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headacheOr, you’re a bad boy! How many times did you hear that growing up? Plenty of times for most of us.

Whoever said that was equating your behavior with your worth. It could be a parent, a teacher, a religious figure or a policeman who used this to get you to conform to their rules and to control your behavior. Then in an effort to gain and keep their approval you begin to judge yourself by their rules and feel guilty if you violate them.

This is very common, but wrong.

There is nothing wrong with standards and rules of conduct. But there surely can be a lot wrong with how they are applied. “Do as I say, not as I do!” is the common double standard. Discipline is often inconsistent and the growing child becomes further confused. When a child’s value and worth are made a part of the teaching and training, the negative emotions of guilt and shame are learned. This leads to a form of self-rating and self-measurement which is commonly referred to as “self-esteem.”

People commonly base their “self-esteem” on how well they think they have performed and what they think other people think of them. There is nothing wrong with having a good healthy self-regard, but it is not a measure of one’s inestimable worth as a human being. Your worthiness is not a variable. But your performance and other people’s approval are notoriously variable!


It is to bypass the whole “rating game” and take an objective view of your performance free from those negative emotions. It is called “Unconditional Self-Acceptance.” …or USA. The goal of this is to recognize that no one is perfect and that you can deal with perceived shortcomings best by accepting your weaknesses along with your strengths. If you can change something or improve it, fine. But if you cannot change something, then accept it and still do as well as you can. Otherwise you agonize over it and make yourself miserable.

It’s not complicated. It is an area where we can simplify our lives with a different approach. It’s bad enough when others seem to put you down finding fault, but it is not necessary for you to internalize it and continue to do it to yourself. Think of it this way: your mistakes do not diminish your worth.

Then it follows that your past mistakes do not diminish your worth either, any more than a good performance would make you a better person. You surely may regret certain things and strive not to repeat them and correct any wrongs that you can. But you are always human and you can be wrong some of the time without punishing yourself endlessly about it. There is no such thing as a “bad girl” or a “bad boy.” In the future let’s try to eliminate such unwarranted self-rating (and rating of others) and get started doing something constructive.


First because it’s something that would be well changed in our society. And also because it is a real factor in achieving better adjustment to life’s problems, ones that all too often lead to self-destructive behavior. When you eliminate unnecessary self-judgment you develop a better respect for your role in life. And that respect for yourself helps you recognize and appreciate the benefits that will come from changing bad habits. That’s something you can do something about. This exercise is also to help you realize that you are worth the effort.

You can crumple up and kick around a twenty-dollar bill and get it pretty dirty. But you know what? It’s still worth twenty bucks, isn’t it? Please never call a child a bad girl or a bad boy. Just deal with their behavior. Cut them a little slack and things work out better. Now do you think you could treat yourself as well? Those things you sometimes feel guilty about may be real but they don’t reduce your worth! If you can do something to fix things, then do it. If you can’t then accept it and start again fresh. Every highly successful person has a closet full of failures and lost opportunities to go along with the better stuff. But they learned not to let the mistakes bog them down to inaction and depression.




By Wayne Froggatt

businessman with question mark sign on white backgroundMost people want to be happy. They would like to feel good, avoid pain, and achieve their goals. For many, though, happiness seems to be an elusive dream. In fact, it appears that we humans are much better at disturbing and defeating ourselves! Instead of feeling good, we are more likely to worry, feel guilty and get depressed. We put ourselves down and feel shy, hurt or self-pitying. We get jealous, angry, hostile and bitter or suffer anxiety, tension and panic.

On top of feeling bad, we often act in self-destructive ways. Some strive to be perfect in everything they do. Many mess up relationships. Others worry about disapproval and let people use them as doormats. Still others compulsively gamble, smoke and overspend – or abuse alcohol, drugs and food. Some even try to end it all.

The strange thing is, most of this pain is avoidable! We don’t have to do it to ourselves. Humans can, believe it or not, learn how to choose how they feel and behave.


