The Dark Side of Self-Discipline

From an evolutionary perspective, we’re poorly equipped to navigate our temptation-rich world. Our brains are conditioned to constantly seek ways to satisfy our appetite, desires, and whims. That’s why we turn to self-discipline for help. When we feel that we don’t have complete control over our lives, we strive to strengthen our willpower muscles in order to handle the chaotic thoughts craving immediate pleasures. But is self-discipline as good as it seems?

Well, yes. From a practical perspective, self-discipline is one of the best qualities a person can obtain to systemize his life so he can progress in life.

Yet, there is something rarely mentioned… The dark side of self-discipline.

Despite being ranked as the number one quality on my personal board of skills one must have – and not only, it’s also internationally recognized as critical to have. Self-control comes pre-packaged with some downsides.

I know, that’s probably the last thing you expect to hear from a person who has written a bunch of articles on the topic of self-discipline and even has a course on the subject.

“What the f*ck, Ivaylo. I thought self-discipline is the go-to concept when my life is a complete disaster. Why now say that there are downsides in relation to self-control?”

Sorry to break it up to you kids. But yes, self-discipline does have a few cons.

Surely being disciplined has a lot of benefits, but the disadvantages are worth noting as well.

So, in this installment, I’m going to lay out the negative traits related to self-discipline.

Buckle up. It’s going to get rough.

How Can Self-Discipline Have a Downside?

When we think of self-discipline, we imagine a life where everything is perfectly organized. Like a skilled conductor of an orchestra, we have full control of all major aspects that should constitute a good life: we control our impulses, we successfully manage our finances, we exercise, we do our work on time, we rarely fall victim to the whims of society, our front yards and homes are always miraculously tidy and organized, etc.

And while being a self-disciplined person sounds like a go-to strategy for many, it gets complicated under the hood.

In a study published in 2022, the authors had an interesting hypothesis: people who have high self-control are perceived as rigid and robot-like. Thus, other people tend to avoid them.

Well, this turned out to be true.

On average, the participants in the study perceived people with high self-control as less warm and outrageously unexciting. Moreover, these same people mentioned that they are not very interested in hanging out with these unspontaneous folks.

And guess what happens when others start to avoid you because you are perceived as a performance-driven android in a world of free spirits? You start to lose your cool.

When Too Much Self-Discipline Becomes a Bad Thing?

I’ve talked a lot about my personal journey throughout all of my articles.

But who has the time to read all of them, right?

So, in short, for most of my twenties, I used to be a lazy, reckless, validation-seeking drinker who smoked and never had more than a thousand dollars in his bank account. Now, I don’t.

And while all of this sounds bad, not all was bad.

During my career as a nightlife aficionado, I had a blast. Invitations for parties never stopped. I was happy in a very twisted way, simply because I didn’t need much to be happy.

As long as there was a party happening soon, I didn’t bother to worry about the other areas of my life that were failing apart: opportunity to start a family, health, finances, and potential career growth.

Luckily for me back then, parties were always happening soon.

Eventually, because I’ve aged or simply because I end up in a very nasty place after so much alcohol. I realized that this lifestyle could not – and should not – be sustained. Things had to change. And things did change.

I went from being a lazy procrastinator to a self-disciplined ninja.

And while all of this sounds good, not all was (is) good.

In another study conducted in 2021, called: The Upsides and Downsides of High Self-Control: Evidence for Effects of Similarity and Situation Dependency. The researchers found that for leisure activities, people with high self-discipline are typically avoided over people with low self-discipline.

Or, basically, if others perceive you as someone who can control his impulses, you are at the bottom of their invite list.

Well, my experience perfectly resonates with the study itself.

As soon as my friends realized that I no longer drink or smoke, after their countless encouragements. Get-together invites drastically declined.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

If you want to go out and have a good time, you don’t want someone on a constant diet who will want to go home early so he/she can work out in the morning. No, you’d prefer a person who will support you in everything you do – ready to drink, smoke, and enjoy the moment without overthinking fitness regimes.

This is the so-called similarity hypothesis.1 A hypothesis stating that we tend to be attracted towards people who share similar values, interests, and traits as us.

