News and Tribune


April 25, 2014

STAWAR: Addicted to self-control

— As anyone who has worked in retail knows, it can be extremely difficult to maintain your self-control with rude, demanding and provocative customers.

My wife Diane is not always a model of self-control at the nonprofit bookstore she manages. She occasionally asks shoppers to be considerate and leave the area as neat as they found it. She has learned, however, to keep these lectures to a minimum and to not be provoked into an argument by customers.

Of course, there are circumstances when it’s best to be assertive and to directly confront bullying, and that’s where she draws the line.

I think we often forget that we have a choice about how we respond in provocative situations. In many cases, we automatically allow our brain’s primitive limbic system to be hijacked.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, executive coach Judith E. Glaser says that in threatening and stressful situations, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods our brains and then “… advanced thought processes … shut down and the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over ... so we default to one of four responses: fight, flight, freeze or appease.”

By employing self-control and not responding in an angry or defensive manner, as the classic argument script calls for, we can disrupt the behavioral patterns that typically create a quarrel.

Of course, it is always much easier to suggest using self-control to other people than to do it yourself. According to Richard Holton from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Steven Shute from the University of Birmingham, self-control is the ability to act in accordance with what your best judgment tells you to do.

The first step toward self-control is to understand what you truly wish to accomplish, since the course of action you choose should depend upon these goals. To exercise your best judgment, you need to decide how you would like to see the episode turn out.

Do you just want to express your opinion, regardless of what else transpires? Do you want the person to leave? Do you want to dominate them, or do you want them to curse at you and storm out?

It is surprising how much control other people are willing to relinquish in such situations. Most of the time you can probably make any of these things happen, simply by what you decided to say and how you decided to react to their provocation.

Last month at a business meeting, my self-controlled wavered and before I realized it, I found myself starting to argue with someone in precisely the circumstances in which I have made it a inviolate rule never to argue. I had inadvertently let my ego get out of control and I had forgotten my primary goals. Most damaging of all I had allowed my wanting to be right to override my better judgment.

Glaser reports that in the business world, she has found that the fight response is the most common and most dangerous consequence of a lack of self-control. She describes running across many executives who have become addicted to being right.

Successful aggressive arguing leads to an increase in dopamine production in the brain, which then results in sensations of deep satisfaction and feelings of power. These feelings can be so pleasurable that many people may wish to replicate them in future situations. In this manner, fighting and aggression can be conditioned to become second nature.

The summer, right after he graduated from high school, our youngest son worked as a cashier at a local arts and crafts store. Most nights when we would pick him up after work, he would still be upset and vocally complain about all of the terrible customers that he had to deal with that day. To make things worse, the management at the store would invariably side with the customer in any dispute, even if the customer was obviously wrong or was breaking some store rule or policy.

Never one to suffer fools gladly, and with an adolescent’s idealized sense of fairness, it was almost more than he could bear. We repeatedly lectured him on the importance of self-control and tried to reason with him, all to little avail.

Later, when he got a job working at an art supply store in New York City, he actually chased down and tackled two shoplifters.

I have always thought that this must have given him tremendous satisfaction, since the Indiana store evidently had a policy against pulverizing its customers.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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