Can Too Much Self-Control Be Bad For Your Mental Health?

We all need some self-control. But when does it become too much, and how does too much affect our mental health?

Self-control – A good thing?

Having high self-control is often seen as a good thing. It’s believed to be crucial to success in many aspects of life – whether that’s getting a promotion at work, sticking to your workout regime or resisting the temptation of a sweet treat when you’re watching what you eat.

But as suggested by a theory published by Lynch in 2018, high self-control may not always be a good thing – and for some, it could be linked to specific mental health problems.

According to Lynch’s theory, every single one of us leans more towards one of two personality styles: under control or over control. The way we tend to lean depends on many factors, including our genes, the behaviour that people around us reward and discourage, our life experiences and the coping strategies we use in everyday life.

Importantly, being undercontrolled or overcontrolled is neither good nor bad. While it makes us more likely to behave in a certain way, most of us are psychologically flexible and can adapt to the different situations we’re put in. So, regardless of whether we’re overcontrolled or undercontrolled, this flexibility helps us deal with life’s challenges and setbacks constructively.

But both undercontrol and overcontrol can become problematic. This usually happens when a combination of biological, social and personal factors makes us much less flexible.

What does under control look like?

Most of us are probably more familiar with what problematic under control looks like. People who are highly under-controlled may have few inhibitions and struggle to control their emotions. Their behaviour may be unpredictable, as it’s often dependent on the mood they’re in. This can negatively affect their relationships, education, work, finances and health.

There are many therapies out there that can help under-controlled people. These therapies help them learn to regulate emotions and increase self-control. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy aims to teach people control over their thoughts, behaviour and feelings. Similarly, dialectical behaviour therapy – designed for people who experience intense emotions – targets emotion dysregulation.

Problematic overcontrol

Unfortunately, overcontrol isn’t talked about as much. This may be because overcontrolled traits – such as persistence, the ability to make plans and stick to them, striving for perfection and being in control of emotions – are often highly regarded in our society. But when overcontrol becomes an issue, it can be damaging in many areas of life.

Highly overcontrolled people may struggle to adapt to change. They may be less open to new experiences and criticism and be very set in their ways. They may experience bitter feelings of envy towards others and struggle to relax and have fun in social situations. They may also use fewer gestures, rarely smile or cry, and try to hide their emotions at any cost.

Together, these characteristics may make a person more likely to experience social isolation and loneliness. This may ultimately cause their mental health to worsen.

Unfortunately, many of the available psychological therapies don’t help treat issues of overcontrol. This is because they focus on improving self-control and emotion regulation. But since overcontrolled people already control and regulate too much; they instead need therapy that can help them learn that sometimes it’s okay to relax and let go.

Alongside his theory, Lynch also developed a therapy designed to treat issues of overcontrol – known as radically open dialectical behaviour therapy.

Early studies have shown that the therapy has a lot of potential in helping overcontrolled people. It does this by teaching them how to let go of the need to always be in control, be more open about their emotions, better communicate with other people, and be more flexible in the midst of changing situations.

Importantly, this therapy is transdiagnostic, which means it can be helpful regardless of what mental health condition a person might have been diagnosed with before. Research shows that it may be beneficial for people who struggle with a range of mental health conditions – such as treatment-resistant depression, anorexia nervosa and autism spectrum disorders.

But, to receive suitable help, a person must first be correctly identified as highly overcontrolled.

Assessment for overcontrol

The current assessment of overcontrol is quite long and complex. It involves a few questionnaires and an interview that a specially trained clinician must conduct. This can limit access to support and slow down research.

Researchers are currently working on developing a simplified assessment method that will help promptly identify problematic overcontrol. This will make it easier for researchers to continue studying over control, too.

High self-control is typically admired, and highly overcontrolled people rarely express their struggles. That’s why problematic overcontrol can go unnoticed for a long time. Continued work in this field will hopefully make it easier for people to get the help they need.

Importantly, overcontrol and undercontrol are complex concepts and cannot be self-diagnosed. If you suspect, you may be highly overcontrolled or under-controlled – and significantly, if it’s affecting your health and wellbeing – it’s essential to reach out to a doctor or therapist.

What are your thoughts on this article? Are the concepts of under and over-control familiar to you? Tell us more in the comments.


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