Since I was part of a group where self-discipline was lacking, myself included initially. As I got it, my values and priorities shifted, while the values and priorities of my friends remained quite the same. Naturally, our paths diverged.

As you can imagine, this will not apply to everyone.

If, say, you’ve been in a group where progress is the norm. I’d suspect that you won’t have that same problem, simply because everyone in the group is already self-disciplined.

However, if you were in a company where everyone lacks discipline, but you eventually obtain it. This will usually lead to a significant shift in your relationships. Well, unless you somehow convince all of your friends to give up impulsivity and embrace making responsible decisions.

What Are Examples of Harmful Self-Discipline?

As it’s hopefully clear by now, there are some negative aspects related to self-discipline.

We can divide them into two buckets: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Let’s start with the extrinsic examples of harmful self-discipline:

1. Materialistic Pursuits

Adhering to an impossible daily regime only to acquire more money and material possessions will unlikely turn out well.

If the core motivator for your conscious being becomes the acquisition of money, this will often lead to a degeneration of your relationships and health.

The author of Atomic Habits perfectly captured this in the following:

“If you want a recipe for unhappiness, spend your time accumulating a lot of money and let your health and relationships deteriorate.” James Clear

Having money is something that can positively affect our well-being. But the pursuit of money often has negative effects on our lives.2

When we adopt daily habits solely to gain more money. We tie our self-worth to this ever-expanding goal of financial success. In the long run, even if we do get stinking wealthy, we become more vulnerable to negative psychological consequences.

Specifically, we undermine our self-confidence and motivation when we compare ourselves with others who are more successful. When this happens, anxiety and stress take over because we are constantly worried about our bank balance.

In response to these stressors, we might become even more obsessed with self-discipline. Which, in turn, can further distance us from others and even damage our health because of the long work hours.

2. Social Validation

Quite often, we want to develop self-discipline only because we want external validation.

Getting approval from others is like fuel for our nervous system. The more positive feedback and virtual likes we get from others, the better we feel.

However, this has its costs, too.

The line between healthy habits and unhealthy habits is thin. Especially when we start to depend on others for our self-esteem.

There are quite a lot of stories of modern influencers whose behavior becomes inauthentic and even dangerous because they are in constant pursuit of social validation.3

These online celebrities become superb at regularly posting updates of their seemingly fairy-tale-like lives all over the internet. But are their lives indeed so impressive?

There are benefits like fame, money, and screaming fans, no doubt. But reportedly, at some point, these are paired with intense anxiety and paranoia.4


Now, let’s look at the intrinsic harmful self-discipline examples:

3. Emotional Suppression

At some point, your good habits might lead you to a place where you don’t allow yourself to express your emotions.

You are so focused on doing your daily routine, that you don’t permit yourself to share how you feel in relation to what you are doing.

You are acting on an autopilot, but in a bad way.

I’ve surely done this myself. I force myself to exercise regardless of how I feel. Or, I avoid sharing with friends and family members how hard it is to exercise daily, write, read, and resist temptations because I don’t want to sound weak. On the outside, I present myself as competent and strong. On the inside, I sometimes feel incapable and weak.

Partly, I do it intentionally. I think that if I start to explain all the difficulties related to my daily routine, this will be perceived as complaining, and who wants to hear someone whining, right? Additionally, I think that if I start to doubt my daily system, I will become a sluggish ball covered in fast food leftovers.

However, sharing how I feel about this gets it out of my chest. It creates space to explore what I am doing and potentially allow me to make improvements in my schedule.

4. Stress and Pressure

Going from not working out to not missing a day without a workout basically makes you a responsible human being.

In particular, self-discipline makes you conscious of everything you do.

And, as I already mentioned, this comes with a lot of benefits. However, it also creates a lot of pressure and stress.

You believe in yourself for your ability to make it. Thus, you take on bigger challenges.

But each new project can potentially introduce more stress and pressure into your life.

For example, the initial offering on my site was subscription-based access to long-form book summaries (the ones that are now free on my site).

