Are you focusing too much on willpower?

People often beat themselves up for not having enough willpower. But what good does that actually do?

A lot of times, it’s a cop-out. You engage in some degree of self-flagellation (“I’m so weak! I don’t exercise, and I procrastinate on all my work!”), but once that’s out of the way, nothing changes. Maybe you feel a little more ineffectual or unhappy, but that’s it.

What is willpower anyway? There’s an assumption that it’s an independent force in the mind. Tweak it somehow, and the New Year’s resolutions you’ve already abandoned will become possibilities.

But what affects willpower, and is it even the main driving force behind change? It probably isn’t productive to think about change as simply a matter of willpower. There are other issues to consider – patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings that have locked you into your current life.

I recently came across this post, written several years ago by a psychotherapist. She writes about how berating yourself can end up producing pain and shame, but nothing useful. Instead of thinking of yourself as lazy, weak, or lacking in willpower, consider the process of change and what affects it.

She points out how learning a new habit can be extremely difficult if it’s something foreign to you. An analogy she uses is learning a new language as an adult:

If no one in your family of origin ever spoke Greek, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to magically, spontaneously, effortlessly speak Greek in adulthood. If you do decide to learn a new language, it will not be an intuitive process, it will not feel natural; it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing at times, exposing, vulnerable.

Let’s say you want to start eating healthy. If you didn’t form healthier eating habits growing up, you won’t magically know what to do. It will be a process of learning, involving missteps, frequent backsliding, confusion, or frustration that may make you want to give up. You may need to sign up for a class on cooking nutritiously or ask a friend or partner to cook with you. You may also struggle with feelings of shame and anger connected with your childhood eating habits and embarrassment that you don’t already know how to do certain things as an adult.

It isn’t simply a lack of willpower that’s the issue. Powerful, unexamined emotions and habits undermine people’s efforts to change.

Consider this insight from the post:

Many simply continue to parent themselves as they were parented. If your care-taking through childhood was disorganized, abusive, withholding, or passive, you will likely care for yourself the way you were, or were not, cared for.

She also explores self-sabotage, which isn’t necessarily deliberate. For example, a man might feel guilty about becoming healthier and more fit. Until he understands the source of that guilt, he will probably undermine himself.

Other times, people aren’t yet ready enough (mature enough, well enough, or at the right point in their life) to make a certain change.

Beating yourself up over a “lack of willpower” often does nothing useful. It can damage your motivation by convincing you that you’re incapable of change. You may wind up overlooking important parts of your life and missing opportunities to understand yourself. Don’t get so hung up on willpower, and how much of it you think you have.

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