In my March “To Your Health” column I referred to self-discipline as equal parts self-motivation and self-denial but only had space to talk about the self-motivation part. So, as I said I would, here’s self-denial.
First let’s clarify what I mean and don’t mean by “self-denial.” While I’m fully aware the term has references in just about every major religion, this column isn’t about any religious or spiritual connotation. It’s just a simple day-to-day secular behavioral view which neither includes nor excludes a reader’s belief system. You may call it willpower or self-control, if you prefer. This is about improving ourselves regardless of our belief systems. It’s about what we as humans have in common, not about how our beliefs separate us.
For instance, is seeking pleasure a valid path to a successful life (no matter how you define “successful”)? I’m positing that it’s not. I’m saying we have to deny ourselves some pleasures in order to be successful, happy, healthy and satisfied. It may sound obvious but it’s not automatically obvious. It’s learned behavior a child has to be taught. If not taught by parents they will be taught by peers, teachers, law enforcement or other harsh realities. Anyone reading this has learned this, but I think it’s relevant to put it in perspective. For those of us who try to help well-meaning folks attempting to lose body fat and have repeatedly heard something like: “You’re saying I have to give up my _____? No way. That’s one of the pleasures I really value.” Well, value it all you choose but the path to successful achievement is often straight through obstacles we favor.
I didn’t start with this in mind but because it’s both a relevant and a ubiquitous topic, let’s continue using body fat reduction as our focus. But please tweak some of these strategies to apply to other issues you may be dealing with. How to improve our capacity to deny, sacrifice, control our habits:
Avoid the temptation. It’s much easier to not buy ice cream in the grocery store than to not eat in when it’s conveniently in your freezer. Obvious, huh? But as I said, not automatically obvious. It’s learned behavior. And don’t try “but my kids really love it” either. That’s why they have parents.
Substitute a specific healthy alternative when you feel that familiar impulsive urge — and then be sure to notice how you feel when you find the strength to follow through.
Make yourself accountable to someone or something. If there’s not someone, record what you want to deny and record when you do. Don’t laugh. It works.
Write your intention/goal of what you specifically want to avoid on the top of your grocery list and/or post it in a noticeable place. On your bathroom mirror or your car’s dashboard.
Please don’t resort to that tired old cop-out of “everything in moderation.” While it may apply to some stuff, there are plenty of things that just don’t fit and if you need examples, think about it. Those will require self-control or willpower or self-denial — or whatever you want to call it.
While you’re probably aware of all the above, hopefully this column is helpful as a reminder to some readers. Think of self-denial this way: we don’t have to become control freaks to benefit from taking charge of our wants.