‘People feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.’ Ancient words, from a first- century philosopher named Epictetus – but they are just as true now.

Events and circumstances do not cause your reactions. They result from what you tell yourself about the things that happen. Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours. Or, more precisely, events and circumstances serve to trigger thoughts, which then create reactions. These three processes are intertwined.

The past is significant. But only in so far as it leaves you with your current attitudes and beliefs. External events – whether in the past, present, or future – cannot influence the way you feel or behave until you become aware of and begin to think about them.

To fear something (or react in any other way), you have to be thinking about it. The cause is not the event – it’s what you tell yourself about the event.


American psychologist Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), was one of the first to systematically show how beliefs determine the way human beings feel and behave. Dr. Ellis developed the ‘ABC’ model to demonstrate this.

‘A’ refers to whatever started things off: a circumstance, event or experience – or just thinking about something which has happened. This triggers off thoughts (‘B’), which in turn create a reaction – feelings and behaviours – (‘C’).

To see this in operation, let’s meet Alan. A young man who had always tended to doubt himself, Alan imagined that other people did not like him, and that they were only friendly because they pitied him. One day, a friend passed him in the street without returning his greeting – to which Alan reacted negatively. Here is the event, Alan’s beliefs, and his reaction, put into the ABC format:

A. What started things off: Friend passed me in the street without speaking to me.

B. Beliefs about A.:

  1. He’s ignoring me. He doesn’t like me.
  2. I could end up without friends for ever.
  3. That would be terrible.
  4. For me to be happy and feel worthwhile, people must like me.
  5. I’m unacceptable as a friend – so I must be worthless as a person.

C. Reaction: Feelings: worthless, depressed. Behaviours: avoiding people generally.

Now, someone who thought differently about the same event would react in another way:

A. What started things off: Friend passed me in the street without speaking to me.

B. Beliefs about A.:

  1. He didn’t ignore me deliberately. He may not have seen me.
  2. He might have something on his mind.
  3. I’d like to help if I can.

C. Reaction: Feelings: Concerned. Behaviors: Went to visit friend, to see how he is.

These examples show how different ways of viewing the same event can lead to different reactions. The same principle operates in reverse: when people react alike, it is because they are thinking in similar ways.


What we tell ourselves in specific situations depends on the rules we hold. Everyone has a set of general ‘rules’. Some will be rational, others will be self-defeating or irrational. Each person’s set is different.

Mostly subconscious, these rules determine how we react to life. When an event triggers off a train of thought, what we consciously think depends on the general rules we subconsciously apply to the event.

Let us say that you hold the general rule: ‘To be worthwhile, I must succeed at everything I do.’ You happen to fail an examination; an event which, coupled with the underlying rule, leads you to the conclusion: ‘I’m not worthwhile.’

Underlying rules are generalizations: one rule can apply to many situations. If you believe, for example:

‘I can’t stand discomfort and pain and must avoid them at all costs,’ you might apply this to the dentist, to work, to relationships, and to life in general.

Why be concerned about your rules? While most will be valid and helpful, some will be self-defeating. Faulty rules will lead to faulty conclusions. Take the rule: ‘If I am to feel OK about myself, others must like and approve of me.’ Let us say that your boss tells you off. You may (rightly) think: ‘He is angry with me’ – but you may wrongly conclude: ‘This proves I’m a failure.’ And changing the situation (for instance, getting your boss to like you) would still leave the underlying rule untouched. It would then be there to bother you whenever some future event triggered it off.

Most self-defeating rules are a variation of one or other of the ’12 Self-defeating Beliefs’ listed at the end of this article. Take a look at this list now. Which ones do you identify with? Which are the ones that guide your reactions?