Initially, I had no problem reading four books per month and, at the same time, crafting a 4,000-word summary for each. Over time, however, it became clear that this is not a sustainable long-term strategy. Once my son was born, time became even more scarce. It became impossible to read and summarize books at the needed pace to satisfy the people who were paying for access. I felt a lot of pressure to craft articles and book summaries at the same time. Therefore, in relation to my site, I decided to quit the regular posting of book summaries and focus on articles instead.

While I had a way out, there are many instances where you decide to take a certain path, but you fail to realize that this path locks you in a particular lifestyle, which can cause a lot of stress.

Being a content creator is the perfect example.

You need to constantly upload content to gain traffic to your channel, blog, shop, social media page, etc. And in a lot of cases, you need to upload this content to various social media channels. If you fail to realize this upfront and create a sustainable system that fits your desired lifestyle, at some point, the pressure to feed the algorithm will take its toll.

5. Avoidance of Change

One underestimated downside of being stuck in your own routine is being stuck in your own routine.

On first look, this should be good, right? You are committed to a particular daily to-do list that helps you maintain a (hopefully) healthy lifestyle. Thus, you are focused on a particular project and probably a set of activities. However, there are disadvantages to this. This commitment to a set of routines can also prevent you from exploring different activities that can lead to higher returns.

Let me elaborate…

When you are fully committed to a certain routine, you might miss out on doing other things that can be better for you. Or in other words, your obsessive focus on doing a set of activities, will prevent you from doing another set of activities. And what if this other collection of tasks is better for you?

For example, you could have a workout regime that you’ve done for a year. But what if you are better at swimming or running. What if these other sports better affect your overall physique? You won’t know unless you try. But you don’t try because you are fixated on your current routine.

Obviously, constantly changing what you do is not what I am after here. It’s about occasionally exploring different activities to be sure that you are not stuck in an outdated routine.

6. Social Distancing

The similarity hypothesis mentioned above can have a negative effect.

Here’s what happens…

The more you add discipline to your life, the more awkward you might feel if the group of people you usually meet are not that disciplined.

For you, it feels like a no-brainer to exercise, invest, read books, attend seminars, etc. Thus, when you see people indulging in self-destructive acts like binge-eating, binge-scrolling, or binge-watching TV shows, you begin to distance yourself from them.

Sure, your cycling group probably doesn’t have issues when it comes down to physical activities. But most of them are probably totally unaligned with your other personal values.

At some point, you might feel like you understand everyone, but no one understands you.5

You have a sense of the motives of others – why they do what they do. But you can’t find someone who shares your desire for continuous progress.

What personally bothers me in a lot of my relationships is how people claim that they have no or little influence over how their lives unfold. It’s always someone else’s fault that they don’t have a good job, or that they are not fit, or that they are not happy. And because of this mindset, people don’t take any action.

But when you try to present your point that we have the capacity to make positive changes, this concept usually meets a lot of criticism: “No, it’s not me. It’s because of them that my life is a total mess!”

Even if you enter a relentless search for that special person in the seemingly endless maze of chaos. It’s extremely hard to find someone who is on the same wavelength as you.

At some point, you might feel totally alone despite being surrounded by a crowd of others.

How to Overcome the Self-Discipline Downsides?

How to remain disciplined in an increasingly distracted world, while at the same time not allowing discipline to turn you into an inauthentic robot-like human?

Up until recently, I attributed many of the problems plaguing our lives and society as a whole to a lack of self-discipline. If you had weight problems, it was due to your inability to manage your impulses and focus yourself primarily on short-term sensations.

Sure, realizing where your life sucks and taking active steps to bring your state to a brighter future is a solution. But there are nuances.

I still believe that strengthening your willpower is of high importance. However, now I know that there are extra things to consider.

According to studies, the increase of people with obesity happened relatively recently – around 1960. Before that, the United States was normal in relation to this problem.6

So, what happened?

Since our genes haven’t changed that much since our inception, there must be something else that could have triggered a wave of consumerism.

Well, there was.

