunately for me (and everyone’s eardrums), self-control didn’t come naturally to any of my children. In fact, it often felt like trying to teach a fish to walk. At the moment, it’s my middle daughter who is receiving intensive tutoring on the subject. She’s the one, if you recall, would rather miss a meal than compromise on where to sit at dinner and who responds to a light swat on the rear with shrieks of “help, I need immediate medical attention!” So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But progress is being made.
What I do have going for me is 18 years of experience teaching decidedly uninterested, unreasonable and hysterical children the fine art of self-control. And so I figured I would share this week’s lesson with y’all as well. Just in case it might help someone.
The first step I’m teaching Miss-screams-a-lot is to start by simply identifying how she is feeling. Like all of us, this child has a feeling, comes up with reasons to justify that feeling and then believes that those reasons are the cause of her misery. Thus we are treated to a barrage of “she did this and he did that and they’re being mean to me and everyone’s always mean to me and I’m sick of it” several times a day which no amount of reasoning can do anything to stop. We’ve talked about this before – we like to think that we react for perfectly good reasons, but the reality is that we react and then come up with perfectly good reasons to justify it. By starting with the feeling, rather than the provocation, we addressing the actual cause for the lack of self-control.
By starting with the feeling we keep the locus of control where it belongs – with the person who is experiencing a loss of control rather than with everyone around them. You see, many people believe that their loss of self-control is an understandable, if not inevitable, result of the behavior of others. If they didn’t make fun of my swimming, I wouldn’t be standing here screaming like a banshee. (The “adult” version of that is, if my kid showed me proper respect and didn’t backtalk me, I wouldn’t be standing here screaming like a banshee. Just for reference.) If we are in distress and out-of-control because of what someone else did, then we will naturally attempt to exert other-control as a remedy. If we are distressed and out-of-control because of something going on inside of ourselves, then self-control is the answer.
So, we start with, “what are you feeling?” To which the answer might be, “I feel sad/angry/frustrated/hurt/disrespected/confused/scared.” There is no right or wrong answer to how you are feeling. Once we know what we are feeling, the next question becomes, “since I’m feeling like this, what can I do to take care of myself?” For example, this morning my daughter felt that she was being treated unfairly – disrespected – by her sisters. I asked her what she could do to take care of herself while she was feeling that way. “I dunno” was her profound, 7 year old response. So I pointed out that she had already removed herself from the situation. That’s a good way to take care of yourself when you feel like you are being treated unfairly. Although it usually works best when you do it before you’re hysterical. She agreed and decided that she’d try to leave a situation where she felt she was being treated unfairly more quickly next time. I then pointed out that she had gotten a drink of water to help calm herself down. That’s a good way to take care of yourself when you’re upset. By this point, she was starting to smile – it turns out that she knows how to take care of herself better than she had thought. And that’s empowering. Which is crucial because empowered people are self-controlled people. Finally she asked if she could go play a video game – something she rarely gets to do without her sister leaning over her shoulder begging for a turn. I said yes, which of course, her sister will see as terribly unfair – “why does she get to play a video game and not me?” The all-important-fairness-scales were coming back into alignment.
In the grown up world, figuring out how to take care of yourself when you are losing control is often a little more complex. Generally we’ve learned not to freak out over off-handed critiques of our swimming in a kiddie pool skills. But a lot of adults still blame everyone around them for their own feelings and reactions. They want to exert other-control in response to their internal distress and, being more sophisticated than my 7 year old, can be quite clever about coming up with justifications for why they not only can, but should exert other-control to deal with their own internal reactions. Now it may well be that someone else is in fact doing something which needs to be addressed. But that’s an entirely separate problem from losing control over one’s self. If you haven’t mastered yourself, you may be able to abuse and intimidate someone else into changing their behavior. But they won’t respect you. And neither will anyone else who sees you behaving that way. And the day may well come where the levels of abuse and intimidation you are willing to engage in aren’t enough to bring about the desired result. At which point, it will become clear that all of the power really resides with the other person – and you are the one who gave it to them. It’s much better to suck it up and deal with your own lack of self-control in the first place. Besides, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but no where does the bible praise other-control. Not even for parents. Rather for Christians, the goal is always self-control.
So let’s go back to the original question: “what do I feel?” With my kids, I go straight from this to “how can I take care of myself?” As an adult, I first ask, “what IN ME is causing me to feel this way?” There’s that old saying that no one can make you feel something without your permission. So why am I giving my permission to feeling this way? The answer can be as innocuous as that I’m tired, hungry or irritable. Or it could be that I’m nursing either a huge inferiority or god complex and take other people’s behaviors personally as a result. It could be that circumstances are heading in a direction which frightens me. Whatever the case is, figuring out the why will lead me to the answer to “how do I take care of myself?” I get a sandwich or get some therapy if need be. Sometimes I can find a solution to my problem. But whatever the particulars are, self-control is gained by focusing on myself and what I can do in any given situation.
So, it’s hardly comprehensive, but there ya have it – the upside down world’s down and dirty guide to developing self-control in the face of provocation. Use it well, y’all!