The Insufficient Self-Control Schema

“I just know myself, I won’t be able to see this through”. Tim arrived at therapy already predicting that he would drop out. Tim was his own worst enemy – drug use, broken relationships, promising jobs squandered – Tim had impulsiveness issues. “I self-sabotage, I probably have ADHD, never diagnosed though.”

Children are immediate. They want what they want, and they want it now. As we grow, we learn to wait. Adults can imagine negative or positive consequences and can withhold their present urges in order to make the future better. Thus, we work or study – enduring difficulties today for money later. Thus, we eat healthily and exercise – avoiding unhealthy food and exercising for a better body. This is called Delayed Gratification.

Different children have different temperaments. In a famous study, Walter Mischel offered children either one marshmallow now or two later. You can see a modern version here. The kids that were able to withhold eating the first marshmallow (delay gratification) did better in life when he followed up years later. Although some of this trait is genetic (as in conditions like ADHD), the way we are raised can make a difference. Children who are raised with insufficient rules and boundaries from parents or caregivers can grow up to find great difficulty resisting urges and seeing things through. This is called Insufficient Self-Control Schema.

Tim found school troublesome, so he caused school trouble. The principal was relieved that he left after Year 10. He started using drugs and went through a string of jobs. By the time he reached therapy, at age 30, he had become convinced that he was unable to make anything of himself.

The problems of impulsiveness don’t have to be a life sentence. An adult, almost any adult, is able to delay gratification more readily than almost any 12-year-old. The frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until age 25. This part of the brain is responsible for responsibility. You may, like Tim, have formed the opinion that you will never get things together, because you never did in your teen years or early twenties.  Even though you are a different person now.

Preparation and planning. Delay and deferral. These things can be learnt at any age and no matter your temperament. I have seen enormous improvements in clients’ lives just from using a to-do list and a planner. I have seen simple reminders set on phones transform peoples lives.

But how to remain accountable to these simple self-organisational strategies? What is needed is to develop an accountable part of oneself – the Healthy Adult. This is like having your own internal parent, the future self. Getting better at talking to yourself from the Healthy Adult can lead to setting (but not forgetting) self-organisational strategies.

Tim developed a morning ritual. Every morning with his coffee he would review his to-do list, written the night before. He became a compulsive list maker and checker. He became addicted to checking things off his list. He started to get things done. He moved forward in life.

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