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Self-regulation or the art of locking the door before the horse bolts

Posted in Managing our emotions,Personal Effectiveness by teamrashmi@etlabs on May 2nd, 2012

A lot of the times we end up saying or doing something we regret later.  One aspect of Emotional Intelligence is self-regulation- or impulse control, or simply self-control. Recently I was discussing this subject with Prof Sudhir Jain, Director of the new IIT at Gandhinagar, who is a rare combination of an academic with international credentials and a highly regarded administrator. He acknowledged ruefully: ‘Yes I lose my cool sometimes. But it’s not good because it diverts attention from the main issue; it’s bad for administration, bad for morale. When we lose our temper, 90 per cent of the time it’s counterproductive. Just like you need to be toilet trained as children, somewhere in our career, we need to be trained on some of these aspects of managing emotions, which many of us unfortunately don’t go through’.

Here are is an interesting story which illustrates how if one delays one’s reactions just for a moment, a lot of calamities can be avoided.

In nineteenth century India, when it was not unusual for children to be married off, a young girl was just getting used to her new, equally young partner. The immature bridegroom had no idea of the rights and role of a husband, so he bought some pamphlets containing chauvinistic advice to men to dominate their wives.  Thus informed, the boy called his wife and commanded, ‘Henceforth, you will not go out of this house without my permission.’

Doubtless the girl was taken aback at what was surely an absurd and capricious demand. But she resisted the temptation to sulk or fight back. She just nodded. She would find a solution which would send the right message, but without damaging the fledgling relationship.

A few days later, her lord and master realised that she had flouted his rule and gone out of the house to the temple and to the market, visiting friends and relatives. ‘How dare you disobey my orders?’ he sharply rebuked her that evening.

Answering with an even tone, the wise wife asked softly, ‘Who is senior in this house? Are you superior to your mother? Should I tell her that I will not go out with her until you give me permission? If that is what you want, let me know.’

This is the story of Mohandas Gandhi and Kasturba in the earliest days of their marriage. She was so calm and collected that Gandhi had no answer. It was his first lesson in non-violence! He never questioned her again.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati writes, ‘If I fail to choose my actions consciously and deliberately, but simply let them happen, they will be reactions, either impulsive reactions born of instincts, or mechanical reactions born of conditioning. In either case I have not exercised that special faculty that makes me human, namely choice of action based on rational thought.’


A reaction is born from an uncontrolled impulse, while a response is a thought out, wise, logical, and measured reply to a situation. In both the above examples, the individuals exercised self-restraint, leading to appropriate behaviours instead of knee-jerk reactions. When faced with a difficulty or an obstacle, we need to recognise that an impulsive reaction can lead to irrational, even destructive, action, which will not take us towards our goals; and access our good judgment, sanity and wisdom to ask ourselves the wisest objective for us to pursue, and what we need to do to reach there.

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