The Art of Self-Control

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by David Alan

As creator and host of the Inspirational Living podcast, I greatly enjoy discovering and sharing inspirational writers who largely have been lost to history. Many of these writers were very popular during their time, but (for some reason or other) their books have been relegated to obscure library shelves, and no longer are sold in bookshops.

One such writer is Clare Tree Major, the first British actress to tour the United States from coast to coast. In addition to founding a hugely successful children’s theatre, Ms. Major also wrote two popular books on self-development, based on her life experiences: How to Develop Your Personality (1916) and How to Develop Your Will Power (1920).

Below is an essay that I edited from the latter work and read on one of my podcasts. It teaches timeless lessons on mastering your emotions to achieve success in life.

SELF-CONTROL is emotional control. Like all forces inherent in human nature, the emotional forces work equally thoroughly in either direction, as builders or as destroyers. You are, whether you like it or not, dealing with forces, with laws, with energy, which must expend themselves, must carry out their predestined mission — forces as blind and as inevitable as the forces of electricity or the laws of gravitation.

You must either be hurled to destruction by them, or you must control and use them. You cannot escape them. They are part of your nature. The more vital and intense your nature, the greater your possibilities of power. The fact that you are awake enough to be interested in self-development is sufficient proof of your own possibility of superseding in development the masses which make up the great average class of humanity.

Make your great emotional forces serve you. The secret of happiness is bound up in their control. The first emotion to present itself to your mind in self- examination is often Anger. Anger is almost invariably the outgrowth of Fear, fear of injury to one’s self or to someone or something belonging to you. It is grounded largely on Irritation.

If you allow yourself to develop a more or less permanent mood of irritation, you have an excellent breeding ground for more frequent and violent outbursts of anger. Nothing can be so destructive to you or to your success in life as this attitude.

Anger distorts your judgment, prejudices your decisions. In indulging it you are simply making a whip for your own back. If you are in danger from indulging in this kind of lack of self-control, you should very deliberately and fairly go over in your mind every occasion you can remember where anger has injured you, where it has lost you a friend, where it has prejudiced a business decision, where it has injured you in the minds of acquaintances.

Realize how much it has cost you in unhappiness to indulge in this vice. When you have thoroughly counted the cost and found how great an enemy to progress your anger has been, then call out all the energy of your will power to suppress this monster. Realize that you cannot afford to throw away your energy in such a way that it injures instead of helps you.

If you want to buy a car, or a house, or any other thing which means the expenditure of a fair amount of money, you know you cannot afford to constantly throw away smaller sums on useless things. Money cannot be spent twice. You cannot buy the useless things and the house or car with the same money. It is so with your energy. It cannot serve you, if you cast it away on injurious fits of anger.

Destroy anger at its foundation. Cultivate a permanent mood of equanimity, of tolerance of the opinions of others. Tell yourself that every person has the inalienable right to their own life, their own opinions, their own method of development. Try to see the other person’s point of view and to discover whether or not there is something in it that may enlighten you.

You may have all the truth but a single point; they may have all the error but the single truth you have missed. If you are scornful or dismissive of their opinion you will be the loser. You will miss the one point of truth which you need to make the perfect whole.

If another person is opposing you, indulging in anger will not help you to win out. Weed out all personal feelings against the other. Approach the matter as an impersonal problem to be met and conquered. If you are working on an invention and the answer is difficult to arrive at, you do not become angry at the inanimate material. You keep pegging away, using all your energy to work out your purpose.

Do the same with your business and professional problems. Keep a cool brain and an unprejudiced mind. If the other individual proves themselves the better person, don’t waste your precious energy in reviling them. That won’t do any good to you, or harm them. Begin on the next problem, having gained from the experience and become stronger by the deliberate exercise of self-control called forth by the unfortunate incident.

It is through the things that are a little bigger than ourselves that we grow. You can’t prove the strength of your muscles rowing with the tide. The pull against the wind and tide is the test of your power. But you won’t get far if you waste energy in anger against the waves.

Therefore constantly affirm to yourself feelings of Tolerance, Amiability, Charity, Generosity, and a sportsmanlike attitude toward your business opponents, whatever your profession may be. It is all a great game. Win or lose for the sake of the game.

Envy and Jealousy are the offspring of Fear. You fear your ability in comparison with that of another, or your popularity, or your appearance, or your power to accumulate the luxuries of life, or your artistic taste, or your sense of culture, or your education, or any other of the thousand and one things which make for differences between human beings. Nothing could be more foolish than indulging in these injurious emotions.

All values are comparative. Arrive by careful thought at a fair estimate of what you are and what you may become. It does not matter to you what other people are doing with themselves, or what they are setting up as ideals. It is essential that people shall be different or there would be no progress for the human race.

A fair sense of competition and emulation may be useful as a stimulus for effort, but not in any personal sense. There is enough of everything worthwhile in the world for every human being. You do not have to rob your neighbor in order to have a full and satisfactory life. Be content to live and let live.