Around the 1960s, several things have happened that contributed to the increase in obesity rates:

  • Television was widely adopted: Sedentary activities, such as watching TV, became more prevalent, reducing the time people spent in physical activities.7
  • Process foods became the go-to meal: People began to rely more and more on fast and affordable meals to feed their families. This caused a shift in dietary patterns.8
  • Widespread adoption of automobiles: People were relying heavily on cars for commuting. Naturally, this led to an extra decline in daily physical activities.9

Or, what I want to share here is that blaming others for their lack of self-control is only part of the equation.

If you have weight problems, a lack of self-control is surely one thing to consider. But there are additional things that influence your state: reduced prices for processed foods, bigger servings, a shift towards more sedentary work and leisure, unresolved emotional issues, etc.

The point here is to showcase that every problem has several aspects.

Unintentionally, I began to distance myself from other people because I had this one-sided view. I was so focused on my daily routine, that I began to disengage from almost all activities that weren’t offering an opportunity for growth. If a person was irrational, I wasn’t keen on keeping our relationship going. I considered his/hers flaws solely based on a lack of willpower.

Basically, I was putting the blame entirely on the individual, without considering the broader societal factors.

It wasn’t a problem at first, but eventually it did become one.

Some Closing Thoughts

Nowadays, it’s not only critical to state what you want to do. But it’s also important to define what you don’t want to do.

Self-discipline is becoming more and more important exactly for this reason. Our distraction-rich world is doing all possible to steer us away from our plans. Naturally, we start to seek ways to take control without constantly feeling pulled towards short-term pleasures.

Yet, becoming absolutely obsessed with the idea of total domination over your feelings and actions comes with a price.

Not only do we transform our daily lives into emotionless automation, but we also start to push other people away.

If someone is not performing based on our hard-to-reach standards, we consider them unworthy of our time.

And that’s not all!

We start to totally neglect the idea of spontaneity. Our lives become a dull, routine existence where everything is planned. But when we have a plan for everything, we fail to plan for the beauty found in the unplanned. The moments that make life worth living.

Hopefully, the ideas shared in this piece gave you a new perspective. A way to look at self-discipline in a different, more nuanced way.

Like pretty much everything in life, taking something to the extreme often hurts.

It’s necessary to be self-disciplined to have a healthy life. But taking this too far can lead to the opposite: an unhealthy life.

All in all, when you embrace the idea of improving your willpower, also consider the dark side of self-discipline.

Surely creating a daily routine is something you need to do if you embrace the idea of continuous improvement. But also don’t take this to the extreme – i.e., creating an awfully rigid daily system that prevents you from experiencing the joy of living.

“Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Take yourself as seriously as death itself.
Don’t worry. Worry your ass off.
Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt.
It keeps you alive and alert!
Believe you are the baddest ass in town – and [that] you suck!
It keeps you honest.
Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times.” Bruce Springsteen


Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:

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Foonotes:

  1. Similarity hypothesis. The Decision Lab. Available at: https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/sociology/similarity-hypothesis
  2. Park, L. E., Ward, D. E., & Naragon-Gainey, K. It’s All About the Money (For Some): Consequences of Financially Contingent Self-Worth. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 601-622. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216689080
  3. Steven Asarch, M.M.I. Inside the rise of Nikocado avocado, the extreme-eating youtuber whose dramatic meltdowns have led to years of controversy and feuds, Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/who-is-youtube-star-nikocado-avocado-2020-1
  4. Howard, M. How social media is impacting influencers’ mental health, Women’s Health. Available at: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a41946590/influencer-content-creation-hurting-mental-health/
  5. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the following: Against Normalcy: Why Being Normal Can Be Dangerous. While I received criticism for the piece. I also got quite a few comments from others who feel the same way.
  6. Loewenstein, G. (2018). Self-Control and Its Discontents: A Commentary on Duckworth, Milkman, and Laibson. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(3), 95-101. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100619828401
  7. Diggs-Brown, Barbara. Strategic Public Relations: Audience Focused Practice, p. 48. Available at: https://books.google.bg/books?id=7c0ycySng4YC
  8. The rise of processed foods in the United States. Available at: https://www.wildhealth.com/blog/everything-to-know-about-the-rise-of-processed-foods-in-the-united-states
  9. Car. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car
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