How to be in control of your self-discipline without letting it control you.
I have a love-hate relationship to self-discipline.
I love it because it helps me stay focused on my goals and achieve them. Because it has this amazing power to kick me in the butt and onto my yoga mat at 05:00 a.m., or out running when the rain is pouring, or to finish writing this article when I want to be lazy and go outside. Because it reminds me of what’s important and of what I need, and keeps me acting with integrity.
I love self-discipline because it helps me steer clear of what’s bad for me and work towards what’s good.
But, like with any love-affair, things can get out of hand. What started out as a goal-oriented and meaningful regime becomes rigid and goal-obsessed, and suddenly things that used to be enjoyable becomes not so enjoyable anymore.
Like that 2-hour yoga practice at 05:00 a.m., or the run in crappy weather, or the book that has to be read for an exam. The tingling feeling of wanting to work hard for something is replaced by down-right resistance, accompanied by a horrible feeling of guilt if the rules are not followed.
Then you have experienced what happens when the mind has been led by the ego for too long, and desires for the fruits of whatever goal you might have have replaced the fun of actually working towards them.
In fact, you have experienced that self-discipline can be just as destructive as it is constructive if practiced the wrong way, and that self-discipline is an art just like any other.
So how do we do it? How do we use self-discipline skillfully without falling into the trap of letting the ego take control? How do we make use of the unique potential of self-discipline in creating change and making us aware of our awesome abilities?
In search for answers, I came across this great article by Judith Hanson Lasater. She draws upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and her focus on practice and dispassion in regards to self-discipline is what inspired the 4-pointed list below…
4 keys to keeping your self-discipline awesome, healthy and sustainable:
1. Get clear about your intention.
What’s problematic about self-discipline is how it is associated with force. Maybe you have memories from childhood when you were forced to do your homework and your mom called that being “disciplined,” or you had to practice the flute two hours a day when all you wanted to do was play football.
This association makes self-discipline appear as something put upon you by external factors, something that is decided for you that you have to follow. But very few people like to be controlled and naturally, a feeling of resistance will appear.
The trick is to turn it around. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and why it is important to you. Not to your mom or your husband or your coach, but to you. My intention for an early morning yoga practice is to clear my head so that I am not controlled by my crazy thoughts during the day. But it is also to feel light and strong, and have a healthy body.
Any intention is a good intention as long as it is personal and makes you motivated and eager to work for it.
Yup, self-discipline is all about commitment. You have to commit to your intention, or goal, and be willing to work for it with consistency. But, committing to a goal with an expectation or desire to achieve it might not be the best approach. In fact, it could be pretty harmful as things very often don’t turn out the way we think or want them to and we end up getting disappointed.
Or, as emphasized in this article, we fear failing in reaching the goal and thus resent committing in the first place. A mindful approach to commitment (and this is a point made by Lasater) is to be okay with not knowing and with the unexpected. You commit to the actions at hand and trust that a whole-hearted commitment to the process will lead in the right direction.
3. Stay clear of negative thoughts.
“You have to learn to control your thoughts.” This is what Julia Roberts, alias “Groceries,” is told when she tries to mediate in an ashram in India, only to get mad with frustration and anger when she fails (I am a douche, I’ve seen “Eat, Love, Pray” so many times that I am sure I can make a reference to it in any kind of context…).
We all have voices in our heads telling us this and that, and some are nurturing while others are the complete opposite. Learn to identify these voices and how they make you feel. And then discriminate those that are destructive for your self-discipline. Like thoughts of failing, the “have to” voice, or the well-known, “I just can’t do it” voice.
Don’t let these stupid, little voices based on past experiences or an imagined future with no grounding in reality determine what’s real right now. When they appear, exchange them for some good ones. Like “I want to” instead of “have to,” or “How can I make this fun?” instead of, “I can’t do it.” We have the power of choosing our thoughts and that power is pretty awesome!
This is related to #2 as it implies letting go of the desire of gaining something from being self-disciplined. It can sound contradictory, e.g., how can you be self-disciplined and committed to something while be being indifferent to this something, but that’s not the point.
The point is not to be attached to or have expectations of how things will turn out because no matter how hard we try we can never be sure of what will happen. As mentioned earlier, being too result-oriented may lead to fear of failure and disappointment, and might just make us more demotivated rather than inspired.
But just as important is the practice of letting go when things do not go as planned. Okay, so you didn’t run 15 km today, or had writer’s block, or over-slept and missed morning-yoga-practice. It’s not the end of the world. You can pick it all up again tomorrow or the day after.
Practicing self-discipline, mindfully, is not only about self-restraint, dedication and commitment, but also self-acceptance and self-love. Give yourself some slack and accept bad days. Tomorrow is likely to be better, and you have the power to make it awesome!
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Editor: Travis May
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