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Self-Control: Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing?

Self-control – the ability to inhibit competing urges, impulses, behaviors, or desires and delay gratification in order to pursue future goals – is often equated with success and happiness. Indeed, failures in self-control characterize many of the personal and social problems afflicting modern civilization, including substance abuse, criminal activities, domestic violence, financial difficulties, teen pregnancy, smoking, and obesity (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994; Moffitt et al., 2011).

Due to the high value most societies place on capacities to delay gratification and inhibit overt or public displays of potentially destructive emotions and impulses—problems linked with excessive inhibitory control or ‘overcontrol’ have received little attention, or been misunderstood, and in these conditions it has been difficult for clinicians to recognize such problems.

However, too much self-control can be equally problematic. Excessive self-control is associated with social isolation, poor interpersonal functioning, and severe and difficult-to-treat mental health problems, such as anorexia nervosa, chronic depression, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (e.g., Lynch & Cheavens, 2008; Zucker et al., 2007).

Individuals with disorders of overcontrol are often quietly suffering, even though their suffering may not be apparent

 

Maladaptive overcontrol is characterized by four core deficits:

  1. Low receptivity and openness: manifested by low openness to novel, unexpected, or disconfirming feedback, avoidance of uncertainty or unplanned risks, suspiciousness, hyper-vigilance for potential threat, and marked tendencies to discount or dismiss critical feedback.
  2. Low flexible-control: manifested by compulsive needs for structure and order, hyper-perfectionism, high social obligation and dutifulness, compulsive rehearsal, premeditation, and planning, compulsive fixing and approach coping, rigid rule-governed behavior, and high moral certitude (e.g., there is only one right way of doing something).
  3. Pervasive inhibited emotional expression and low emotional awareness: manifested by context inappropriate inhibition of emotional expression (e.g., exhibiting a flat-face when complimented) and/or insincere or incongruent expressions of emotion (e.g., smiling when distressed, showing concern when not feeling it), consistent under-reporting of distress, and low awareness of body sensations.
  4. Low social connectedness and intimacy with others: manifested by aloof and distant relationships, feeling different from other people, frequent social comparisons, high envy and bitterness, and reduced empathy.

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