A Lack of Self-Control Creates a Lack of Trust

Another person’s lack of self-control can erode the trust of those around him.

If you’ve lived with or cared about addicts of any kind, you may be familiar with that sensation that hits your gut — a mild queasy feeling — when their actions don’t match their words. It’s not that they can’t justify their actions (they always can), it’s that, well, something’s not quite right. They say they’re out of money till payday (but they can’t resist buying jeans on Sale). They say they’re done with sex on the first date (but then, oops). They say they’re worried about their weight and their cholesterol (but then they order the fried chicken and ice cream for dessert).

You know this in your gut, of course; but now science has the data to back up what our guts have been saying all along:  something’s not quite right…I feel anxious, unsteady, unsafe, unsure, and this damn person can’t see how her words conflict with her actions…and what it’s doing to all of us!

Now we have proof!  (It’s nice to have the facts in black and white because if you were raised in chaos, you’re unlikely to trust your silly intuition, right?)  A new study showing that when people displayed self-control, others trusted them more was published in May of this year.  The study was written and conducted by Francesca Righetti and Catrin Finkenauer and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  And Psychology Today magazine online also covered the study, here (in everyday English).  What’s impressive about the study is how clearly the results indicated that the trust/mistrust works vice-versa, too:  displays of self-control built up trust; displays of a lack of self-control eroded trust.

The researchers don’t have an interest in addiction that I’m aware of but boy, oh boy, do the results of the study have meaning for people touched by addiction!  The “lack of self-control” factor aligns with so many of the manifestations of addiction:  namely, compulsivity. It speaks to the whole authority figure issues characteristic as well (I posted about that here)  – if our original authority figures had wobbly self-control, it was natural for us not to trust them.  Because our foundational authority figures had self-control issues, we experienced shades of abandonment when their addiction ‘parented’ us instead of them — they left and the addiction took the reigns.  It’s a natural reaction, then, that when we experience inconsistency in our mates, and when we experience others’ lack of self-control, that our original, most primary abandonment issues get triggered!

As parents — both in re-parenting ourselves as well as in parenting our own children — this information is crucial to push into the brain of each and every little cell in our bodies, to truly digest it. We become more trustworthy parents when we’re true to our word.  If we do what we say we’re going to do, we can model trustworthiness and also the chaos-free, consistent environments that are the hallmark of a nurturing home environment.  Nurturing home environments allow everyone to thrive.

A word of caution:  since we tend to have unrealistic ideas of what’s normal and what’s realistic, we tend to think and say that we’re going to do things that only supernatural gods and goddesses are capable of; so, before you commit yourself to do what you say and say what you’ll do — first please tend to learning what you’re capable of and your tendencies for unrealistic expectations.  Then you’ll be set up to be able to successfully deliver on your word.  (The alternative is a self-sabotage Catch-22…like an unrealistic diet nobody can stick to.)

Another word of caution:  since people who grew up in chaotic childhood homes tend to continue to live by rigid rules (even if your rigid rules differ from those of your original family), it might be easy to come away from this information thinking, “I’m going to be true to my word always, every time, forever.”  It’s just not that black-and-white; rather, the idea is to move in the direction of adjusting your expectations to a realistic, achievable level, and then — simply do your best.  When you don’t deliver on your word, then say so — acknowledge it.  Don’t defend it, own it — like a grown-up.

An addict, at some point in his or her relationship with their addiction, whatever it may be (sex, porn, food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, work, and the Internet are all documented addictions) will trade his self-control to the addiction for the escape that he’s afforded.  From that point on, till recovery, the substance controls the show.  So you can be sure that once addiction sets in, self-control went out the window a long time ago.  You can see why addicts have to turn up the charm, manipulation, and shaming of others — they don’t want to believe they’re no longer in charge.

Enough about them.

Why am I sharing these findings about self-control and trust?   It provides us with the data to boost our confidence and to fuel our conviction — conviction perhaps missing from the words we’ve played in our minds or have said over and over and over again but just missing the mark.

Knowing that lapses of self-control erode trust, we can address the issue constructively.  Here are some sample scripts:

“I’m uncomfortable with how you sometimes spend money. You say that you’re in debt, but you are purchasing non-essential items. This makes it hard to trust your ability to control your spending.” (You could weave an “I” statement in there as well:  I feel duped when you say you can’t share in the cost of groceries then you buy an iPhone).  It’s important to specify that what’s hard to trust is the person’s ability to control their spending rather than their whole person — that’ll put any addict in the defense zone.

“Several times you’ve reassured me that you like making love, but yet you’ve rejected several of my advances this month, which makes it hard for me to trust that your words and actions are in sync.” (An “I” statement might be:  I feel rejected when you roll over or say you’re too tired for sex).

“You’re saying that you’re two years “sober,” but you’re getting high almost every day. I don’t feel like I can trust your definition of sober.”  (I feel frustrated when you say you’re sober but you’re high).

Now, the healing and growth that needs to take place is for you, within you.  So while it’s useful to have constructed scripts to use for difficult conversations (and do have those difficult conversations, those crucial confrontations), we owe it to our healing and joy-cultivation to spend as little time as possible on them, and 99% on, well, our own damn business.  So we should turn the microscope on ourselves, too.  It’s only fair.  We’re not — perfect. Surely your self-control isn’t foolproof?

Would you trust you?

Be kind to yourself.

P.S.:  Here’s the article abstract of the self-control and trust study, offered by the American Psychological Association:

“The present research tested the hypothesis that perception of others’ self-control is an indicator of their trustworthiness. The authors investigated whether, in interactions between strangers as well as in established relationships, people detect another person’s self-control, and whether this perception of self-control, in turn, affects trust. Results of 4 experiments supported these hypotheses. The first 2 experiments revealed that participants detected another person’s trait of self-control. Experiments 3 and 4 revealed that participants also detected the temporary depletion of another person’s self-control. Confirming the authors’ predictions, perceived trait and state self-control, in turn, influenced people’s judgment of the other person’s trustworthiness. In line with previous research, these findings support the positive value of self-control for relationships and highlight the role of perceived self-control for the development of a fundamental relationship factor: trust. “
(PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)



  1. fenella says:

    So the above research points to the fact that when we are consistent in our actions and words-others take us seriously. Quite true. Self control, or more accurately Self regulation has however much more important implications and effects than simply how others view us in the world or trust us. Self control, or self regulation effects our OWN self image as a determinant of health is directly related to our ability to regulate ( control) our emotions. In short, the better we are at regulating our emotions and feelings, the better we feel about ourselves, which translates to better self esteem which THEN finally effects our relationships. So you see, it begins with us- as individuals- The Self. Self control is about Self trust (“trust yourself”- remember that one??), learn it with yourself and then you will have it with others….. not the other way round… and you don’t want it the other way round- fore then you are always facing outwards seeking approval ( an external locus of control) and not inwards….

  2. Meg B. says:

    Thanks for sharing that study! I can also understand that for myself as I have rather poor self-control myself. It may explain further why I lack trust in myself.

  3. Carol W says:

    This explains a lot, down to the slight nausea, and it’s quite timely, too. My experience supports everything you say. Thanks for sharing.

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