Discipline vs. “Disciplinarianism”

One is helpful. One holds you back. And the line is ultra-fine. Here’s how to stay on its productive, non-sadistic side.

Last month, in a New Year-themed column, I wrote about building and sustaining healthy new habits, and how some simple mindfulness techniques can help you do that.

Of course, building and sustaining good habits also takes discipline. Or, as many of us think if it: “DISCIPLINE!”—as might be shouted by a mean teacher or a dyspeptic, stereotypical drill sergeant.

But the shouting, my friends, isn’t discipline. It’s disciplinarianism: an altogether different animal.

What’s the difference?

Discipline in its healthy, constructive sense is making choices for intellectual, emotional, and physical good. It’s repeated decisions based on care and respect—not on fear and self-loathing.

Discipline is more carrot than stick. But it’s also more than simple bribery. It’s:

  • focusing what we want—and who we want to become
  • courageously—but not harshly—acknowledging what we’d like to change
  • noting when and where we tend to wander off-course, and
  • having simple tactics at hand for regaining our bearings.

Disciplinarianism, on the other hand, is all about fear, loathing and punishment. (Look up disciplinarian in Microsoft Word’s dictionary and you’ll find the synonyms tyrantdespotauthoritarian and martinet.)

Disciplinarianism is a hypercritical, manipulative, bullying approach. (Think of Humphrey Bogart’s character in “The Caine Mutiny” or the warden in “The Shawshank Redemption.”)

And, unfortunately, many of us tend to confuse the two.

Why the difference matters.

Healthy discipline is rewarding and sustainable. It makes you feel good. Disciplinarianism is punishing and depleting.

Which approach do you think promotes positive, lasting change?

How to choose healthy discipline.

Come from a caring, respectful place. Discipline (of ourselves or others) takes thought and effort. And why waste time or effort on someone you don’t respect or care about?

That said, here is an exercise that helps you care for and respect others, especially in challenging situations. Here is one that helps you care for and respect yourself.

Recognize and embrace your power to choose. Accept and remember that you choose your own actions. (This can be difficult, because it’s easier to blame circumstances than it is to accept responsibility.) Acceptance of your own power helps you feel strong, which helps you make courageous choices.

Here is an exercise to help you recognize your power to choose.

Distinguish self-care from self-indulgence. Have you ever rationalized an unhealthy choice (for example, a diet-busting order of cheese fries) because you “deserved it”? If so, did you deserve it because you felt great about yourself–or because you felt bad?

If it’s the latter, revisit the section above, “Come from a caring and respectful place.” Self-care and self-respect will promote choices you won’t feel bad about later. But self-recrimination and self-punishment—the fruits of disciplinarianism—will promote additional self-pitying choices.

And regardless of why you chose those cheese fries (or whatever your treat), forgive yourself quickly and move on—in a compassionate, self-caring way. Here’s one last exercise that helps.

Discipline can be a wonderful gift—one that you can give yourself. It can help you improve your health, your relationships, your economic position and even the ability to lead and inspire others.

In their book “Mindful Discipline,” Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D. and Chris White, M.D. liken a disciplined mind to “a CEO in the boardroom (with) access to many different voices…(E)ach has its own area of expertise and priorities.”

When your interior CEO listens respectfully to your inner experts, makes responsible choices and runs your “organization” harmoniously, you tend to “act in alignment with your values and long-term intentions,” Shapiro and White say.

As a result, you’re more likely to reach your most cherished goals. Even better, you can create and sustain a life of integrity and peace: a goal few of us even aim for. But what a great place to get to!

I wish you a happy journey. And as always, I hope to hear how things go.