Having set your standard of attainment, look with a generous and approving eye on the attainments of others. Having chosen your own field of endeavor, an interested approval of the work of others will increase your breadth of view, as well as your actual knowledge of other phases of activity.

Build a keen and impartial sense of self-respect, based on an unprejudiced appreciation of your own character and ambitions, and you will find nothing in anyone to induce either envy or jealousy. You can afford to admire the admirable in others when your own life is aimed toward success. Make your own WILL stable, and the success of others will arouse only a sense of congratulation. Cultivate a high appreciation of the truth.

In rooting out fear and anger and envy and jealousy, you will have destroyed, to a large extent, their host of attendant evils: suspicion, backbiting, petty lying, exaggeration, moods of resentfulness and antagonism, and so on. You will have developed instead an attitude of kindness and friendliness toward others, and an understanding of their ideals.

But you must carry this sense of clear-seeing further. It must become a part of your own character. “Honesty is the best policy” applies not only to your action in relation to others but also in relation to yourself. By taking Truth as your ideal, your opinions of things and of circumstances and of lines of endeavor will be sound and trustworthy. The liar not only forfeits their own self-respect and the respect of others, but blinds their own eyes with regard to every circumstance of life.

Pride and conceit (like self-depreciation and a lack of self-confidence) are the result of an untruthful condition of mind. The truthful mind knows its own values, neither over-rating nor underrating its powers. This clear seeing, being bred in the innermost heart of your character, will make you reliable, just, free in your judgment, generous to others because you will see the inevitable good in all as well as the obvious faults; and it will make you confident in yourself, because of your self-knowledge.

Reason cannot hold a clear and steady torch to guide the mighty force of Will unless it is fed with the flame of Truth. Examine yourself carefully to find where you stand in this matter of truthfulness. Living beyond your means is untruthful. Indulging habits privately which you denounce in others is untruthful. Hypocrisy is untruthfulness. Trying to put up as “showy a front” as your richer neighbor and going without necessities or the protection of your future in order to do it, is untruthful.

There are many other ways in which modem life tempts to untruthfulness. Find them out, and banish them from your hearth. All these pretenses gain nothing for you, either from the people you are so frantically trying to emulate, or from your acquaintances watching the foolish struggle. Admiration and the respect of others is won on the field of truth. Keep your mind clear.

Fit yourself with the joy of life. Cultivate a spirit of warm, charitable love toward all humanity. Radiate an atmosphere of buoyant happiness. Let the world feel the better for your living in it. Such characteristics not only make life easier for the people about you, but, through the law of reaction, clear the briars from your own path.

Anger and hatred and suspicion, and all the other ugly vices, return like boomerangs to their originators. Love and joy and generosity, with all their attendant virtues, pour themselves back on the happy givers, returning with an abundant harvest of increase.

Here again is the law. You get from life just what you give in kind. You do not gather thorns from fig trees, nor grapes from thistles. See that your giving is of the sort you will be glad to welcome back again. And remember that selfishness is the root of most evil. Don’t mistake stubbornness for self-control. Pig-headedness isn’t will power.

Cultivate, with certainty, a decision of mind, and having arrived at a decision, be prepared to move heaven and earth to carry it out. But be prepared also at any time to change your decision and your course of action if sufficient reason should present itself. It is a fine balance, but it must be kept if you would realize all your possibilities of power. There is no virtue in running your head against a brick wall. The wall won’t be the one to be hurt.

There is as great a virtue in knowing when to stop as in knowing when to go on, when to give up as in when to persist. The will must be free, and not a blind force which cannot be arrested once it is set into action. Let your reason rule your decisions, not mere stubbornness.

Be willing to “fess up” when you are wrong. It is no proof of superiority, rather the reverse, to stubbornly hold out when you know you are mistaken. What if your vanity is hurt: It isn’t of any use to you anyway, and the sooner it is hurt so badly that it dies the better. Your self-respect won’t suffer if it is of the right sort, and that is quite sufficient to carry you through life.

Remember always that you can find the cause within yourself if you are constantly being hurt by the words or actions of others. Examine yourself by the clear torch of truth, and you are certain to find that an appreciable quantity of selfishness and vanity is to blame for your discomfort.

More than that, it is not what is said or done which hurts. Such things have no power of their own. It is your own mental interpretation of them, your way of looking at them, which makes you unhappy. Straighten out the kinks in your mind and these things will assume their right relation to you and your life, and thereby lose their power to hurt you.

Success means climbing out of the ditch, proving yourself the better person in the struggle of life. To do this you must first win the fight with your own inner nature. Master that, and you are equipped for the mastery of all else.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Self-Control”

  1. Deborah Fairfull

    Such wise and insightful word in how to move forward in peace and harmony. I love the beautiful words “Reason cannot hold a clear and steady torch to guide the mighty force of Will unless it is fed with the flame of Truth”. Thankyou for sharing David, you are a guiding light during these times.

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