To have and to hold: myself – until I come back to my senses.
It’s the first thing to reach for: before we even start dealing with the problem.
It’s the very first tool.
Some call it mindfulness. Or awareness. Or curiosity. Actually, it comes before curiosity. It’s hard to be curious about why you feel like tying your loved ones onto the railroad tracks while you’re tightening the knots. Self-control feels the urge, and says, “Wait. Just hold on a minute.”
What does it look like:
I think it looks like a clamp. Or a vice It’s there to hold something still so it can be safely examined and fixed.
What does it do:
It keeps us from doing something stupid. Self-control is built for the boiling passions. It holds us back from flying off course from the direction where we are pointing our lives. It keeps us from inexplicably spending 200 unplanned dollars at Target. It keeps us from shaking our children in rage and hopping a train to Canada. It keeps us from committing adultery during a drawn-out fight with our husbands. When our blood pressure is rising, it’s the mechanism that holds us still so that we can make a CHOICE about how we will act/react. It’s the time to let God give us a better idea, and to remind us of who we are, in Him.
It’s the mechanism that creates space to look and choose when I feel triggered.
What is triggered?
It’s coming across a reference to an old wound: maybe someone mentions that old friend who turned against you and wrecked your relationship beyond repair. Suddenly you feel as small as a fly. For the rest of the day you snap at everyone, suspicious that they, too, don’t care about you; suspicious that they too are only in this for themselves. It’s reacting to an old crisis, today. The crisis isn’t happening right now. But the feelings that come up feel as intense as they did at the time. It takes work to calm down a triggered person and bring them back to the present. But it’s possible, and completely necessary.
How do you use it?
It’s using our own free choice to take control of OURSELVES. Why? In order to put ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s using our freedom to choose to not gratify our sinful desires. It’s when we have enough perspective to see the consequences of each choice, or enough trust in the Lord to obey his Word when we don’t have the perspective to see beyond our circumstances.
Ask God why I feel triggered.
The Bible has a list of some pretty heinous acts when we lose control of ourselves. We are swallowed up into fits of rage, give ourselves over to hatred, slide into sexual immorality, and shatter into dissensions. (Galatians 5:19-20) The consequences are real.
But when we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we have access to a whole host of good behavior, programmed into our spirit, as we practice accessing them.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22, 25
To keep in step is to practice: to practice dancing with, and to practice walking alongside. Either way, we have a part to play in it.
It’s a fruit of the spirit, which means self-control ultimately comes from God. The power to practice it successfully is a gift from heaven.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5
Wisdom is knowing “what to do when.” It takes a moment to stop and think – to hold in place – in order to see and make a wise choice. It takes a clamp of self-control to make a choice you can stand behind.
What if I don’t use it?
That’s fine. There’s no law that says you must control yourself. But there will be a little buddy that will show up and boss you around. His name is Shame.
Shame is the “check oil” light on our dashboard. It’s the indicator that something is wrong. We can see the areas of our lives that lack self-control if we can trace back the areas of our lives in which we feel shame. Where do we want to hide what we have done/are doing? What would we rather not bring up? What hurts to admit? That’s where shame rules, because somehow we have lost control of ourselves in that area.
So what then? After we recognize we’ve lost control of ourselves, what do we do? Of course we repent and ask forgiveness of God and anyone caught in our cross hairs. But there’s more.
Brene Brown calls it the counter-intuitive practice of “Shame-Resilience.”
In her book Daring Greatly, Brown tells a story of reading a nasty email from a client. Hurt, she wanted to share it, and her feelings, with her husband. Adding her own low opinion of this person to the body text, she intended to forward it to her husband. Instead, she hit “Reply” by mistake, sending it back to the nasty person. They had a field day with her. She recalls:
“The shame attack was already in full swing. My mouth was dry, time was slowing down, and I was seeing tunnel vision.”
So, what did she do in response? She writes that she had to “practice courage and reach out.” She goes on to explain:
“Yes, I want to hide, but the way to fight shame and to honor who we are is by sharing our experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.
Talk to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back.
Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.”
Making these counter-intuitive moves is only possible with the clamp of self-control firmly in place first. It’s the first move back toward life, light, and connection. It’s the first move out of the death, darkness, and isolation of shame. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives freely to all who ask. And it is a CHOICE. It’ the first choice of many. Let’s not misplace it. I try to keep mine slung around the outside handle of my toolbox, for quick access. Lord knows I need it often.