To describe a belief as self-defeating, or irrational, is to say that:


There are four typical ways of thinking that will make you feel bad or behave in dysfunctional ways:

  1. Awfulising: using words like ‘awful’, ‘terrible’, ‘horrible’, ‘catastrophic’ to describe something e.g. ‘It would be terrible if …’, ‘It’s the worst thing that could happen’, ‘That would be the end of the world’.
  2. Cant-stand-it-itis: viewing an event or experience as unbearable – e.g. ‘I can’t stand it’, ‘It’s absolutely unbearable’, I’ll die if I get rejected’.
  3. Demanding: using ‘shoulds’ (moralising) or ‘musts’ (musturbating) – e.g. ‘I should not have done that, ‘I must not fail’, ‘I need to be loved’, ‘I have to have a drink’.
  4. People-rating: labelling or rating your total self (or someone else’s) – e.g. ‘I’m stupid /hopeless / useless /worthless.’


We are not talking about so-called ‘positive thinking’. Rational thinking is realistic thinking. It is concerned with facts – the real world – rather than subjective opinion or wishful thinking.

Realistic thinking leads to realistic emotions. Negative feelings aren’t always bad for you. Neither are all positive feelings beneficial. Feeling happy when someone you love has died, for example, may hinder you from grieving properly. Or to be unconcerned in the face of real danger could put your survival at risk. Realistic thinking avoids exaggeration of both kinds – negative and positive.


How does one actually set about achieving self-control and choice? The best place to start is by learning how to identify the thoughts and beliefs which cause your problems.

Next, learn how to apply this knowledge by analysing specific episodes where you feel and behave in the ways you would like to change. It is most effective to do this in writing at first, and later it will become easier to do it in your head. You connect whatever started things off, your reaction, and the thoughts which came in between. You then check out those thoughts and change the self-defeating ones. This method, called Rational Self-Analysis, uses the ABC approach described earlier, extended to include sections for setting a goal or new desired effect (‘E’), disputing and changing beliefs (‘D’), and, finally, further action to put those changes into practice (‘F’).

That final step is important. You will get there faster when you put into action what you have changed in your mind. Let us say you decide to stop feeling guilty when you do something for yourself. The next step is to do it. Spend an hour a day reading a novel. Purchase some new clothes. Have coffee with a friend or a weekend away without the family. Do the things you would previously have regarded as ‘undeserved’.


While change is possible, it is not easy – mainly because of a very human tendency known as ‘low- discomfort tolerance’.

Most of us want to be physically and emotionally comfortable. But personal change means giving up some old habits of thinking and behaving and ‘safe’ ways of approaching life.

Whereas before you may have blamed others for your problems, now you start to take responsibility for yourself and what you want. You risk new ways of thinking and acting. You step out into the unknown. This could increase your stress and emotional pain – temporarily. In other words, you may well feel worse before you feel better.

Telling yourself that you ‘can’t stand it’ could lead you to avoid change. You might decide to stick with the way things are, unpleasant though it is. You know you would be better off in the long run, but you choose to avoid the extra pain now.

Or you might look for a quick solution. Do you hope that somewhere there’s a fancy therapy which will cure you straight away – without you having to do anything? I meet many people who try therapist after therapist, but never stay with one approach long enough to learn anything that will help. They still live in hope, though, and often get a brief boost from meeting new therapists or therapy groups.

As well as fearing discomfort, you may also worry that you ‘won’t be a real person’. You think that you will end up ‘pretending’ to feel and behave in new ways, and imagine yourself as false or phoney. Somehow, it seems, to choose how you feel seems ‘less than human’.

You are, though, already choosing your reactions – even though you may not be fully aware of doing so. And using conscious choice is what sets humans apart from instinct-bound animals. It is also what makes you a unique person – different to every other. So give up the notion that it is false and machine- like to use your brain to avoid bad feelings. Getting depressed, worried, and desperate does not make you more human.

You might worry that learning self-control will make you cold and unemotional, with no feelings at all. This common fear is quite misguided. The opposite is true: if you learn how to handle strong feelings you will be less afraid of them. This will free you to experience a fuller range of emotions than before.

While self-improvement may be hard, it is achievable. The blocks I have described are all self-created. They’re nothing more than beliefs – ideas you can change using practical techniques you can learn.

