Lessons on Self Control from my Son

Having become a Father for the first time and witnessing first hand the needs, demands and behaviours of my new-born son, I was fortunate enough to learn an effective lesson from observing his behaviours.

Babies don’t run on anyone else’s schedule. They require feeding, express their slightest displeasure through intensively loud crying and go to the toilet (minus the toilet) whenever they feel like it. There is no consideration over whether it is the right time or place for them to do so … they are babies of course! Seeing this day in and day out however, allowed me to appreciate how much the opposite is true for us as adults.

By the time we have grown into adults, we are able to control our basic instincts and desires such that we can live in a dignified fashion, no longer subject to the same involuntary bodily expressions of our first years on Earth.

It follows therefore, that control over our bodily functions is a distinguishing feature of maturity, by the time we are adults we have this aspect fully under control. We are often quick to overlook however, the remaining aspect of the transition from childhood to adulthood, emotional control.

Being in control of our emotions is something much easier said than done. By nature man is an emotional creature. We find it only natural to respond first with an emotional reaction before then taking a more logical approach.

As Author James Clear writes:

“The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think. Our first response—the fast, nonconscious portion of the brain—is optimized for feeling and anticipating. Our second response—the slow, conscious portion of the brain—is the part that does the ‘thinking’.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Learning to keep our emotions under control at all times is the pinnacle of maturity. It is the ultimate expression of discipline and indicates that we don’t instinctively act immediately upon everything we may feel. That there is in fact, a filter by which we process events that determines our reaction.

This filter allows us to analyse the situations we face, consult our intuition, knowledge and experience, then make an informed decision on how to react.

Such levels of self control are universally admired and respected, and for good reason. It showcases a high level of patience, intellectual ability, intentional desire to exercise restraint and override instinct and the pursuit of excellence.

I recall being narrated a story by a close family member about a woman on public transport who masterfully handled a situation where passive aggressive comments about what ‘kind’ (being a visible minority meant she knew exactly what was being intended) of person she was were being publicly aimed at her. Instead of reacting angrily or aggressively back (as so many would proudly assert is their right to do today), this lady stripped every poison barb of its stings and parried the blow away and back to its owner in a way that was not rude, unbecoming or undignified.

And by no means is this a weakness, for the way this lady acted had the silent audience enthralled. She did not require anyone’s assistance, nor did it seem she ever felt under any pressure, she simply handled the situation with a dignified restraint that enshrined her respected status regardless of her detractor. Every sharp word she disarmed and deflected with ease, nothing could harm her and all attempts simply increased her in stature. By the end of it all, her detractor was left looking more the fool than she could have ever hoped her target could.

Had this lady acted haughtily in response, no one would have admired her reaction. But responding in a controlled manner where emotions weren’t the primary driver behind her actions meant that she became an example for everyone else to emulate. People naturally admire and are drawn to excellence and high character, and this is only attainable through self control.

In the ever-onward march of life, we will inevitably deal with people and situations we simply don’t agree or feel uncomfortable with. There will be times where our patience is tested and our tolerance will wear thin.

For anyone wishing to rise above his emotions, to do better than what his instinct commands, a higher path exists. This path isn’t easy, far from it. It will be one of the most difficult things we ever undertake, and we may live long lives never fully mastering it. However in an instantaneous world that prioritises speed; the slow, deliberate virtue of emotional restraint is more precious than rubies and rarer than gold. Without it, perhaps we are closes to unrepentant toddlers than we’d like to think.

Thank you my Son, for teaching me a valuable lesson on being a better Father and a better Man.


[1] – James Clear, Atomic Habits

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