27 Jul

Self Control does NOT equal Self Regulation. 

The 2 sometimes get confused and they are often used interchangeably. But they are very different. Self control is often connected to images of discipline, willpower, and “mind over matter”. Self regulation is what makes those skills possible. 

Stop. Read that again. Self-regulation is what makes the skills like willpower possible. 

Think about it, imagine you are working hard to make healthier eating decisions. But, then everything that can go wrong in your day goes wrong. Your child has a meltdown on the way to daycare, you get stuck in traffic, you realize you missed a deadline at work, forgot your meal-prepped lunch, more traffic, more meltdowns. By the end of the day you feel defeated and you reach for the Oreos and end up eating an entire row. Is it because you are weak and lacking willpower? NO! You are understandably dysregulated and stressed. 

Are you familiar with the Upstairs Brain/Downstairs Brain metaphor (coined by Daniel Siegal, author of The Whole Brain Child). The Upstairs Brain handles things like problem solving, logic, language processing, and other executive function skills. The Downstairs Brain is responsible for our emotions and our Fight/Flight/Freeze response system. Our Downstairs brain is constantly monitoring our environment, ready to jump into action when a threat is detected. That threat could be a lion, or it could be a missed work deadline. Our Downstairs brain treats them the same.


Self Regulation happens in the Downstairs Brain. When we are stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, all the action is happening Downstairs.The Upstairs Brain takes a backseat. So, when you reach for that Oreo at the end of a really hard day, it is not necessarily because you lack self control. It is more likely, because you are dysregulated.

Why does this matter? Because when you view your “unwanted” behaviors as a lack of willpower or self control, you may see it as a choice. And making that choice may be due to a character flaw. You might beat yourself up and start on a cycle of negative self-talk. You might start to label yourself as weak, lazy, selfish, greedy, etc. That cycle can actually contribute to your dysregulation and cause an endless loop. 

This also happens for our children. When we view our children through the lens of “lacking self-control” we may see their behaviors as deliberate choices and not as a result of an overactive stress-response and dysregulation. 

When we shift our focus on promoting self regulation and helping ourselves and our kiddos better cope with stress, we can open the door to self control.

Imagine the above scenario again. This time, you are able to recognize the signs of stress early in the day. Maybe you take 2 minutes to listen to a favorite song or practice deep breathing in the parking lot before going in to work. Maybe you take a walk on your lunch break and call a friend to talk through your missed deadline and have solutions ready to present to your boss. Maybe when you are home at the end of the day with your child you label outloud for them what you are feeling and suggest a dance party (or movie night, game night, or another activity that brings you happiness). Maybe then, after the chaos of the day you are able to make a different choice about the Oreos. 

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