Rational thinking is not just academic theory. People from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds have already used it successfully. You will be able to as well.

It is true that human beings start life with a biological predisposition to irrational thinking, which they then add to by learning new and harmful ways of behaving and viewing life. But there is a positive side to human nature – we also have the ability to think about our beliefs and change the dysfunctional ones.

What about problems you can’t sort out on your own? Some outside help may be a useful supplement to your self-help efforts. Whether or not you have such help, though, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions will be the key to success. You will also need some hard work and perseverance. But, happily, by learning how to identify and change self-defeating beliefs and attitudes, these things can be within your control – and happiness within your reach.

From Self-defeat to Rational Living


  1. I need love and approval from those significant to me – and I must avoid disapproval from any source.
  2. To be worthwhile as a person I must achieve, succeed at what ever I do, and make no mistakes.
  3. People should always do the right thing. When they behave obnoxiously, unfairly or selfishly, they must be blamed and punished.
  4. Things must be the way I want them to be – otherwise life will be intolerable.
  5. My unhappiness is caused by things outside my control – so there is little I can do to feel any better.
  6. I must worry about things that could be dangerous, unpleasant or frightening – otherwise they might happen.
  7. I can be happier by avoiding life’s difficulties, unpleasantness, and responsibilities.
  8. Everyone needs to depend on someone stronger than themselves.
  9. Events in my past are the cause of my problems – and they continue to influence my feelings and behaviours now.
  10. I should become upset when other people have problems and feel unhappy when they’re sad.
  11. I should not have to feel discomfort and pain – I can’t stand them and must avoid them at all costs.
  12. Every problem should have an ideal solution, and it is intolerable when one can’t be found.


  1. Love and approval are good things to have, and I’ll seek them when I can. But they are not necessities – I can survive (even though uncomfortably) without them.
  2. I’ll always seek to achieve as much as I can – but unfailing success and competence is unrealistic. Better I just accept myself as a person, separate to my performance.
  3. It’s unfortunate that people sometimes do bad things. But humans are not yet perfect – and upsetting myself won’t change that reality.
  4. There is no law which says that things have to be the way I want. It’s disappointing, but I can stand it- especially if I avoid catastrophising.
  5. Many external factors are outside my control. But it is my thoughts (not the externals) which cause my feelings. And I can learn to control my thoughts.
  6. Worrying about things that might go wrong won’t stop them happening. It will, though, ensure I get upset and disturbed right now!
  7. Avoiding problems is only easier in the short term – putting things off can make them worse later on. It also gives me more time to worry about them!
  8. Relying on someone else can lead to dependent behaviour. It is OK to seek help – as long as I learn to trust myself and my own judgement.
  9. The past can’t influence me now. My current beliefs cause my reactions. I may have learned these beliefs in the past, but I can choose to analyse and change them in the present.
  10. I can’t change other people’s problems and bad feelings by getting myself upset.
  11. Why should I in particular not feel discomfort and pain? I don’t like them, but I can stand it. Also, my life would be very restricted if I always avoided discomfort.
  12. Problems usually have many possible solutions. It is better to stop waiting for the perfect one and get on with the best available. I can live with less than the ideal.


Copyright Notice:

This document is copyright © to the author (1990-97). Single copies (which include this notice) may be made for therapeutic or training purposes. For permission to use it in any other way, please contact: Wayne Froggatt, PO Box 2292, Stortford Lodge, Hastings, New Zealand. (E-mail: waynefroggatt@rational.org.nz). Comments are welcomed. This document is located on the internet site: http://www.rational.org.nz Reprinted here with permission.


by Dr. Bill Knaus

procrastworkshopLong-term SMART members will likely remember the section on procrastination in Knaus, W (1992-2000) SMART Recovery: A Quick Start Primer. Dr.Knaus is the author of five books on procrastination, including (McGraw-Hill 2010)

Let’s start with a definition. Procrastination is an automatic, negative, problem habit of needlessly postponing and delaying a timely and relevant activity until another day or time. It always involves a negative emotion that ranges from a whisper of affect to panic. The process always includes a diversionary activity. It practically always involves procrastination thinking, such as “I’ll fix the problem later.”

