Losing control

Exercising self-control over bad habits can put a strain on other areas of a balanced life

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Much to my mother’s chagrin, I bite my nails.

I always have and I do it all the time. But when I’m stressed, working until the wee hours of the morning or nervous about presenting in front of a class, I find it harder to control.

No matter how much I try to stop, the more stressed I get and the more I find myself doing it.

I also read to relax. It calms me down and takes my mind off any issues in my life. But when I was lent the Shopaholic series, I read them all as quickly as I could and even neglected my schoolwork.

At least my life wasn’t as out-of-control as the title character, who is clearly addicted to shopping.

A vice is distinct from addiction, which is a compulsive behaviour that begins to take over the sufferer’s life. Instead, it’s a habit or practice that has a negative impact on your ability to perform other tasks.

Vices can be harmless habits that become a negative force when done in excess. While habits depend on what initially caused them, it’s hard to call something a vice when it’s being triggered by stress rather than for the pleasure of the activity.

If they weren’t vices, I was unsure why I was unable to stop myself from biting my nails ragged or from procrastinating on schoolwork by reading fun books.

According to Kevin Rounding, a PhD candidate in the Queen’s department of psychology, there are several theories on why people find it hard to control themselves in several areas at a time.

I may find it hard to study hard and stop myself from biting my nails at the same time because of something called “ego depletion.” The theory is that self-control, referred to as the Freudian term “ego” as the part of the self that restricts passions and irrational desires, is a finite resource, Rounding explained.

“It’s been likened to a muscle that tires after you use it ... you go to the gym, you work out your arms, you know, build up biceps ... and then you go to the grocery store and you buy a couple cases of pop and your arms are killing you as you’re walking home with it,” Rounding said.

Another theory posits that, again much like a muscle, if you train yourself to practice self-control in one area then you are better able to control yourself in general.

This training theory, Rounding said, also suggests that exerting self-control over a bad habit, like nail-biting, can help you resist the temptation when you’re stressed and more susceptible to indulge your vices.

Rounding revealed that new research also says that self-control may not be an unlimited resource — there are only a finite number of tasks you can be motivated to do at one time.

“If we were studying for an exam, we have a lot of motivation to get good grades, not so much motivation to worry about how pretty our nails look,” he said.

These theories can explain why it’s hard to control yourself, especially during stressful periods, but there are ways to manage self-control and make it possible to manage your bad habits.

Rounding explained that while it may seem like a vice is interfering with an ability to study, it’s in fact the stressor that is triggering a general habit.

“This is a normal habit for us to bite our nails [but] we may do it more because we’re stressed and we may not be self-aware that we’re doing it,” he said.

Rounding’s research on the subject of self-control focuses on the possibility that by priming people with religion, they were more likely to exert self-control on a task. In doing this, researches would make the test subjects consider religious words.

“One of the ... mechanisms that we think might be responsible for the effect of religion on self-control might be self-awareness ... it might make salient the belief that God watching over us,” he explained.

Basically, when we force ourselves to consider that someone is observing our behaviour we’re more likely to behave in a way that we think is more correct.

“Religion encourages self-monitoring and we’re more aware of our own actions,” he said.

This comes as no surprise to Daniel Freeman, Catholic Christian Outreach staff at Newman House, the Catholic chaplaincy on campus. He said having good role models can help people eliminate bad habits from their lives.

“If you’re with people who are striving to overcome [the] habit of gossip, you’re more likely to put that in check,” he said, “so people that are striving for virtue are more likely to help you strive for virtue.”

Freeman has also seen students overcome bad habits through practicing their religion, especially through confession, a Catholic sacrament that involves confessing sins to a priest.

He said that, for Christians, working for virtue isn’t just about discipline, or exercising your self-control muscle, but requires God’s grace.

For the 40 days before Easter, Catholics go through a period of preparation called Lent, a practice that dates to the early Christian church when converts were baptized at Easter and prepared for their new Christian life by turning towards God.

It’s common practice to give up a habit during Lent, like smoking or eating chocolate.

“Giving up bad things are about trying to root them out of your life altogether ... giving up good things can be a way to grow the discipline you need to give up other bad things,” Freeman said.

“When I drive to work in Lent I turn off the radio in my car ... so I spend the time driving to work actually praying ... it’s an opportunity in my day to be more attentive to God.”

By abstaining from hot chocolate for the duration of Lent, as I’m trying very hard to do, I may be slipping in my self-control in other areas of my life — the state of my nails certainly seems to suggest this.

But by practicing this self-control and giving up a good thing, I may be exercising my ability to later give up habits I enjoy much less than drinking some warm cocoa before bed. I know my mother certainly hopes so.

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