The Wisdom of Restraining Yourself

bird formationNote:  Related audio on this topic called Practicing Restraint.

I used to be very rebellious, and it got me into some trouble. In the name of freedom, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted without restriction, and I certainly didn’t want my autonomy compromised by someone else’s rules. (Just ask my parents.) Truth be told, my willful behavior did not make me happy. It was defiant and resistive and kept me from getting what I really wanted in some important areas of my life. I am so thankful that I finally discovered the wisdom of restraint, the simple practice of stopping that has paved the way for more freedom than I ever thought was possible.

What we think of as our unrestrained behavior coming from free will is most often the reenacting of automatic, unconscious habits. Say you feel angry at someone and have the urge to lash out at them. If you don’t pause to investigate the urge, you end up making a remark you are likely to regret when you calm down later on. Or say you have the intention to exercise, but, without stopping to think, you act out your desire to eat a bag of chips rather than go to the gym. Is this wisdom…or freedom?

Our lives are filled with conditioned habits like these that we call “living life.” Some are benign and others interfere greatly with our happiness and well-being. Do you recognize any of the following: procrastination, low self-confidence, passivity, hostility, judgment, pessimism? Without restraint, we stay stuck in the same predicament that keeps us bound and limited. Restraining ourselves offers a window of opportunity for change to happen. When we pause before the pattern has us barreling down the road to the same disappointing outcome, there is the chance, finally, to discern the appropriate, conscious, desired response.

In this way, our self-sabotaging desires themselves become our allies. Rather than wishing to banish them or make them disappear, they signal us to stop and step away from the developing pattern.

The common meaning of the word restraint speaks to holding back, repressing, and keeping control. The implication is that by restraining ourselves, we relinquish freedom and forgo spontaneity. In fact, just the opposite is true. Real freedom comes from not being ruled by our habitual patterns that are based on fear and confusion. And real spontaneity arises from the space that remains when the habits are put to rest.

Practicing Restraint

Restraint offers a respite, the possibility to regroup, take a different, conscious path, a chance to let go of unproductive thinking and reconnect with what you really want. Elsewhere I discuss the full process for changing habits. Here is how to do the first essential step: restraining yourself. It may be the only practice you need.

  1. Find within yourself the sincere intention to refrain from continuing a pattern of behavior that no longer serves you. The pattern can be anything problematic: eating poorly, arguing too much, criticizing yourself or others, showing up late, smoking. Make a vow to yourself, a true commitment to exercise restraint. Your intention needs to be stronger than your urge to enact the pattern.
  2. When you notice you are in the pattern, stop. Pause. Take a breath. Step away from it. Put some space around it.
  3. Congratulate yourself! You have just succeeded in creating the possibility for the habit to fall away.
  4. Repeat 1, 2, and 3 as often as necessary. Every time the urge to continue the pattern arises, stop and refuse to go further into it. Again, step away from the pattern.

A couple of helpful points:

  • When you begin, you may not “wake up” from the habit until you are well into it. This is completely normal and demonstrates the power of our automatic tendencies. Whenever you do become aware, remember #3, that realizing your commitment to restraint is a moment of freedom. If you stay the course, and keep exercising restraint, your awareness will eventually kick in earlier.
  • OK, I’ve stopped. Now what? Experience the fresh opportunity to be present with your thoughts and emotions, be open to this new and unfamiliar place, see if you gain an insight into the habit, laugh, rejoice, feel relief, feel free.

Regarding restraint, I know whereof I speak. I have become aware of many habits and have chosen to stop. Maybe millions of times. My willingness has been so strong, and it had to be. I wanted to be free of the suffering these habits engendered more than anything. What seemed like difficulty to start has transformed into such sweet joy. I am happy to restrain myself when even the tiniest fruitless urge arises and embrace whatever I experience with full acceptance. Restraint is the beginning of the journey to freedom you can’t even begin to imagine.

Have you ever restrained yourself? What was your experience? I welcome all your comments, questions, etc.

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  1. says

    So much of the impulses you talk about in this wonderful post first start in the body. In fact, the body is often half a second in front of the conscious mind. To understand habits, it helps to understand how the body sensations that go with it.

    If you have studied how your body gets angry (for example), then you will recognize the emotion earlier and be better able to inhibit the angry-response until you can select a wiser one.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Welcome, Cole! Your comment is right on and very useful. The first appearance of a conditioned pattern is almost always in the body, and ultimately, when it clears, there is a release in the body as well, as it returns to its natural state. Being able to notice the physical sensations as they happen is immensely helpful in realizing freedom from habits that don’t serve us.

  2. says

    Hi Gail

    It’s definately something we have to learn to become mindful of, and its a bit like dieting… some days your mindful of what you eat and other days you throw mindfulness to the wind and gulp down that 3rd piece of chocolate cake 😉

    • Gail Brenner says

      Thanks so much for your comment, Jon, and welcome to the site! When we’re dealing with a strong desire to keep the pattern going, even though we want freedom from it, sometimes, as you say, we eat the 3rd piece of cake. This calls for self-acceptance and compassion. I have found that eventually the mindfulness becomes strong and the refraining from the patterns easier.

  3. says

    Hey Gail.

    This is cool. I am going to use this next time I am stuck in a bad habit period of time. It is our job to disconnect from these bad habits using small steps. Just as we need small steps to take on a new challenge, we need small steps of restraint to gain enough momentum to stop a bad habit we are stuck in.

    This might seem like it is an exaggeration, but someone who is in a dazed state after 2 hours of TV needs to do something very small to start distancing from what they are doing. TV companies know that their biggest priority is to keep this from happening, so that is a battle of sorts. A small step might be looking away at a wall, or muting the volume, until you realize the lack of value of what you are seeing.

    I am an enemy of bad habits, especially when I see them happening as they are happening.

    You sure got to the root of a problem here.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Great point about small steps, Armen, and I love your example about TV watching. All it takes is a little space from the pattern, and we are free to make a different choice.

  4. says

    Hi, Gail –

    Your post reminds me of some wise advice I received . . . that a significant part of “moving away” from something is to be focused on “moving towards” something more desired.

    A very thought-provoking post! Thank you!

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  5. says

    I find The Sedona Method useful in situations where we would normally ‘react’, rather than being pro-active. But sometimes I forget to use it! I am using it a lot lately as I am involved in something where the outcome depends on other people. I have to admit that I am feeling less stressed since I have let go of control where I don’t actually have any. I am just hoping for the best and getting on with my days.
    It is not easy to change one’s habits, but it can be done with a bit of tenacity!


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