This complex, automatic, problem habit typically coexists with other negative states, such as anxiety, depression, impulse control challenges, organizational challenges, distractibility, substance abuse, self-doubts, perfectionism, indecisiveness, and other. When procrastination co-occurs with other conditions, it is a complex form of procrastination.

Because procrastination is normally a habit, when this process coexists with conditions, such as a negative mood, you may frustratingly repeat procrastination patterns despite your heartfelt wishes to change for the better and to avoid the hassles associated with the habit(s).

Procrastination is one reason why smart people repeat self-defeating patterns. Another is in not recognizing the procrastination habit and its complexities.

Time management is repeatedly offered as a solution for procrastination. Although time- management can be part of a process for addressing deadline forms of procrastination, procrastination is rarely an exclusive time management issue. However, non-psychologically trained management consultants have made fortunes selling organizations on the idea that time management corrects for procrastination. Would time-management correct for a substance abuse-procrastination connection?

How do you resolve a co-occurring procrastination-anxiety mood-linked substance-abuse process through time management? Can you address procrastination “later is better” procrastination thinking through creating schedules that you probably won’t follow?

Although time management solutions, such as setting priorities and scheduling is sometimes part of the solution for addressing deadline forms of simple procrastination, procrastination typically has more to do with addressing unpleasant feelings associated with a task, habitual behavioral diversions, and mental deflections that sidetrack from productive pursuits.

Curbing procrastination is a byproduct of doing something else first. Preliminary steps include taking cognitive, emotive, and behavioral change steps to interfere with the course of the habit. This three-pronged approach is an area where SMART has an edge over other abstinence programs. Cognitive (rational), emotive and behavioral strategies to curb substance abuse apply to procrastination, and vice-versa.

The emotive component may be a central area to work to work on to build tolerance and emotional resilience. Both procrastination and substance abuse involve some level of low tension tolerance and discomfort dodging activities, such as following a path of least resistance. Procrastination is easy and you can slide into an illusion trap by telling yourself you’ll build tolerance later, or you NEED to use right now because you had a bad day, or you can’t stand the tension of not drinking or using. This vicious procrastination-substance abuse circle includes a specious reward in the form of an immediate relief from tension. That relief just rewards these two self-defeating problem habits, thus increasing their chances for re-occurrence.

Procrastination is one reason why smart people repeat self-defeating patterns.

Effectively curbing dual procrastination-substance abuse habits normally involves a comprehensive plan, tools to execute the plan, and a deliberate exercise of free-will, or the ability to choose a productive path when you could have yielded to irrational drinking thinking beliefs and impulse. Attending SMART meetings and using SMART educational materials can be a central part of the plan.

By simultaneously refusing to capitulate to procrastination and substance abuse urges, you act to shape your life direction by executing rational choices. Through exercising these choices, you avoid hassles associated with drinking or using. You gain productive advantages. This learning, experimenting, and progressive mastery approach marks a path with greater promise for positive change than a vague hope, such as “I need to do better later.” This hope is an illusion than moves in tandem with procrastination.

When it comes to coping with procrastination or substance abuse habits, I know of no quick fix. Quick fix techniques may create an illusion of progress that is rarely more than a placebo effect that soon wears out, leaving you frustrated and discouraged. Paradoxically, if you choose a challenging “long-term gain” path, and act to stay on it, you will have simplified your life, have less reason to feel stressed, and have more reason to experience a higher level of self-efficacy. This is a belief that you can organize, regulate, and direct your actions productively.

Relapse prevention for procrastination is part of this self-efficacy process. But that is a plus. When you get to the point where you concern yourself about relapse prevention, you have made progress.

