Self-Control: The Ultimate Exercise of Freedom

I’ll admit I’ve come to significantly edit my environment over the years. I work largely from home and have my favorite haunts and destinations as well as a close circle of like-minded family and friends. The nature of my work automatically puts me in touch mostly with those who have similar goals and lifestyles. Even my media is customized (easy to do these days with the way we’re tracked by bots). I never watch television or listen to radio that has commercials. Without thinking too much about it, my environment is for the most part very Primally oriented.

When I’m out and about, however, it can feel a little like culture shock. A few weeks ago I went to a movie and made the mistake (actually accident) of getting there early. I was one of the few without tubs, packages and cups in hand, and I watched as ads for soda and candy flashed again and again. In my boredom, I noticed a curious pattern. Every time there was a shot of cola flowing, everyone with a soda drank. Every time there was an image of a person eating, everyone with food ate. The themes of joy, celebration and indulgence were all the same, and one soda ad actually stated, “Choose happiness.” It’s speculation, of course, but I wonder how many of this people felt emotional affirmation around their “choice” to buy all the junk food they did.

In a culture that worships (and markets to) impulse, self-control has all the appeal of soggy blanket. We see discipline as an imposition and chafe against the curtailment of our will. Cultural messaging and social belonging often hinge on following blind custom or our most unhealthy momentary inclinations. We exercise our autonomy or “choice” through (often market influenced) poor decisions. Freedom is conflated with whim. Any attempt to rein in stupidity is more than just the voice of a killjoy but an act of aggression. We’ve become such a precious, entitled bunch that the mere suggestion we temper our instinctive response feels like an insult. Where does that leave our health? Look around….

If we think thumbing our noses at self-discipline makes us happier in the long-term – OR short-term – we’re wrong. The higher study subjects rated their self-control, the more satisfied they were with their lives. They were even happier when facing temptation. Likewise, other studies show those with strong self-control enjoy happier close relationships as well as more secure attachments within relationships, better school performance, lower rates of addiction, higher self-esteem and healthier emotional responses. But aren’t those with self-control beset with constant struggle against draws of temptation? The research shows those with ample self-control tend to minimize situations that conflict with their goals (a smart tactic that, researchers suggest, helps even the short-term score for happiness).

Nonetheless, we can’t always live in a Primal bubble – my movie theater experience being case in point. In those instances, however, I think we can acknowledge an unhealthy desire/craving/bout of laziness, even respect it within a thoughtful context – as we reflect on its innate purpose within primal history (e.g. sugar used to equal limited availability, nutrient dense fruit for our ancestors). We can understand it within physiological and neurological explanations. And yet we also see it for what it is – an urge that doesn’t serve our interests – and treat it as such.

It’s not about emotionally bludgeoning ourselves for feeling drawn to the dessert cart at a restaurant or appreciating the warm comfort of our beds when it’s time for our morning workouts. It’s about giving all inner “contributors” their due without identifying with the ones we don’t want running the show. Controlling the self (self-control) isn’t ultimately about controlling a singular self in relation to the outside environment but about managing the inner voices that respond to it.

We can achieve this with some proper detachment: recognizing that something “in me” wants that donut rather than “I” want that donut. Instead of ignoring that vexing part of yourself, you can ask what else might take care of it in the moment. Some of us might require more “care” in that regard, and there’s no judgment on that. It’s all useful input – self-knowledge.

Think of a long car ride with young children. (Those of you who’ve had the distinct pleasure probably already know what I’m talking about here….) You pace the drive with their needs in mind – plenty of stops, well-timed meals and snacks, a longer midday break, the promise of pool time at the hotel, etc.. You provide whatever games, conversation, and other activities you can to keep the young ones busy and relatively happy in the meantime. You respect their needs as passengers with certain limitations, shall we say, but you don’t give up the trip, ask them to navigate or let them drive the car.

Likewise, we can attend to our inclinations and perhaps the genuine needs behind them without giving them dominion over our lives and well-being. You’re tired at 3:00 p.m.? Step away from the vending machine and go walk outside for ten minutes in the bright sunlight. If you work from home, take a power nap.

Again, it’s all about learning to identify who we want leading the charge – our thoughts or the bigger awareness of our thoughts. Call it whatever you want, but we all have it. Maturity – and self-control – can be described as the gradual development of a thoughtful, effective filing system for inputs and impulses that organizes itself around healthy priorities. We first have to know that someone/something in us can actually do that filing…. A lot of people never quite get to that point, choosing to (in many areas at least) fly by the next urge that arises, flinging it eventually into a massive pile that never lends order or priority to how they run their days – or lives.

