The Difference Between Control and Self-Control

September 11, 2010   •  Posted in: 


Strangely, the way we often choose to demonstrate our sense of control is by our ability to say yes to something. We think that because we choose to engage in the activity, we show control over that activity. This often happens at the time children turn into teenagers and young adults. They think their “adulthood” is manifest in how many places and ways they get to say yes to things parents and other authority figures previously told them to say no to.

Growing up, Denise was constantly told no. No, she couldn’t have that toy. No, she couldn’t have that candy. No, she couldn’t have that dress. Her family wasn’t poor; her father just ruled the family like that was the case.

As far as Denise could tell, he didn’t keep the money to pay for personal extravagences. He was as austere with his own life as he demanded of everyone else. It wasn’t that he wanted more for himself, Denise came to believe, but that he didn’t want it for anyone. When she realized that’s the way he was, Denise began to take it personally. She decided the issue wasn’t really about the money — it was about control.

Her father controlled money as a way to control her and the rest of the family. Over time, her resentment grew.

Fortunately, Denise was able to get a scholarship to help with tuition in college, along with student loans, because her father woud never have paid for any of it. But she was smart and landed a good job after college. Having paychecks with her name on them made Denise feel liberated. This was her money; she earned it. Nobody else had a right to tell her what to do with it.

She reveled in the ability to hand her credit card over. It was her way of saying yes, and it felt marvelous.

Marvelous, that is, until Denise began to have difficulty  even meeting the minimum monthly payments on her collection of credit cards. A friend at work casually asked if she’d ever considered putting together a budget. Even the word sounded distasteful. That’s all Denise remembered growing up: how all of them were supposed to be living within “the budget.” Every end of the month, as she sweated and worried about being able to pay her bills, Denise promised that the very next month she’d start saying no to things and get her spending under control. That’s all she needed to do, just get her spending under control.

Of course, to get her spending under control she’d have to get herself under control.


So many people hit their young-adult years believing control is all about saying yes to those things they were previously denied. I think it takes us a bit longer to figure out that often the best way to exhibit our control is by choosing to say no to those same things. I guess you could call this the difference between control and self-control.

So often we think control is about finally making sure we get what we want. Self-control, however, is more about making sure we get what we need.

Self-control is not easy to come by, requiring the long view over instant gratification and initially appearing harsh, unpleasant, and virtually impossible to employ. It requires practice, patience, and perseverance. Self-control presupposes an intimate knowledge of self, knowing what is and is not good and appropriate for you.

It’s that person at the buffet who is able to cheerfully say, “No, thank you,” to that big piece of chocolate layer cake (when you’ve gone back for seconds). It’s the oddity of someone who is able to say no to 30 more minutes of sleep in order to get up to jog in the rain and the cold (when it’s all you can do to crawl out of bed 30 minutes late). It’s the anomaly of the person who is able to put down work and go home at the end of the day, saying no to the urge to stay another hour (when you consistently find yourself — once again — being the last one in the office to lock up). Self-control is that and so much more.


It is obvious that self-control is a virtue and a value. It can also, sadly, be in very short supply in life.

You know it is good. You want to be able to exercise control over self. None of us want to admit we aren’t able to control ourselves. So how do you develop a better grasp of saying no? The answer, of course, lies within each person — and outside of each person.

In the paradoxical way of Scripture, one way to control self lies completely outside of self. The work certainly is within you, but your help and your hope to gain and mature in this self-control, thankfully, are not totally up to you.

Titus 2:11-13 says:

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Self-control, then, is a gift of God — not some divine zap but rather a process taught by God. Self-control is your control over self, but it’s a joint effort between you and God.

We, frankly, need help in this department. The Bible says:

“I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway…. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time” (Rom. 7:17-20)

Taken individually, many of the Gotta Have It! behaviors we’ve talked about aren’t bad or wrong. Our excessities go wrong when they get the better of us every time, when they are in control, not us. The only way to get back control is to develop and strengthen our self-control.

When dealing with our excessities, we need to ask, “Who’s in charge?”

Source: Chapter 7, “Our Need for Control” in Gotta Have It! by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, Inc


Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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