A key relapse prevention approach involves completing a weekly cognitive (rational), emotive, and behavioral checklist without procrastinating! For example, (1) Do I experience drinking thinking and act to debunk it? (2) Am I accepting that I’ll have cravings and feel tempted to drink\use, and allow myself to live through them without acting on them? (3) Do I take problem-solving actions to contain and control drinking behaviors, such as buying or using addictive substances?

You may stay sober and clean forever. However, when it comes to procrastination there are so many nooks and crannies in life where procrastination urges lead to procrastination diversions it is impossible to be perfectly consistent and never procrastinate again. Nevertheless, productive gains in major life zones where procrastination recurs can feel like paradise compared to the alternative that comes with (1) a sense of lack of control and feeling overwhelmed by things left un-started or undone, (2) diversions along troublesome pathways that keep leading to the same dead-end results, (3) false promises to do better, handicapping yourself by giving yourself reasons why you expect failure, and making up excuses to explain away negative results so as to avoid blame.

By jointly addressing common components in both procrastination and substance abuse, you can accelerate and strengthen your self-help efforts. As a byproduct, the outcome is likely to prove productive and satisfying.

A life-time life-style change process of stretching your resources to actualize them is neither simple nor easy in the beginning. It becomes less difficult in the long-run compared to seeking easy paths to meet complex challenges.

Procrastination starts as a handicap. Corrective actions toward progressively mastering procrastination accelerate a lifestyle change to increase your chances for health, happiness, and accomplishment. The extra steps you take to work toward such results are radically different from the extra steps it takes to stay on a procrastination pathway. Persistence in learning and applying counter-procrastination measures is a more sure-footed way to move yourself in the direction of self-command and to grow your ability to command the controllable events that take place around you.


Frustrated young womanWe’re all brought up to believe that external events cause our emotional reactions. But that is not the way it actually happens. The ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, is quoted as saying that:

It’s not events that disturb us, but our judgment of them.

In other words, our emotions are created from our interpretation of things that happen, not the events themselves. This is not easy to see at first, but it is the important basis from which people can learn to take back control of their habits and gain in emotional maturity.

What the boss did today was to shout at you, that’s all. You resented it and your reaction was to feel angry. But it’s possible that under other circumstances you might have seen it as a threat and had an emotional reaction of fear. Or, that you could have viewed the shouting as a personal put-down and became hurt about it. It’s even possible that you could have sensed that the boss was making a fool of himself and you could have felt amused by the event.

But in all these cases, the boss did only one thing, he shouted at you. You then made a judgment about what it meant to you and generated a “feeling” that was appropriate for that interpretation. Once again, this is not easy to see at first, because we are brought up to think that things outside us cause our feelings. The intention here is to point out that it actually and always works the other way around. And since it is our view of things that really controls our emotions, it follows that our own thinking habits have an important bearing on our emotions.

Let’s examine that idea a little. All of us have some more or less irrational beliefs in our private self-talk. They may be prejudices. They may be unreasonable expectations. They may be absolutist and demanding rules about our own or other people’s conduct, all of which influence the judgments we make about events. If this is the case we can work on rethinking our beliefs to improve our poise and self-control. Strong negative emotions such as hurt and anger and fear are a signal to check into our thinking to see if it contributes to the discomfort. It is not difficult if you look for over-reactions that may stem from unjustified or irrational beliefs. These emotions often lead to what could be avoidable difficulties.

Let’s look again at when the boss shouted at you. You judged it to be unjustified and you resented it and got yourself angry. Apparently you were wise enough not to react hastily in that mood and maybe get fired. (Instead you swore revenge under your breath and kept yourself upset all day.) Of course, a “strongly assertive” reaction might be justified if in fact the boss had accused you falsely of something serious. But quite often that’s not the whole story. Is it possible that the complaint was partially deserved and partly you just didn’t like to admit it? If so, then becoming angry would not be wholly justified. Could the boss have been under a lot of pressure and blowing off steam that he would later regret and apologize for? Could you have an underlying belief that any arousal of emotion such as shouting is really an attack on your worth? Or could it go back even further to a secret underlying belief that everything should always go your way? Or do you think you always have to have his approval to feel OK?