Likewise, self-control isn’t just about what we give up, what we say no to, what we stay away from – in short, what we avoid. Not to be overly simplistic (I’ll admit I usually hate it when people indulge in these word games), but “avoid” breaks down into “a void.” It’s what we say yes to, what fills the space. If we focus our days on what we can’t have, we’re still giving it power over us. We’re still mentally obsessing about the donut even if we never eat it. At any given moment, we can get perspective by asking what we’re psychologically orbiting around.

What’s much easier is focusing on what we want to see happen – what we wish to prioritize. We can either live in response to our environments or live with direction toward our greater visions. I’ve said before, true discipline isn’t about self-restraint but self-possession.

In this way, self-control opens the door to intentional living. Our goals are next to impossible without self-control. The fact is, self-control allows the fruition of our intent by giving it space (that “void”), which would otherwise be subsumed by momentary whim and distraction.

At it’s best, self-control doesn’t revolve around deprivation, denial or chastising but clarity, intention, and attunement. We don’t disown elements of ourselves but get clear about what role we want them to have in our decision-making. We don’t punish ourselves or take pride in how little we can force ourselves to live with. We create an over-arching vision for our lives and make choices that take care of our needs in ways that also serve that plan.

In that regard, self-control is the ultimate exercise of freedom – a freedom that comes from self-determination of one’s life unbound from both cultural norms and lesser impulses. What we call control is, in fact, the alignment and actualizing of our higher will.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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85 thoughts on “Self-Control: The Ultimate Exercise of Freedom”

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  1. This reminds me of one of my favorite debates we have in my gen psych class. Having an internal vs external locus of control. I learned early on I couldn’t date/be friends with people who had an external locus (everything that ever happened TO them was someone/something elses fault.) My parents raised me that I have the power to do anything I want (if I want it bad enough.) If I’m in a shitty job, my choice. If I’m in a horrible marriage, my choice. If I’m overweight and binge drinking (as I was) my choice. Thankfully I woke up one day and decided to make the changes needed to get healthy.

    1. Yeah, except, if it wasn’t for a whole bunch of people – who chose not to be a teacher at a government school or a soldier – having a particular “choice” made for them, then the people who did choose to become those two things wouldn’t necessarily have the same success with them that they do.

      But go ahead: pat yourself on the back and think that you just made better choices, and that’s why your lifestyle is what it is, but the truth is that without the government forcing people to ignore their choice not to pay taxes, most or all of what you and your husband have “accomplished” wouldn’t have happened (because if it was really worthwhile, well, you wouldn’t need the government to underwrite it. You’d just… attract people).

  2. It’s very Primal to jump to fill our immediate perceived needs. It’s evolved to be able to suppress that urge knowing the long term results will be more meaningful. The marketing folks definitely know that.

  3. This is a great and timely article. I have had these conversations with people online where basically I’m accused of fat-shaming for suggesting self-control. They don’t realize that the changes they are railing against will bring so much more to their lives. When I exhibit self control in any area of my life, it just gets better.

    1. It’s a delicate situation. I know personally my mother discussing any kind of diet with me is off-limits because of the emotional baggage I have with her, so who knows what kinds of triggers you are hitting when you have these online discussions with others. There’s a lot of societal shame in being fat, and there is no shortage of critics. Just hope that they find what works for them.

      1. All the more reason to allow market place insurance prices that takes into account self controllable health factors, such as diet, exercise, smoking habits, etc. Life insurance does this already. More bad self choices means a higher price, skinnier wallet. The more good self choices, fatter wallet. I could be fat shamed into having a fatter wallet.

        1. Not so sure about that, Zach. Insurance companies are in the business of making money. Unless actuarial statistics show conclusively that eating saturated fat causes more claims to be paid out, there would be no reason to charge people more premium for doing so. For health insurance, at least, the monthly premium is one of the main competitive advantages insurance companies can have over each other. Not charging extra for something not proven to lead to more claims paid is good business.

      2. It’s not even that we were discussing diet. It was a debate in which the OP stated that their ankles were swollen from gaining too much weight during pregnancy. I replied that I had gained too much weight from pregnancy also. That I had let emotional eating get the better of me and I had gained about 25 lbs more than necessary. I stated what the healthy limits are for weight gain recommend by the Institutes of Medicine. That there are serious consequences for gaining too much weight. This was called fat shamiing. I was just stating scientific facts. The debaters then said the doctors don’t even state those guidelines anymore. Why not? Because people freak out when their doctors suggest going on a diet. They don’t want to take responsibility for it. They want to keep their blinders on that the obesity is somehow beyond their control.
        Doctors aren’t doing their job anymore because of the attitude that Mark states. That there can;t even be valid criticism anymore.

        My situation is that my family is all obese. I am not. Why? Because I choose not to eat crap and I move my ass. They says it’s because they don’t have money. I point out the two or 3 sports drinks and junk food they buy daily for their kids (all grossly obese). I also point out the overly large portions of mexican food with margaritas they seem to have money for almost every week. I have offered to show them how to shop primally, they refuse.They would rather spout “fat acceptance” nonsense than change. That’s the truth of it.

