The Problem with Self-Discipline

“What’s wrong with me?” the graphic designer wailed, “I know what to do, but I just don’t do it. I feel like a complete failure – again!” She was talking about radically redesigning her business structure in order to have more personal freedom, as well as grow her profitability. The benefits of changing her behavior were both obvious, and enormous. Yet she kept sabotaging herself by not taking even simple and easy actions, and becoming harshly self-critical as a result.

I recognized that she actually was taking steps towards change, but when she bumped up against a challenge or a misstep she came to a full stop, believing failure to be final, and her abilities to be inadequate. Later in the conversation she said the exact words I hear over and over again, “I just don’t have enough self-discipline.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. We are each intensely disciplined. We just don’t always fully understand what real discipline looks like as a process.

The Discipline of Will

The most commonly used definition of discipline is behaving correctly in order to avoid punishment. This is a discipline of dominance and submission. A power struggle of wills is involved, and there is always a winner and a loser. As we age this becomes an internalized, and often deeply unsatisfying struggle between aspects of our psyche.

As children we simply want to do whatever we want to do, in order to get immediate satisfaction. Then, when we cross a boundary, an authority figure tells us that the satisfying thing we want is “not okay.” We either stop, or receive our consequences. We then learn to not do that thing if we don’t want to risk the pain of punishment. This approach of overpowering of the self is the method of self-control most of us internalize as we grow up.

So we enter into adulthood feeling like powerless children when it comes to the idea of discipline. We learn to do the thing that is good for us in order to avoid punishment instead of in order to gain fulfillment. When we are disciplined enough in our diet, workout regimen, studies, training, meeting deadlines, or other achievement endeavors we boast of the incredible lengths we went to order to get there – in other words how much we sacrificed, and how powerful our will must be to achieve so much.

Missing the mark does not mean we don’t have discipline. It means we are actively immersed in discipline.

This discipline is extremely difficult to maintain. It requires overcoming our natural state of being in order to cross a finish line. It also demands unsustainable focus and adrenaline to meet whatever goal we have set. While this sort of discipline is fine for the short bursts of intense growth, it is absolutely unsustainable for the long-haul. It is also the type of discipline the designer was bemoaning having so little of.

The Discipline of Practice

The second type of discipline is the discipline of practice. It is what we mean when we refer to the discipline of science, learning an instrument, or language, or skill, such as yoga. This is not something you can ever power your way into mastering. The only way to acquire a discipline of mastery is to keep practicing. Practice implies that occasionally we will fail at least occasionally, and we will have to look at what caused us to miss the mark in order to not repeat it.

Missing the mark does not mean we don’t have discipline. It means we are actively immersed in discipline. This discipline is a living, evolving discipline. Here, failure isn’t punishment. It is an opportunity to get curious. If we get curious about where we missed the mark, we can learn. If we learn, we can continue our practice and incorporate our new learning into our discipline, continuing to improve as we go.

So this discipline is the discipline of process. It is a sustainable, gentle and natural approach for gaining new habits, new knowledge and new abilities. You cannot learn anything new without discipline. A commitment to live a healthier lifestyle, which involves more exercise, will require this form of discipline; so will running a successful business. It doesn’t mean there will not be days when you fall back into old habits, but with the gift of curiosity it becomes possible to explore the situations and triggers that pull you back into those old patterns of thought or behavior. Once you are aware of them, you can practice again, and become better at avoiding them in the future.

Recognizing the Different Disciplines

Discipline seen in the light of process takes on an entirely different appeal. When I explained to the designer that this was the type of discipline required of her in order to create a fresh experience in her business, she visibly relaxed. A huge, “Ohhhhhhhh,” escaped. As I began to explain the two types of disciplines to other entrepreneurs who were struggling with some of their own unfamiliar practices, I discovered how they also had been punishing themselves needlessly for not having discipline when they, in fact had it in spades.

The best analogy for when one discipline is at play instead of the other is to go back to childhood: for example, when a toddler is fighting against going to bed, this is an opportunity for the discipline of will. The parent steps in, sets a firm boundary and consequence, and requires compliance. It is a situation of obedience either being given or not – an all or nothing scenario.

Alternately, when the child is learning to drink through a straw, they can sometimes tip the glass, dumping the contents everywhere. A parent monitors their progress, providing guidance and support till they have achieved mastery of this new skill. While a parent might become frustrated with the spills along the way, it is not a contest of wills at all. This is the discipline of practice, which falls into a framework of gradual improvement, typically with support and guidance.

When we, as business owners, are learning a new approach or skill, it is vital that we find the support and guidance that can carry us through, as well as giving ourselves the room to practice where the stakes are not so high that they feel life-threatening. We deserve the right to practice our new discipline long enough to find mastery, which only occurs when we stop judging ourselves as undisciplined before we have even begun.

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