David Blaine is a magician and endurance artist. This is his YouTube channel. It’s an interesting case of what extreme self-control can achieve.



Exercises to increase self-control. They target automatic functions because you want to bring back into conscious awareness something that has become automatic. This is a transferable skill, and you can get better at it. It can be applied to walking or brushing your teeth, but also to addictions, automatic thoughts, or creating new habits. So, get to work!


Exercises to be done for a month, daily:

  • brush your teeth with your left hand (if you’re right-handed)
  • control your posture throughout the day
  • pay attention to how you walk, how your sole touches the ground
  • control your breathing whenever you remember, making it deep and abdominal.


Dive deeper

Given that problem-oriented intervention often fails, this time I want to explore what the root of healthy self-discipline is, so that it works on the long run. Once understood and addressed at this level, treating the present problem should unlock and flow naturally.

Thus, I speak about the relationship between:

  • desire and self-control
  • external authority and self-awareness – the internal counterpart of authority.


Where does self-control or its lack come from?

Behind self-control lies the relationship with authority, or external control. We have been shaped In this matrix of relationships, and in it we can remodel ourselves and further shape the world we live in. Authority figures include parents, teachers, society, culture, tradition, whether secular or religious. The foundations of self-control are self-awareness and the relationship with authority.


Self-control is a form of self-restraint. I, in relation to myself, am both authority and subordinate. When I have self-discipline, there is a collaborative relationship between these two aspects of myself, that of authority and that of subordinate. Self-discipline is my internal ability to follow the rule when I set it and constrain myself to respect it.


When I don’t do what I set out to do, even though I intend to, a conflict arises between these two aspects of myself, blocking cooperation and action. This conflict is mostly unconscious because:

  1. It’s an old conflict and
  2. I’ve learned to hide the real reasons why I don’t comply.


When I submit to an external rule or structure, it’s somewhat easier because the conflict is not inside myself, but outside. This means it’s easier to challenge authority if I feel like it (gossip, complain, criticize, or even rebel) or to disobey if I decide I can afford it and there is no other way. Also, authority can constrain me much more easily if it’s external. I won’t constrain myself very effectively because I’m also the one protecting myself, which makes me lose objectivity and efficiency.


What kind of master do you have?

All our organization, both externally (family, state, economy) and internally (our intrapsychic life), follows a power structure and respects a hierarchy. Someone commands and someone obeys. Someone has power and someone yields power, for the sake of a better chance at survival. This doesn’t mean that all structures are neatly ordered, good, or efficient. It just means they have an order based on a power relationship, whether we like it or not. Some cities are more like Istanbul, Naples, or Bucharest, while others are more like Paris, Geneva, or Hamburg.


The power relationship within you is probably familiar to you in the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. I personally prefer the analogy of a dog and its master. A dog and its master can be a fabulous pair, they can do extraordinary things together, play, go through difficult situations together, and have a loyalty and mutual attachment that the world of humans rarely offers. At the other end of the spectrum, they can be of rare unhappiness, both dog and master, and a danger to themselves and others. You can’t collaborate with an animal, even if it’s domesticated, if you don’t establish a relationship of trust, and if that animal, which can become dangerous and uncontrollable at any time, doesn’t love you and trust you and decide to submit to you because it knows you will take good care of it.


The trouble is that historically this dog/master relationship has been based on force, fear, and coercion. Whenever we talk about control, order, or discipline, the emphasis is on constraint and punishment. And at the opposite pole, whenever we talk about freedom and unrestrained spirit, it often turns out to be negligence and abandonment. The same happens when we talk about self-discipline and self-control: these are ways in which we constrain ourselves and we do it according to the model we received. We either resort to a form of aggression, or we are negligent and abandon ourselves. Nobody wants to suffer, to harm themselves, to live in fear, and to deprive themselves, just as nobody wants to accept an authority that is insecure, arbitrary, or absent.


The basic model for self-control is a parent/child, mentor/disciple one. We look at control and discipline as we have been taught by those who taught us: parents (or caregivers), teachers, educators. If we have learned to cooperate based on trust in the “master” and satisfied that we are well cared for, then we have done a good job on our own initiative and with pleasure. We had room to grow, to develop, to become autonomous, and at the same time to be safe and have healthy boundaries. If we have learned to do things out of fear and shame, in many ways progress has been blocked, and the relationship with the “master” is a combination of attachment – fear, duty – rejection, dependence – rebellion, and a lot of internal conflict. Energy is spent holding down these internal struggles instead of going towards development in a supportive parent/child, mentor/disciple tandem.


How do you get yourself to cooperate better?

What do you do when you need to be your own master and you’re not doing a very good job at it? What does the master of a big and powerful dog do if the relationship is faulty? What do you do when you flutter like a flag behind a dog that has scented a bitch? What do you do when you can’t stop an animal from attacking? How do you stop yourself when impulsivity takes over, when suddenly you’re not as sophisticated as you thought, despite the clothes you wear, the technology you use, and the pretense of civilization? …because sometimes we are as weak as the urge of our desires.


Don’t believe me? Just think about the smell of your favorite food, or about money, or about sex, or about power, or about the simple possibility of just doing nothing instead of working. Whatever makes you tick… What do you do then with the animal in you that says it wants something? How much can you threaten it? How much can you beat it? How much can you deceive it? At some point, it will resist, it will attack you, it will flee… And then what do you do?


The key to good self-control and self-discipline lies in the relationship model you have with authority. Any exercise, any planning strategy to achieve a goal is based on this relationship. All the productivity miracle techniques you can learn fail if you and your dog don’t team up. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s subtle. If you try and it doesn’t work out, if you systematically stumble somewhere along the way or always procrastinate, look here, in this relationship. Check how you get along with yourself, what opinion you have of yourself as a disciple or child, what opinion you have of yourself as a mentor or parent, what beliefs you have about discipline, limits, rules. Most likely, if you have difficulties with self-control, you’ll find yourself at one extreme: too much control and too little freedom, too much freedom and too little control. Health lies in the middle. You function best when you find the balance between these extremes and find solutions that combine elements from both ends of the spectrum.


Self-awareness means power

People have a special ability, that of being self-aware, of recognizing themselves in the mirror and seeing themselves as they are. This ability allows us to be our own masters. To decide what goals to have and what rules to follow, and then to look at ourselves and self-assess. Depending on what we see in ourselves and our inner coherence, we sleep better at night, because our conscience is calmer.


The more we run away from ourselves, from our own conscience, the more we anesthetize it, the further we are from our potential and the more fragile we are. We deceive the master and delude ourselves with pleasures. There are always costs, even if we don’t want to see them. Sometimes it’s health, other times it’s sleep. Maybe it’s the relationship with the partner or with the child/children. Maybe it’s the career. Somewhere the cost exists, and usually it’s a form of unhappiness that demands to be compensated and hidden by an easily accessible pleasure.


We have self-awareness. Therefore, we have the ability to exercise control over our own impulses, be they more or less in line with our other needs. What kind of relationship we have with our own conscience depends to a certain extent on what model of authority we have had. But from a certain point on, in addition to self-awareness, we also have decision-making power in our own lives. If I don’t have a good relationship with myself, if I can’t be a good master to myself, I can rebuild that relationship.


Without self-control and limits, we are just lonely and scared animals, regardless of how many layers we wrap that in, no matter how elaborate and shiny those layers are.