    2. True, lack of self-control plays a big role in obesity, but obesity isn’t stupidity. Most fat people probably DO realize they could improve their lives, and some even know where to find help and how to go about it. That they don’t is complicated.

      There are multiple factors going on that drives obesity. They can include health issues; lack of nutritional knowledge; lack of desire stemming from low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and feelings of unworthiness (for whatever reason); difficult or unhappy lives compounded by too much criticism from all directions; and of course the deeply ingrained feeling that weight loss, for them, is a total impossibility.

      On top of all this, there’s often a distinct aversion and backlash toward being preached to by well-meaning people who think they have all the answers. Trust me, nobody has all the answers when it comes to someone else’s problems. Most of us can’t even sort out all of our own problems.

      It really boils down to the fact that we can’t live someone else’s life for them, and we probably shouldn’t even try. Often even the most gentle encouragement isn’t appreciated when the issue is such a touchy one. Everyone has to make their own way in this world, even if they’re not going about it in a manner that suits the rest of us.

      1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I think Mark’s post is more about people who have found their way, or are at least on their way there.

        I always hated when people talk about a lack of self control being the driving cause behind weight problems, regardless of whether those people have dealt with weight issues themselves or not. Weight can be so emotional–I know it used to be for me–and telling people that they don’t have “self control” can be so demoralizing, especially to someone who is following conventional wisdom and thinks they are doing everything right!

        In my opinion, the best way to help (when asked) is to share resources that educate but aren’t necessarily geared toward losing weight. An emphasis on health, energy, good food, and self-acceptance can be a good route that has the pleasant side effect of weight loss, but that’s not the focus.

        Anyway, I’m getting off topic here haha, just wanted to let you know I appreciate your perspective on the topic.

      2. Shary standing ovation..excellent response! Should be pinned at the top!

        I became obese from a greedy/lazy lifestyle combined with an awful weight promoting med (Effexor). I was miserable and the comments/reasons for my difficulty in losing are so beautifully explained in your second paragraph – exactly how I felt. I felt resigned to the fact that I was was incapable of losing weight. I couldn’t imagine a life without my crap food, I lived to eat to feel better.

        I managed to lose 100lbs and have kept it off for many years with a complete lifestyle change, elimination of problem foods and yes eating less. Even to this very day if I lost control I could probably regain it all..some head hunger and willpower is involved. Everywhere I revolves around food. It’s hard

        1. So Stacie, you’re saying you developed self-control. A muscle that needs exercised like the rest of them. Its not preaching if somebody asks you about it. My family’s children are grossly obese and asked me to help them. Their parents can’t face it so they have to call me every name in the book for proving that their kids can lose weight if given the proper food.

          So I don’t feel sorry for people’s emotional triggers, especially when they are making their children fat and miserable. To me it’s obliviousness to the point of abuse.

          That’s why I don’t really hang out with them anymore, my family. They take no responsibility for themselves in any way. After a while, if you have some self-control, you don’t want to hang out with people who won’t make any changes. You’re just not the same people. It’s almost painful to do so.

        2. Jez, my congratulations to you! Losing 100 pounds and keeping it off is indeed an achievement to be proud of. Your comment will no doubt help others to see that it can be done.

        3. Julie, it is painful to cut off contact with family who’s values are radically different from your own AND who relentlessly criticize you for it, but that separation is also, unfortunately, sometimes necessary. My decision to cut off contact with my family (not for diet/lifestyle reasons) was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and also one of the healthiest.

  4. very eloquent and well written. i’m not 100% sure self-control actually exists but a beautifully written piece nonetheless.

    1. I wasn’t going to reply to this comment, but I couldn’t help myself!

      1. I’m guessing he went to see “1,000,000 Years BC” with Racquel Welch.
        A classic if there ever was one. Her diving into a creek and coming up with a fish in her mouth was awesome…

  5. This is why I have ad blockers and pop-up killers installed on my computer, and why my own blog (when I had it) was a strict NO AD zone, in spite of some pretty big money being waved at me. I like to think I’m marketing-proof, and wanted my readers to learn to become so.

  6. This was the hardest part for me to break. I used to go to the movies every single week until I realized that I wasn’t going for the thrilling Hollywood blockbuster or people of various ages ruining my $12 experience with cellphones and rude behavior, but for the nachos. I didn’t even know I was doing it until the day they didn’t have nachos available and I was like, “Huh?” I didn’t know what to do. I can’t enjoy the movie without my starch and sugar! Now I go less frequently and maybe once every other month I’ll “treat” myself to nachos if I feel like it, but I’m happy to say the behavior is broken. It’s amazing what you learn on this journey!

