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Urge and Self-Control


Techniques Willpower > Urge and Self-Control

Levels of Urge | Degrees of Self-Control | The urge-control matrix | See also


We all feel urges to act in all sorts of ways but often do not, using our self-control to restrain urges that are not appropriate. Depending on what we experience and how we respond, we can end up in quite different styles of behaving.

This can give us two effective personalities, one inner, where our urges may be played out in our imagination, and one outer, where we control those urges and so appear to other people as being restrained and conforming to social rules.

Levels of urge

We all have urges which pressure us into action. These urges may be measured along several scales, from low to high, good to bad and our tendency to experience urge.

Tendencies to experience urge

Some people feel urges more strongly than others. Sometimes this is a general experience across all urges and sometimes it is based in one particular area, for example where a person has an eating disorder or has anger management issues.

Degrees of self-control

As well as feeling urges, we have a counter-balancing system of self-control which provides a system to keep unwanted urges on a closer leash, saying 'no' to the id, obeying rules and helping us achieve our higher goals. This is sometimes called 'impulse control' and some people have particular problems in managing it.

The urge-control matrix

Depending on whether people experience low or high urges, and whether they have the self-control to manage these, we can identify four classifications, as below.


Urge-Control matrix

Strength of urge
Low High

Power of self-control









Note that this does not necessarily mean that people fit into only once category, as urge and control can vary with subject. Hence a person with an eating disorder may be Uncontrolled with regard to food, yet be a Goody (or other type) when it comes to managing anger.


When people have powerful urges and low ability to control themselves, they are simply out of control. They are victims of the id with a weak or ineffective super-ego. When they feel the urge, they either have a failed battle with it or just go along with it without a fight.

Hedonists can fall into this category as they live on the pleasure principle that drives the id (although hedonism may also be a reasoned choice rather than a helpless compliance).


People with high level of urge who also have a high ability to control the urge fall into the Repressed category. They experience significant pressure to comply with the urge, but they 'keep the genie in the bottle'.

This does not come free as they continue to feel the pressure of the bottled-up urge, and if they cannot keep it under control it may spontaneously burst out or else be transformed by some other coping mechanism.


Those who are not strongly driven by urges and who have the self-control to manage any occasional slips may be viewed as being 'good people'. In practice, it may be a fortune of genetics that allows them to be this way. Self-control, however, can be learned, so perhaps they are arguably good in the effort they are making to control their baser instincts.

Good people do not necessarily have a wonderful life. The low urge may also be coupled with a low general drive and they may suffer from lethargic apathy and so do not live up to their potential.


Many of us fit into the Slipper category, where we occasionally slip up with such as angry outbursts and indulgence of cravings. But by and large, we have sufficient self-control and the lack of extreme urges makes it relatively easy to keep ourselves in check.

At the very low end, with no urge and no control, Slippers are perhaps fortunate that their lack of self-control is matched by a lack of urge. Again, this can lead to a relatively static lifestyle.

See also

The Brain's Urge System, Evolution, Coping Mechanisms, Addiction


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