A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

The Skill of Restraint

BodiamCaslte12“The steadfastness of sages is merely the skill to keep their agitation locked up in their heart.”
– François Duc De La Rouchefoucald (trans. Stanley Applebaum)

I agree with that statement, because when I think of characters who personify wisdom (Dumbledore and Gandalf spring to mind, along with Gandhi and the Dalai Lama), the dominant personality characteristic I see is restraint. They are slow to speak and react, quick to listen and silently ponder; they show kindness and patience more readily than anger; they don’t speak about themselves except when doing so can be beneficial to others—and then when they do speak about themselves, it’s always with an air of humanness. They keep a tight hold on their own thoughts, feelings, and egos—not repressing them, but containing them: keeping them private except in appropriate moments and always under self-control. They have mastered the skill of restraint.

That is how I long to be. Perhaps if I’d been born into a culture that prizes restraint (like Great Britain), this skill would come more naturally to me; I don’t know. But I still find myself splashing my ego everywhere, interrupting people when they talk because I’ve got an idea or suggestion to contribute and it feels urgent to me, succumbing to peer pressure and saying things I regret, letting myself get riled and stooping to the level of certain people who antagonize me because that’s how they are, and letting my moment-by-moment feelings show on my face like it’s an open book. Sigh.

With practice, I am making progress, though. I’ve been pursuing this virtue of restraint for a few years now, gradually and in conjunction with related virtues that I’m trying to cultivate in my life, such as grace, dignity, and assertiveness. I think restraint is a step beyond assertiveness, because without assertiveness, restraint is merely being pushed around. But now that I’ve made progress in taking ownership of my life, I’m finding that learning the skill of restraint actually aids me in assertiveness, because I’m more conscious and in control of my thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.

For me, one necessary ingredient for learning the skill of restraint is having a few close friends whom I can trust to listen to me compassionately and confidentially. We all need to be “witnessed,” as one of these friends tells me. When we’re witnessed (cared about and listened to) by good friends or even a therapist—and by ourselves in the sense of assertiveness (valuing our own feelings and thoughts)—we don’t need the whole world to witness us.

It’s a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back process, though…but I’m going forward!


6 comments on “The Skill of Restraint

  1. georgetteann
    August 27, 2014

    I love this post and can completely relate! I’ve found that restraint also comes with age. 🙂


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      August 27, 2014

      Thanks, Georgette, I’m glad you liked it!

      That’s comforting to know. 🙂


  2. emilievardaman
    August 27, 2014

    What a line: splashing my ego everywhere.
    How fortunate you are that you realize you do these things. Many, perhaps most, who have these qualities have no idea so they never have the opportunity to consider changing or modifying their behavior. So difficult it is to monitor ourselves! Good luck.

    I agree with you on the assertiveness. It is a good quality, an important quality, but when tempered by restraint, it doesn’t get out of hand, like any good thing can do. Even honesty needs occasional restraint. Do you really want to tell a friend you hate her new haircut? There are ways to sidestep a bit that are certainly kinder than blurting out the truth.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      August 27, 2014

      Thank you so much, Emilie! I am grateful to be aware of this, and you’re right, it is very difficult to monitor ourselves! As Witness commented below, it’s “a practice more than an accomplishment.” We keep on trying, despite our blunders!


  3. Witness
    August 27, 2014

    Bravo! Me too, me too!

    Sara, in A Little Princess, shares the value. She says something like, “The only thing stronger than rage is that which holds rage in.” I always was a little disturbed by that line — holding rage in can be done very badly indeed — but I agreed with the essential idea.

    From Buddhism, I learned to ask two questions (I think there were three, but I forget the other one): Is it true? Is it helpful? If it’s not both of these, perhaps I ought to let it pass unspoken.

    My values in this area differ from yours on one point: I cherish room within restraint for speaking of oneself, even if it’s not overtly helpful to the other. This is the witnessing you spoke of later in the post, so obviously my difference is only on the one sub-point. If it’s helpful to me to speak of myself, if it’s unlikely to do any significant harm to anyone else, and if I have a friend willing and able to listen, I’m inclined to speak.

    For me, meaning of life comes from connection with others, which comes from sharing of selves, including outside the agenda of being helpful. Intimacy requires trusting others with the reality of oneself. I can feel a bit bored and alienated by people who speak only to be helpful. I love and admire Gandalf and Dumbledore, but it’s necessarily from a distance. We see them almost exclusively in settings where everyone around them is depending on them to lead with terrific competence. They rather lack peers, and I suspect their restraint may have as much to do with having learned that most people can’t witness them properly as with having imposed self-control for the sake of being graceful. I hope that they too find occasion to let their hair down and relate with others from a less leadership-laden position. Being helpful is only part of being human.

    And yes, for me too, self-containment is difficult, a practice more than an accomplishment.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      August 27, 2014

      Thank you for these thoughts, my friend! I love most of all your ending point that “self-containment is…a practice more than an accomplishment.” Yes! I wish I’d thought to say that. 🙂

      On the “Is it true? Is it helpful?” test, I agree with you that helpfulness is not the only virtue. I think that test mainly applies in situations when extra care is needed in one’s speech, not in situations like talking with close, trusted friends.

      And as far as being helpful is the goal, sharing ourselves can be helpful: Dumbledore would have been more help to Harry if he’d shared more of himself with him.

      But dismissing one’s inner editor is not likely to be helpful in most situations (except when the goal of the conversation is to help yourself, like in therapy), I think. Perhaps this is where we might still slightly disagree: in relationships of equal position or of leadership position (not of dependent position, like that of a therapy patient or of a child), self-containment/self-editing is always necessary, I believe. It is nice to be able to let our hair down, but we can do that while still staying in touch with our inner editor, and I think we should.

      I loved getting a quote from A Little Princess. I really need to re-read it soon. Fun!


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