  7. I just had a conversation about this with my 12 year old. He’s wishing he had a phone, well, apparently he is “the only kid in the whole universe” (you parents know what I’m talking about) that does NOT have a phone. I told him that I wanted him to have one but his actions show he is not yet responsible to get one.

    What followed was a conversation about what responsible people do, why they do what they do in a responsible manner, what they do to motivate themselves. He wants to use a “goal” of getting a phone, however, that’s not how it works with self motivation (self control). We motivate ourselves to do things that we want done whether we want to do them or not, it’s that we want to have them done so that’s the reward. My sister had a moment of clarity regarding mornings, she is NOT a morning person but must get out of bed at some point. She realized what she didn’t like was not the getting up but the waking up, the more she pressed snooze the more she had to wake up. Her fix was to just get out of bed and stop “waking up 5 more times” and prolonging the agony. My son got that illustration, has been getting up on his own since then.

    Some one brought in “Voo Doo” donuts to work, if you live in Portland OR, they are allegedly wonderful. My workmate went and got one, I however, smelled them. That was enough for me. It’s been YEARS since I ate one and as soon as I smelled them the memory of icky sweet, greasy, etc came back. The memory of the greasy film on the roof of my mouth was enough to send me back to my office happy, with NO desire for even the smallest bite.

    If we self motivate and have self control we get to enjoy more of our lives because we are not constantly fighting urges but mindfully directing our lives to end up where we want to be. I want a pain free body, clear thinking and the ability to do what I want/need. As a result I will do what I need to get there. Yes, there will be an occasional organic corn chip or bowl of ice cream here and there, just not enough to cause pain for more than a short time.

    1. About doughnuts. I once heard a comedian joke about how you wouldn’t bring in a bottle of booze when a lot of your co-workers are alcoholics so why bring in food (carbs & sugar) when they can’t resist. It got me thinking.

      1. In my past experience at the office-most people won’t even show up to a meeting or gathering if there isn’t’ sufficient swag and swill.

      2. I’m just waiting for junk food to be banned in common areas of the workplace. I bet it’s coming and will be welcomed just like the smoke free environment was.

    2. Another point of view regarding the phone… IMO, in this day and age, all kids should have a cell phone if they’re old enough to be out on their own without constant supervision, both for convenience and in case of an emergency. That doesn’t mean it has to be a smart phone. You might consider giving your son an older-technology phone to be used solely for the purpose of making and receiving calls. New and used “dumb” phones (or burner phones) are readily available on Amazon, Ebay, etc., usually under $25. Demonstration of greater personal responsibility could eventually lead to the kind of phone he probably prefers to have.

      1. I agree Shary, “stupid phones” are better for kids than the “smart” however, he doesn’t share my opinion. I know, a surprise to all people with kids.

        He’s not left alone much so really doesn’t need a phone. If we leave him home for a few minutes there is the land line. He’s in a bit of hot water presently due to normal kid behavior that proves that he is NO WHERE near getting a phone. No big rush, he’s a kid and will survive without a phone somehow, no matter what he tells you.

  8. Great article. My husband loves going to movies and I used to automatically get a diet soda and candy (and steal some of his popcorn). Wouldn’t matter if we’d just been out to dinner, it was just “what you do” at the movies.
    Enter my primal/paleo transition over the last few years. I have to admit that I get a real bump in confidence as I sit in the theater now, without any snacks. I try to focus on it and remember how great I feel when I exercise my self-control. There are still occasions when I do indulge, but I do it on purpose rather than at the prompting of an ad or just because it’s “what you do” at the theater (or anywhere else).
    One of the best moments of the last few years was when it hit me: switching my thinking from “I can’t have that” to “I choose not to have that”/”I don’t eat/do that”. I think that watching my words helps me to acknowledge my self-control, my goals and live intentionally.

    1. My parents and my siblings come from Britain and think that it is “weird” that Americans cannot watch a movie without popcorn,candy,soda or lately pizza,coffee,burgers,fries.

      How it relates to this articles is that they are not really denying themselves or practising great self-control they simply do not want them even if there is a great smell (cinnabun uses this).

      1. One reason I love Asian/eastern culture are their snack alternatives. Fried chicken feet instead of popcorn? Yes. Squid flavored “chips”, sign me up.

  9. This was a tough column for me to read. People can be so cruel to overweight folks, which usually comes with some nasty comments surrounding willpower and self control. Mark frames the post from positivity but that 16-year-old self is still hearing the cruel chants from the “cool” kids who didn’t have the weight problem. Even though I ate the EXACT same diet as my family, I was always the one with the weight problem. I didn’t realize until I found the primal way of eating that I could be thin (which my family still berates me for because they don’t think eating meat and fat is healthy). Just because we change our diet doesn’t mean we’ve lost years of built-up sensitivity to certain words, self control being one of the biggest. I’ll try to re-read with an open mind.