More and more could be said but the bottom line is that quite often it’s neither necessary nor wise to react angrily in such a situation. There are less harmful things to fall back on. If you learn and practice unconditional self-acceptance (USA) you would not feel your worth threatened and get huffy in such a situation. By keeping your cool, the boss would be seen as the one who is less in control and you would retain more dignity. By cutting him some slack for the pressure he may be under, the door is left open for an apology from him if that proves to happen later. If you react in these less self-arousing ways, you maintain the poise to deal with the situation in ways that are more to your advantage. Trying to see both sides can make you less open to attack, may lead to an objective understanding about what caused the shouting and build better relations for the future.

The lesson here is not who was right or wrong in the incident. It is in grasping the fact that you are in control of your own emotional reactions. And that strong negative emotions are often overreactions from beliefs like, “The boss is all wrong and I am one hundred percent right.” or “Nobody is ever supposed to raise their voice to me.” or “He started this I am justified in pushing it to the limit even if it costs me my job and a good reference.”

In SMART Recovery we are interested in this subject because learning better self- management is a watchword of recovery from unwanted habits. Sometimes negative emotional reactions and the behavior that follows them lead to using alcohol or other drugs to relieve the anxiety that is created. Let them instead be a signal to re-examine your beliefs and values and see if you are over-reacting in ways that may turn out to be embarrassing or costly. This is a secret of something you can change! You can learn to deal with this excellent opportunity using the ABC’s of REBT. It is one of the tools at SMART Recovery.


Self-control is what you build up, develop, create and learn by controlling your behavior repeatedly. We should regard self-control as a skill. It is not a character trait or a thing you have to have that lets you control your behavior. (or a thing that not having it prevents you from doing so.) If someone says, “I have no self-control over my drinking or drugging, or eating sweets or whatever,” it might be asked, “Are you well practiced at resisting your urges or opportunities to use or to overeat the wrong things?” The answer would likely be, “No.” This person is well practiced at giving in to those urges and opportunities to use. (No criticism from me! I did this for years and years.)

Getting control over your urges and opportunities is like getting control over a bicycle or roller skates or anything else. You’re not going to start out as an expert. You will get control of it only by forcing yourself at first to act differently than you feel! (It looks like the bike should fall over.) And it may feel very difficult or strange. But by practicing over and over, you learn to ride the bike! So the reason people correctly “feel” that they don’t have self-control is because they haven’t been practicing what would give it to them. In this case, the skill is in resisting urges or opportunities to use.

Self-control is what you build up, develop, create and learn by controlling your behavior repeatedly.

Along with other related strategies, at SMART Recovery we learn how to stall, distract and resist those urges. If sometimes we don’t succeed, we keep trying and resist discouragement, like getting back on the bike if we tumbled! Those who do practice resisting urges, after a while report that it becomes easier and easier to continue. They have been exercising and building their self-control and now have begun to show a fair amount of skill. In every day language, thinking that you must first have “self control” before you can acquire a change in your behavior is “putting the cart before the horse.”

In one famous study, children were left with a candy bar and told that if they didn’t eat it they would get two candy bars. The children who resisted the temptation while alone were secretly observed using verbal self-reminders and distracting activities. Children who didn’t resist were later able to do so after being taught new strategies for better self- control. Things like learning that urges are time-limited, and they will crest and subside if we stall and divert the thoughts to something else. We practice doing this in our group meetings to help you be prepared for when you are tempted.

At SMART Recovery we have a “toolbox” of proven techniques. Learning about what self-control really is, and using it to deal successfully with an undesired habit is an important example of a “tool”. We hope this knowledge gives you new insight about ways and means you can utilize to overcome problems, even very difficult ones like dependence on or misuse of substances.

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