What Really Is Willpower?

I can’t tell you how many times I have a patient or their family suggest to me that if they just try harder, things could change. How nice does that sound? It’s the American dream: keep trying and trying until you triumph (whether that’s to get a mate, a job, a title, etc.). The definition of willpower is “to control one’s impulses and actions.” In this post let’s explore what that means, and if it makes any sense to use that to control an addiction.



When most people talk about using their willpower, they think of times they practiced self-restraint and didn’t do something like get high or eat a piece of cake. I’m fine with talking about willpower in regular, everyday language this way. It gives us a way of understanding that someone is trying very hard to control impulses and achieve a goal. And everyone knows addiction is certainly about controlling impulses.



When someone says they kicked a bad habit with their willpower, what they are usually trying to say is that they tried really hard, and restrained themselves. It creates the picture that you can be you (just as you are right now, with all the tools and skills you have in this very moment), and just muster the willpower to be different in this moment if you decide to. But if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that this is actually impossible. How could you ever do more than you are capable of in any moment?



To suggest that you can do more than you have the capacity to do simply by applying more willpower just doesn’t make sense. Think about it. If you have a certain ability to tolerate a craving right now, then that is your current ability to tolerate a craving. To have a greater ability to tolerate a craving as you are right now is impossible, unless you believe in supernatural intervention (which you are welcome to). But we’re not talking about divine intervention or faith right now, we’re talking about everyday, normal-person willpower.



We don’t find the willpower out of trying harder. Instead, we have to go out and find new ways to be able to have more power. What we are really doing any time we do “more” than we could otherwise is acting upon a new capacity. We increase our capacity to perform through all kinds of things, like building skills, mentorship, therapy, working out, reading, practicing something… anything that grows us. So the next time you try to be assertive or set a boundary, you can do so with a bit more practice from the time before. Or when you find the motivation to refrain from getting high, you are acting on an evolved set of circumstances (like having a new reason to change, recently suffering a harsh or new consequence, or simply getting more fed up with yourself because it’s been longer). There are countless ways that things like our problems, hopes, relationships, and skills change by the day. These, in turn, can make us more ready to practice restraint. In other words, willpower is really just a word we use to describe very real and specific changes we may not even recognize shifted.



Notice how if we call it willpower, it implies that new efforts are either magic or based on trying harder. But that’s not how our minds and bodies work. And that’s very good news: anyone can create resilience or new capacity. Just as we can’t credit someone’s amazing transformation to their willpower, we also can’t blame anyone’s lack of change on their character. Notice that if someone does turn things around with their so called “willpower,” it’s only more empowering to credit them with the reality that must have built some new level or capacity to get there. Call it willpower, call it trying hard, call it capacity building. As long as you understand that nobody that’s ever lived can just muster up effort. It is real thing that’s built with real changes – however subtle they might be.

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