    1. I think re-framing those “trigger words” in our minds is helpful. As a Christian, there is a similar concept in that we are free *from* legalism and bad actions and free *to* do what God commands us to do – which ultimately is better for us. It is hard to get away from the negative connotations of certain words, but again, there is value in separating the desire and action from our inner being. We “have” urges, and if we have something, we can keep it or get rid of it. It is not an inherent part of us.

    2. My junior high self hears ya.
      Healing your emotions takes awhile too.
      You’re worth what YOU think of yourself, not what other people tell you about yourself. Sure, their affirmation is nice, but at the end of the day, they don’t have to be you. YOU have that distinct pleasure.

  10. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I am *still* haunted by an article I read in the New York Times about the impossibility of maintaining meaningful weight loss. (I’m doing it, anyway.) The author interviewed a number of people from the National Weight Loss Registry — people who HAD successfully maintained significant weight loss — and she managed to make them sound as if they had sacrificed all pleasure and spontaneity in their lives to hours of grueling exercise and micromanaged diets. I look at my long walks, dance sessions, and gorgeous meals and think, what is the matter with this picture??!

    1. +1! I (smugly, but to myself, of course) think I get a lot more fun and pleasure out of life than my sugar/junk food-face-stuffing, inside-exercising cohorts for sure!

    2. I’m like you Martha, those comments of 95% or whatever it is of regaining weight loss is depressing but I’ve managed to do it. I do exercise at least hour per day as often as I can but I don’t eat breakfast or count calories as the people on the NWLR do. I am mainly and omnivore with some full fat dairy but I have to stay LC due to my blood sugar and I have completely eliminated sugar/starch etc. I don’t feel deprived in any way.

  11. Great article…I have had these feelings of….it is like looking in from the outside when everyone else is enjoying their choice of food while I am not particularly hungry or it is not the kind of food I eat so I abstain. Though I am aware, I try not to notice these things as I don’t want to come across as judgemental which has never been an intention of mine. I am so grateful that my path has lead me here. That being said everyone has their own path to follow and the best we can hope for is that we all move toward love, kindness, acceptance and good health for ourselves and each other.

  12. Very helpful and nicely timed right before Easter. Always a been a triggering day for me.

  13. Very helpful and nicely timed right before Easter. Always been a triggering day for me.

  14. Wise words! This really synthesises a lot of Western / buddhist psychology: we only have self-control when we know our limits, and when we act with intention.

  15. Great topic! Much “food for thought”, everyone. 🙂

  16. “true discipline isn’t about self-restraint but self-possession.”

    I’m going to owe you royalties for how often I use this quote. Great article. thanks.

  17. Part of buying food at a movie theater is habit, going to the theater is the trigger for wanting the food. After college, when I could afford to buy movie theater food, I realized I didn’t want to start that habit. That was over 20 years ago. I’ve never purchased movie food for my kids either because as any parent knows, once you do something once, they’ll bug you about it incessantly in the future. I’ve never bought food/candy from a grocery checkout for that same reason. I’m not a food nazi with my kids, but I try to teach that there’s a time and a place for sweets, like celebrations. Movies are fun, but not a celebration.

    1. Ah yes, that trigger. When you walk into the theater lobby, you get hit with that butter/popcorn aroma that goes straight to the lizard part of your brain and turns the best of us into popcorn-crazed, butter-seeking zombies. And it’s not even real butter! I don’t know what chemicals they put in that golden liquid stuff, but it is like crack cocaine. It should be a controlled substance under the ATF. And, of course, the popcorn bucket also needs to be showered with about 1/4 cup of salt! 🙂

  18. Could not agree more with this article about many aspects of life. BUT with food I feel eating Primaly is kind of the ultimate in not needing any control. At least this has been my experience after, coming up on two years now.

    BEFORE needed control every day. I was so dang hungry ALL THE TIME on the SAD diet it took all my effort to stop at say 3,800 calories a day instead of 4,000. I could always eat more.

    AFTER (and this is very important) a transition period, I don’t need any control on this at all. I eat the most glorious, decadent food, daily. I eat as much as I want, I skip breakfast some days, some days not. I get exercise, but it is natural and organic, no gym, body weight and movement mostly. I just love how real Primal food makes me feel, and it tastes great. What the heck control is needed?

    I eat dark chocolate daily. I recently bought a Taza sampler. They have some 50 and 60% chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, good chocolate. But I eat 85% now so the 60% tasted like pure sugar to me. I had about 1/10th of a peanut butter cup a few months ago. It tasted like this bizarre sweet bomb, thingie disgusting thing. And they used to literally define Easter and Halloween for me.

