YA Weekly

Self-Control: A Cycle of Trying and Failing

Ben Erwin
08/04/23 | 4 min read
Have you ever struggled to start—or stop—doing something, even though you really wanted to? Here are five tips for developing more self-control.

“Ugh, I did it again!”

Have you ever said that to yourself after eating that piece of cake you promised yourself you wouldn’t? Or after scrolling through a few posts past your bedtime, or getting angry when you said you wouldn’t? I think all of us have struggled to stop doing something even though we sincerely desired to stop.

Practicing self-control is just one aspect of discipleship. In the Book of Mormon, Alma encouraged his son Shiblon to “bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12). Just like a bridle harnesses the power of an animal, developing self-control over our emotions and passions can help us have a greater abundance of the Spirit.

But gaining self-control isn’t easy. It’s often a cycle of trying and failing until we accomplish it. But here are some tips to help you in your efforts to foster greater self-control.

Focus on the Savior

Even when we’re trying to do our best, we make mistakes. Everyone does. When that happens, it’s easy to feel discouraged or wonder if we will ever get better. In the words of Elder Michael A. Dunn of the Seventy, life “can sometimes feel like 1 percent forward and 2 percent back.”1

But the Savior lovingly invites us to keep trying. He will strengthen us and help us. He will change our hearts and our lives. Our covenant connection with Him brings us greater access to His power. If we “remain undaunted in our determination to consistently eke out those 1 percent gains, He who has ‘carried our sorrows’ [Isaiah 53:4] will surely carry us.”2

Don’t Get Discouraged

Let me illustrate this point with a story. A family made plans to go on a fun trip together. They were excited to visit a new place and have some great adventures.

About halfway through their trip, their car broke down. They were sad and discouraged. They felt that all their efforts had been wasted, so they decided to go back home and start their trip all over again.

Now, you may say to yourself, that is ridiculous—why would they completely start over? But don’t we do the same thing sometimes? Sometimes we feel discouraged or falsely believe that one little mistake erases all the progress we have made. But mistakes don’t erase the progress we make as we strive to become more like Jesus Christ. As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died so that our mistakes might not condemn us and forever halt our progress. Because of Him, we can repent, and our mistakes can become stepping-stones to greater glory.”3 We need to be patient with ourselves and stay hopeful.

girl goals

Set Small Goals

There will be times when all we can think about is how much we’re failing. We wonder if we will ever reach the level of self-control we want. But during these times, we might be expecting too much of ourselves (see Mosiah 4:27).

This doesn’t mean we should give up on our efforts to gain self-control. Instead, we should focus on what we can achieve right now. President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles advised that we should “set short-term goals … that are well balanced—not too many nor too few, and not too high nor too low. Pray for divine guidance in your goal setting.”4

As we achieve each small goal, over time we will see how much we have achieved when we focused only on the next step instead of the finish line.

Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms

We sometimes cope with emotions by doing something to make us feel different. For example, when I get really stressed out, I love to eat comfort food. But sometimes these behaviors can become bad habits that are hard to break.

It’s helpful to reflect on and understand any patterns we might have. If I have a habit of using my phone when I’m bored, then I can focus on why I am feeling bored. If I can do other productive activities to cope with my boredom, it will be easier to develop self-control surrounding my phone use.

The Savior has promised that “weak things” can become strong as we come unto Him and ask for His divine assistance (Ether 12:27).

Practice Self-Compassion

In our efforts to strive to be more like the Savior, we can feel bad about ourselves when we fall short of His example. We sometimes tell ourselves negative things like, “I will never be good enough,” or, “I am an idiot!” We might think that these messages are appropriate punishment or are necessary to better motivate ourselves. However, such messages can tear us down and make things harder—and they never come from God.

If a good friend came to us and shared their desire and efforts to be better but also shared their failures and shortcomings, what would we say to them? Wouldn’t we encourage them, tell them how proud we are of them, and celebrate all their small successes?

We should do the same with ourselves. Instead of punishing ourselves, we should appreciate the good we do and see our mistakes as opportunities to become better.

We are sons and daughters of God. And we can focus on our divine identity rather than labeling ourselves based on any of our habits or problems. Heavenly Father offers us as many second chances as we need (see Isaiah 55:7). We can strive to extend the same to ourselves.

The Savior Is Our Strength

It might feel impossible today, but over time we can become better. The Savior has promised us that as we do our part, stay on the covenant path, and endure to the end, His grace is sufficient for us (see Ether 12:27). We just have to keep trying; keep believing; and patiently “wait upon the Lord” (Isaiah 40:31). For me, this is so reassuring. As we work on improving ourselves, the Lord really will strengthen and guide us.

Discover More

You can find more articles about healthy media use in the Young Adults section of the August 2023 Liahona.

Check out YA Weekly, located in the Gospel Library under Magazines or Adults > Young Adults, for new, inspiring content for young adults each week.

You can send your own article, ideas, or feedback to YAWeekly@ChurchofJesusChrist.org. We can’t wait to hear from you!


1. Michael A. Dunn, “One Percent Better,” Liahona, Nov. 2021, 107.
2. Michael A. Dunn, “One Percent Better,” 107.
3. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come and Belong,” Liahona, May 2020, 106.
4. M. Russell Ballard, “Keeping Life’s Demands in Balance,” Ensign, May 1987, 14.

Ben Erwin
Addiction Recovery Program Manager