Impulses are natural, that is, we are born with them and if nature has given them to us, it is for a reason. They are meant to be used.
So why is there, then, a general view that restraining impulses, or practising self-restraint, causes one to improve oneself?
What is the improvement?
How can one recognize it?
Most importantly, how will it work to better my life?
Self-restraint is holding one’s natural impulses, spontaneous reactions back, for a cause. The causes could be various, like you are in a group of not-so-familiar people and someone spilled a drink on your best gown, by mistake, of course. What would be your spontaneous reaction? Probably to catch the perpetrator by the collar and give him / her a good piece of your mind. But how many of us would actually do that? Most of us would withhold that impulse, exercise self restraint and smilingly accept the apologies that come our way and just get on with it as best as we can. This is self-restraint in a social environment. So what did the practice of self-restraint do to improve you in this case? It gave you control over your more “unsociable / unacceptable / abominable” reactions, and made you appear as a mature, practical human being, who is quite pleasant to have around, to the rest of the group. Even if they don’t remember your name, they will remember your reaction. Will it get you invited to the next party? You certainly have high chances. But if you had chosen not to exercise some control over your emotions, and just said exactly what you felt, I would not bet on any of those people in the gathering wanting to be seen with you anytime soon.
Then again, sometimes it might be difficult to figure out whether one is exercising self-restraint, or indulging the self. Arjuna, in the Mahabharata, is a classic example. At the beginning of the war of righteousness, he lays down his bow and refuses to fight. He being the greatest warrior of his time, this is certainly not due to fear. What, then, is Arjuna doing? His rightful kingdom is what he is fighting for, but, in order to do so, he will have to quell an army of relatives and friends, teachers and beloved ones. So, is he at this time, exercising restraint, by not killing the
ones who represent the wrong that has been done to him and his brothers, the Pandavas? Or, is he indulging his self, by giving in to the soft feelings he has for his kith and kin, therefore overlooking his duty, which is to fight for his kingdom?
The manifestations of self-restraint can be various, e.g., holding back one’s tongue from a sharp response (social), denying the chocolate craving (personal), wanting to holler at the top of one’s voice when things go wrong, but not doing so, etc. That there are many manifestations of this concept is clear. But what are the advantages of it?
For starters, everyone in the society trusts everyone else to exercise some degree of self-restraint. If we all gave in to all our impulses every single day, no organization would find a regular employee or meet deadlines, or, for that matter, ever get any work done.
Capability for self-restraint, therefore, translates into dependability. And when people find us dependable, we are trusted with more and better jobs and are likely to feel better about ourselves on the whole. Self improvement, in a way.
Self-restraint also has its use in creating some discipline in people’s lives. If we were to just walk out of the door, towards the ice-cream parlor at wee hours of the morning, not caring whether people at home might look for us or worry about us, not thinking of whether ice-cream at that hour may be good for our system at all, things would turn topsy-turvy in no time.
Overall, self-restraint is definitely beneficial as it gives an individual control over his/her impulses and urge for instant gratification. It does add strength to ones character. However, it is difficult to practise and its benefits may therefore be still largely untapped or unrecognized.