    So I guess my brain/taste buds/complex has been rewired. Not just chocolate. Fruit I used to eat now when I eat it, I am like dang this is sugar berserker fruit. I can’t believe I didn’t notice how sweet it was before. Probably because I actually did not experience it as being as sweet as I do now.

    Relating this to the overall article though, peoples’ brains are just messed up not only on sugar but the processed food. I mean REALLY messed up. I venture to say most people that make a successful, life long transition to Primal will go my goodness, wow, that was some messed up mental way of being before. Even if it doesn’t feel that way while you are living it.

    I have a lot more compassion for people in my life now that are not Primal. For their lack of self-control, everything. The SAD doesn’t just poison bodies, it poisons minds as well. Including self-control. The self-control I kept evolving into from eating Primaly is now accessible to me for other parts of my life. Also much more in the now. My brain at least works really, really well on high natural fats, low carb.

  19. Mark, I agree with you 100%! Especially what you said about the distinction between self-restraint and self-possession. That’s a great way to put it.

    I wrote a very similar blog post a few months ago about commitment and how it’s often misunderstood as being stifling: As you say, it’s not about restriction at all! It’s just about tuning into your true intention and pointing yourself in the right direction. Thank you for sharing.

  20. I think that going primal was a lot of self control initially, but as you continue to adapt to the change it is no longer about self-control, and more about just living normally. I recently read a book for a business class called “Switch” by the Heath Brothers and they were able to identify that in each person there is a Rider (logical) and an elephant (emotional) and they were able to explain why people have a hard time with self control and self restraint in many areas of their lives including with diets or with eliminating things from their life. I definitely recommend the book for anyone not just to understand self control, but maybe to understand how our feelings are a larger part of being able to control ourselves than we really thought. I think this was a great blog and had a lot of insight! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Danae, I like the Rider and Elephant metaphor! I have a big elephant, and am occasionally an unattentive rider. That seems to sum it up well. I have occasionally fallen right off the wagon, and let it run me over. But when I do this, I make sure to pay close attention to the experience, and get my fill of it for a while. And I don’t ever want to have an ABSOLUTE rule that I cannot indulge my sweet tooth ever again even for an instant! I practice self control most of the time, but I do love to let myself break my rules once in a great while… I think it is a healthy thing – if it is not overdone.

  21. Great post! I see the mindful use of self control as resisting the spiritual poverty of mass consumerism. In the movies there is little that qualifies as food yet people go to gobble it up. Does anybody ever ask what that thick yellow grease that is ladled onto popcorn is made of? It’s not only the food but the trash. Every overpriced indulgence has plastic and cardboard packaging strewn about as if the whole place is a trash can with a sticky floor. And lately it seems that moviegoers compete to see how they can out-rude each other. In my own house I walk around picking up half empty plastic water bottles. I never buy plastic(BPA) bottles. I choose to refill glass bottles with tap water purified by reverse osmosis. Convenience can be so wasteful and perhaps unhealthy too. Whenever I reflect on the spiritual side of the primal movement, I think of John the Baptist. He chose to go on walk-about and eat nothing but locusts and wild honey. Perhaps our Creator brought us locusts as a superior food source to the grains of agriculture.

  22. There’s a spiritual quality to this post, Mark. True freedom is the ability to be able to ignore base impulses in search of a higher purpose or cause. It was very interesting to read this from my own Catholic perspective.

    1. And the opposite spectrum of that would be that true slavery is: going with all of your base impulses. Many folks that think they are free are truly are really just slaves…anyway, great point John.

    2. This article through a Catholic lens is precisely how I viewed it as well. This summary was very well written.

      We are all slaves to something, but it is in choosing our slavery rather than being subject to our impulses that we find the greatest freedom. Choosing to deny ourselves may seem like a detriment, but its effects have the ability to work great good in our own lives and those around us.

      We are all slaves to food to some greater or lesser extent. We need it to survive; however, in turning our will toward the choice of how and when we should eat for the greatest good of ourselves and others we become masters of our dependence. If we decide we will fast though our body says to eat, or we choose grilled vegetables, when a side of warm bread is offered, we hone our skills of self-mastery, grow in temperance, and ultimately find greater contentment and joy.

  23. This article aligns very nicely with my approach as a psychotherapist. I practice something called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is all about developing willingness to experience discomfort in service of living a valued life. Our instincts tell us to reflexively move away from any discomfort, so the coping strategies we develop that become habits tend to involve experiential avoidance. The problem is that, unless there is a genuine threat we are protecting ourselves from, this tends to backfire on us.

    The work, then, involves building greater self-awareness so as to be able to make conscious choices to transcend instinct and willingly experience the urge to eat junk food or the sensations of breathing hard during exercise or any number of other challenging private experiences.

