How to Develop Greater Psychological Self-Control

Psychological self-control goes beyond willpower. In fact, to regulate your emotions, impulses or thoughts, you need strategies and specific guidelines. We take a look at them here.
How to Develop Greater Psychological Self-Control
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Would you like to develop greater psychological self-control? As you probably know, this capacity is essential for your well-being. In fact, it helps you to be more productive at work, achieve that particular goal you have in mind, and even enjoy more enriching social relationships.

Self-control is the ability to manage your impulses, emotions, and behaviors. It’s what differentiates you, as a human being, from other animals. There are many studies that claim that training and promoting this competence has a direct effect on your health. In fact, it concerns how you establish healthier habits in your routines and also how you can better manage stress and anxiety.

However, sometimes, when self-control is mentioned, it’s common to think of concepts such as willpower, motivation, or even suffering. For example, when you have to give up something to achieve something else. Like giving up chocolate to lose weight, for instance.

In reality, this dimension requires the relearning of new ideas and the displacement of some associated myths. Let’s take a closer look.

girl thinking about having greater psychological self-control

Keys to developing greater psychological self-control

Children are often asked to exert more psychological control over their emotions and behaviors when they’re not really ready for it yet. This executive function is orchestrated in the prefrontal cortex. It requires optimal development of the nerve connections in this region and is achieved as adolescence progresses.

At this time, thanks to the neural increase and its progressive connectivity, the individual begins to plan more effectively, reflect, and evaluate alternatives. Above all, they exercise greater control of their impulses. In this way, they’re able to achieve more sophisticated goals and better regulate their behavior.

As a matter of fact, good self-control is so important, research indicates its relevance to improving quality of life. For example, Tilburg University (Netherlands) conducted a study that claims this competence makes it easier for people to experience greater meaning in their lives.

At the end of the day, when you know that you’re in control of your emotions, you direct all your energies to achieve what you set out to do. Furthermore, your self-esteem improves as well as your perception of your environment.

However, how do you achieve it? What can you do to develop greater psychological self-control?

Self-knowledge: what you want and why you’re not achieving it

Lack of impulse control occurs because your emotional brain is in control at all times, displacing your rational mind. In this way, when you act unreflectively or when you do something that deviates from your purposes, you instantly feel angry or ashamed about your behavior.

Obviously, you don’t want this to happen and there are certain actions you can take. For instance, you can train your self-control. However, in order to do this, you need to know yourself. You need to know what you want to achieve and what situations or triggers there are that make you leave your impulses, and not your reason, in control.

You can help yourself with this question and answer scenario:

  • Why do I need more psychological self-control? To pass an exam.
  • What’s happening to stop me from reaching this goal?  I can’t concentrate and get really nervous when I’m studying. I can’t find the time and feel really stressed.

Beyond willpower and motivation: routines

As we mentioned earlier, in order to develop greater psychological self-control, you need more than willpower alone. Motivation doesn’t work miracles either, because you don’t always maintain the same levels of enthusiasm, desire, and optimism when it comes to performing certain tasks or working towards a particular goal.

For example, when you start studying for an exam, you won’t feel motivated every day. In the same way, if you want to lose weight, write a book, or train for a competition, you won’t have willpower all the time. That’s because, at times, you feel tired, have doubts, or simply feel like doing something else.

You might ask what the most important thing to do is in these situations. The answer lies in establishing routines and firmly sticking to them.

Management of hyperarousal: behavioral control techniques

Stress, restlessness, tension… It’s often difficult to possess psychological self-control because, although your mind wants to have its impulses dominated, your body’s physiological activation continues to adhere to the imprint of your emotions. Hence, the butterflies in your stomach, and your jangling nerves that make you lose patience…

In order to manage this hyperarousal, you could consider the following strategies:

  • Meditation techniques such as mindfulness or Jacobson’s muscle relaxation techniques.
  • Similarly, physical exercise or practicing a creative and relaxing activity. These are ways of controlling your impulses, by keeping your body and mind oriented on the same task.
Enlightened mind representing how to have greater psychological self-control

Emotional management techniques

When it comes to developing greater psychological control, you must integrate adequate emotional management techniques. Thanks to them, you’ll be able to make use of a more focused, relaxed, and suitable approach that allows you to have complete control of yourself.

One of these strategies is based on logical emotional reasoning. It involves analyzing your thoughts and passing them through the filter of rationality. For example, if you find yourself saying, “I’d better abandon this goal because I’m only going to fail. I’m worthless”, change your perspective and say, “I’d better try. I’m going to trust in my abilities, give it a try, and see what happens”.

On the other hand, the thought-stopping technique introduced by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s may also be useful. This helps to control impulses, as well as ruminant and negative thinking. It involves detecting those adverse and unfavorable thoughts, stopping them, and then relaxing. Next, you discard useless reasoning for a more practical, logical, and useful kind.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember that many of these resources require time and practice. Indeed, it’s not easy to achieve absolute psychological self-control in a matter of days and weeks. However, changes will come if you put your mind to it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Fujita, K.; Han, H. (2009). Moving Beyond Deliberative Control of Impulses: The Effect of Construal Levels on Evaluative Associations in Self-Control Conflicts. Psychological Science. 20(7): pp. 799 – 804.
  • Koechlin, E.; Ody, C.; Kouneiher, F. (2003). The architecture of cognitive control in the human prefrontal cortex. Science. 302 (5648): pp. 1181 – 1185.
  • Stavrova, O., Pronk, T., & Kokkoris, M. D. (2020). Finding meaning in self-control: The effect of self-control on the perception of meaning in life. Self and Identity19(2), 201–218.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.