My dad wanted me to be a musician, so he placed me in front of a piano at a very young age. The first part of my childhood was organized around the hours of practice I needed to do every day. In front of my piano, I learned a whole lot more than just music. I learned about hard work, tenacity, perseverance and … self-regulation.
Self-Regulation, together with Forgiveness, Prudence, and Humility, make up the virtue of Temperance in the VIA character strengths paradigm. It allows us to control or regulate our emotions and behaviors. It is strengthened with practice yet fatigued when overused.
Research shows that very few people have Self-Regulation as one of their signature strengths. It’s one of my top strengths, though. Self-Regulation gives me discipline and drive. It allows me to juggle many plans at the same time and deconstruct each of my goals into a series of workable steps, according to a finite timeline.
In my childhood piano-playing days, I couldn’t go play outside with my friends until my practice was complete. When I stopped playing piano and doing ballet—which were my parents’ dreams, not mine—I turned to Air Cadets, a somewhat militarized youth group. Again, the use of Self-Regulation led me to perform well in that context. I used it again during my doctoral program, when I completed my 8000-piece puzzle, and in writing my book Mom on Wheels, which took 10 years to write. I also believe Self-Regulation is what gives me my powerful internal clock—no matter what I do or how I organize myself, even if I actually try to be late, I always arrive early or on time for appointments.
Self-Regulation has been a great ally for me. The anxious-me loves the predictability it provides. I know where I am going and what I need to do, at any point in my day. I can focus on the task at hand, seeing one step at a time versus facing the whole mountain, which would make me doubt my climbing capabilities.
Of course, in all those examples, Self-Regulation was not the only strength I used. We very rarely use just one strength in any given circumstance. Perseverance is also pretty strong in me. When I use both, I am like a dog with a bone—I don’t give up very easily. (Maybe that’s why I often refer to myself as having grit, as Angela Duckworth defines it.) When things don’t go according to plan, self-compassion (Kindness) is a great ally. It gives me the Perspective to adjust the plan and move on, rather than getting stuck in anxiety.
Self-Regulation also helped me to “get up” (or should I say … roll over?) every morning after a car accident rendered me paraplegic. Despite the despair I felt at the time, Self-Regulation, along with Love for my son, got me dressed and into my wheelchair each morning. By then, I had 34 years under my belt of using Self-Regulation on a daily basis, so I was able to activate it almost by autopilot. I could keep the depressed thoughts in check when I was with my son, and I showed myself great Kindness for those difficult emotions when he wasn’t.
Without Self-Regulation, I would be a nervous wreck, yet I know I could use a panoply of other strengths to compensate. I could use my Creativity to think of alternative ways to achieve my goals, using Bravery, Perseverance, Teamwork and Leadership, Honesty and Humility, Hope and Humor.
To me, Self-Regulation is a misunderstood strength. It is not painful to use it. On the contrary, it provides me with great pride, and makes victory—or the celebratory part of a finished project—even more enjoyable when I can look back at all the effort I put into it. Of course, as with everything, it is about having a balance, and not overdoing it.
Here are a few strategies for strengthening your Self-Regulation muscle.
- Practice makes perfect. Daily exercises will increase your capacity for Self-Regulation; if you activate it for a small project every day, you can become more efficient using it in other situations as well.
- Using a signature strength to tow another strength can help us increase its use. For example, Teamwork can help you use Self-Regulation to work on a group project. Curiosity can lead you toward Self-Regulation, because you want to see how it feels to incorporate more of a specific behavior or habit into your days.
- Try using Self-Regulation by identifying a behavior to manage or change. Imagine the most positive outcome, then imagine the most critical obstacle, and plan accordingly.
Join Marjorie and change-management expert Paul Nawrocki on Tuesday, May 24, at 12:00 pm ET for a WBI/JCC webinar on the usefulness of self-regulation in maintaining mental health. Register here.
Marjorie Aunos, PhD, is the 2021 Inspirational Speaker of the Year, author, internationally renowned researcher, psychologist, and adjunct professor at Brock University and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières She is chair of the Parenting and Parents with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Special Interest Group of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IASSIDD). As a clinical psychologist, she developed the first program offering support for families headed by parents with intellectual disabilities in the province of Quebec, Canada. In 2012, at the peak of her career, she sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident when her son was 16 months old. The accident and injury gave her an interesting perspective on parenting. Marjorie believes that focusing on our strengths of character can lead to living a fulfilling life. With her family, she learned to be a solution-finder to make her world more accessible. She has co-authored a book on parenting capacity assessment and authored the upcoming book, Mom on Wheels: The Power of Purpose as a Paraplegic Parent. Learn more at ingeniumbooks.com/marjorie-aunos/