    I loved the analogy of driving the car with kids as passengers. I use a very similar one with my clients, which involves driving a bus that has some cantankerous passengers in the back who raise a ruckus every time you the bus driver attempt to make a turn that keeps you on track with your values/goals. So, can you willingly experience their uproar so that you can stay on course? Can these passengers actually cause you physical harm? Probably not, as they are just thoughts/feelings/urges/sensations.

  24. I watch people live the trance everyday.
    Just like denial, they have to be aware they’re being manipulated first…
    I was having a conversation with a lady in line about how food can affect mood and energy levels and the cashier remarked,” Food can have an effect on the way I feel?”.
    Overlay that lack of awareness on top of all the external input in our everyday lives that steadily grooms us to look outside ourselves for completeness and guidance, and you have to question whether any thought and desire is valid. I constantly have to ask myself, “What’s driving this?”.

    In the absence of the conventional social glue that binds us…I’ve learned to find more pleasure in music, gardening, sight seeing, etc., and I look to make those experiences more meaningful.

    Can’t really add much else as Mark has covered it very well.

  25. Overall I think this is an excellent article, which makes some excellent points however I think one point was amiss and not up to Mark’s normal high standards of unbiased scientific analysis. The statement “other studies show those with strong self-control enjoy happier close relationships as well as more secure attachments within relationships, better school performance, lower rates of addiction, higher self-esteem and healthier emotional responses.”, whilst not actually stating causality implies it. This is I suspect only a correlation not causation. For example, someone who grows up with a neglectful alcoholic parent would have difficulty with relationships particularly secure attachment, they are likely to either be an extremely high achiever or the opposite (no middle ground). For those who are a high achiever they may have extreme self control in some areas but little in others. However, the drive to achieve comes from a place of low self esteem by contrast with those high achievers who grew up in a stable loving home. Having learned poor coping habits from their parent they may themselves have an addiction or alternatively turn to food as a coping mechanism and as such never learn to manage their emotional response in a healthy way. Self control doesn’t confer the other traits mentioned, a healthy psyche, with healthy self esteem and healthy learned coping mechanisms confer the other traits including self control. It is addressing the underlying emotional harm that will solve the given problems not gaining greater self control. The situation doesn’t necessarily need to be so extreme, the persons parent may have learned from their parents etc to use food as a coping mechanism instead of more helpful mechanisms, eg giving a child some sweets instead of more appropriately meeting their emotional needs (that can be as a reward or as a comfort). In such a situation trying to improve self control to improve the other problems is likely to result in failure, more guilt, lower self esteem, and more use of those unhealthy coping mechanisms (can we say yo-yo dieting). That’s not to say that everyone who lacks self control had a difficult childhood but it is a reason why for some the topic of “self control” particularly in relation to food can be very triggering, and it’s a reason why we shouldn’t simply judge those who don’t exhibit self control as lazy, incapable etc (not that I’m implying that anyone here would but unfortunately a significant proportion of society does). The concept of self control is a minefield, one which I do feel this article navigated tactfully.

    1. It’s not a given that a difficult childhood means a person cannot have self-control. While what you say may be a common situation, it’s by no means inevitable. I grew up in a horrible household, but have learned a lot over the years. It’s possible for all people to learn and develop self-control. If we could not learn and develop there would be no point Mark writing about it.

      Beautiful prose, Mark, love it.

      1. I agree, I was in no way suggesting it was inevitable just that Mark was using the study in a bias way to support his argument, which isn’t usually his style and why I respect what he has to say so much. I was simply giving an example that made my point that the study was most likely correlation not causation. There are probably a 100 other ways in which a person’s circumstances could undermine their self control and their self esteem, secure attachment, relationships etc simultaneously. I was also making the point that developing self control does not improve the other issues such as self esteem, better relationships etc. The work to address the underlying issues must be started or developing self control in isolation can be more harmful than helpful, think eating disorders. I too grew up in an alcoholic home. I was one of those stupidly high achieving daughters of an alcoholic. Anyone looking at me would believe I had excellent self control, I achieve huge success academically, I was very active etc. However, in reality I was using my academic work/career/exercise in the same way my parents used alcohol. That is totally unsustainable and I eventually turned to food. Whilst I initially demonstrated extremely high self control I most certainly didn’t have good self esteem, any ability to form a strong secure relationship etc. I have had to work very hard to address the underlying issues/hurt to improve my sense of self worth etc in doing so I have regained self control but in a healthy balanced manner.

        1. I’m sorry that you have had a rough life Sian. I’m not a psychologist, so couldn’t speak to a comprehensive knowledge of the science. I know I’ve developed more self-control as I’ve dealt with issues from my childhood. And with it, better relationships etc.

        2. HB, I’m still here and still learning which is always a good thing. You stated that you worked on the underlying issues and as a result developed self control AND better relationships etc. Which is in my experince the way it always happens, regardless of the underlying cause that undermines self esteeme, confidence, self control, secure attachments etc. You didn’t work on the self control and as a result develop better relationships/resolve your past issues etc. Which is exactly the point I was making, the relationship between these things is correlation not causation as was implied in the article. My statement was less about the psychology of self control and more about the bias use of science to support an argument. Mark would be the first to point out the flaws in a study where the claim was that those who eat more wholegrains are healthier. Again whilst this is exactly what the science shows it is correlation not causation and as most on this site would agree it is not the eating of whole grains that make these people healthier it is that those who are healthier are more likely to eat wholegrains because they are told its healthier etc. This is exactly the same sort of bias but because it didn’t support his argument in this instance he didn’t make this clear. As I said earlier this isn’t Marks usual style, he usually states the science as is and makes potential bias clear.

  26. I love this post. Recently, with shifting to a primal lifestyle among other things, the thought that comes to my mind is that we people are agents to act rather than to be acted upon.

    Self-mastery IS ultimate freedom – freedom FROM addiction, advertisers, etc. It isn’t an easy quest, but it is so valuable!

  27. Sci-Fi author, Frank Herbert, had an excellent quote that sums up the freedom found in self-control: “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.”

  28. Amen. The movie theater is a weird place for me anymore.. it’s like I’m watching aliens exist in a different dimension of reality separate from ours. It’s not to say that I’m better, but it’s an undeniable feeling.

    Hope to get you back on the podcast soon to talk more about looking at society in this way.. it’s something that everyone has on their mind and no one talks about.

  29. Self-control can be trained, just like a muscle. Check out the self-regulation literature (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). It’s a limited resource that takes time to develop. You overuse it, and the resource depletes. The more healthy habits you make, the more automatic the process becomes, and the less self-control you have to exert. Healthy habits then become like self-control muscle memory!

  30. I have been following a primal lifestyle – and diet – for close to a year now. But, after many years of eating, well, EVERYTHING, I still have clear memories of the great pleasures of eating the giant gourmet doughnuts sold at Mrs. Murphy’s (Southwick, MA), or ice cream at The Scoop (Granville, MA), the incredible pleasure of an Edie’s strawberry fruit bar, a Ritter’s chocolate bar studded with whole hazelnuts, a cinnamon & walnut coffee cake, etc., etc. Maybe just possibly there is more to this than a physical craving for sugar???
    In short, I don’t buy it that following a good primal diet will rid anyone of their cravings. It has not gotten rid of mine. I DO find that I can build a habit of eating healthily. And I can get into the habit of following rules of behavior that I have put in place to keep myself feeling well for the longer term. But the temptation is always there. I quit smoking 30 years ago, but cigarettes still appeal to me… I will never allow myself one drag (maybe after I hit 85?) as I know the next would be so much easier.
    I truly like Danae’s verbal picture of the Rider and the Elephant. That is an excellent analogy!!!

  31. I am not a Borg and I will not be assimilated, no mater how tempting the food commercial is. And if someone thinks that I am like a Salmon who swims against the stream, so bit it.

  32. Growing up I was the party pooper. I had a vision, a credo that I lived by. I was disciplined and focused. I thought my life was fun and full of joy and satisfaction. However, other people would often ask “what I did for fun”. I didn’t really have an answer for that because I never really classified things as fun or not fun. I was concerned about following my passions and achieving goals – which I found supremely satisfying – which is the next step beyond fun, Fun is transient in nature. A roller coaster is “fun” but not as much “fun” as doing something purposeful.

    I think the idea of fun is one of the worst ideas we promote in our society. That and happiness. Both are meaningless words, Satisfaction, clarity of purpose, achieving something important, and being an asset to your community have nothing to do with fun or happiness, but I’d argue you will be both at your happiness and having the deepest level of fun putting those priories as your benchmarks.

  33. Well written and well thought out article as usual. My favorite part:
    “In this way, self-control opens the door to intentional living. Our goals are next to impossible without self-control. The fact is, self-control allows the fruition of our intent by giving it space (that “void”), which would otherwise be subsumed by momentary whim and distraction.”
    A lot of people have the wrong idea about what freedom is. And it is kind of a paradox, when you look at it that way…

  34. thank you mark, i needed to read this, think i’ll read it a couple of times more to let it really sink in.

  35. Mark, I think this is my favorite post you’ve ever written. I am always telling people not to rely on willpower, but this reframe of it as self-actualization is spot on. Bravo.

  36. I really enjoyed this. I have stumbled on this lately, the thought that self control is freedom, the freedom to focus on what you want, when you want, and how you want it. Knowing whats important and having the self control to go after it.

    The hard part is building it 🙂

    Thanks for the article.