Willpower is not the thing

What is willpower? A lot of times clients will come to me and say, “I know all the things I need to do, I just don’t have the willpower to do it.” And right away, I try to help them understand that willpower is not the thing that’s going to get them where we want to go. If we prescribe ourselves a trait or an attribute like willpower and then we say, well, I just don’t have that, then we’re already giving ourselves an out and setting ourselves up for failure. But when we take the language of willpower away, we can then shift our mindset to take a closer look at our physiology and put our energy into creating new habits that serve our long term goals. 

This works so much better than thinking about our behaviors in terms of willpower because habits and physiology are about the long game. Willpower can turn on a dime, it comes and goes similar to other emotions we experience, but a habit is something that we put energy and intention into, so that it becomes second nature over time. We develop a long term vision of what we want our life to look like and what habits will help us get there, whereas willpower feels like a decision that has to be made in the moment, over and over again. When these changes to our habits and actions are more in line with our health and life goals, they’ll start to stick and create new grooves or new patterns within ourselves. 

Let’s take a deeper look at the physiological piece. Willpower often comes up when we’re talking about sugar, and not having the willpower to avoid sweets. But we need to understand that sugar cravings and addiction to sweets are not about willpower, that in fact it’s often attributed to what’s going on inside the body. When we have a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugar, where they’re turned into glucose really quickly, we’re feeding a certain demographic of bacteria in the gut that are going to continuously crave these foods. So it’s helpful to realize that the physiology of the gut microbiome has a huge impact on our tolerance. 

Another way that physiology really impacts our cravings is the way that we feed ourselves first thing in the morning. This sets up our hunger hormones and our craving patterns for the rest of the day. So if you go for the cinnamon roll first thing instead of something with fat, fiber, and protein, that’s going to have a physiological impact on your hunger and your hormones throughout the rest of the day. 

Another place that physiology comes into play is with fatigue. It’s easy to say “I just don’t have willpower”, but if you’re constantly feeling tired and sluggish, it could be an adrenal imbalance, a thyroid imbalance, or maybe a lack of absorption due to the bugs in your gut. So we want to investigate further in order to work with our physiology, not against it. 

Oftentimes when people reach out to me I get a laundry list of what they need to change and how they want their health to improve, but they confess that they’re still drinking too much, or still smoking cigarettes, or can’t clean up their diet. It’s almost as if people feel that they don’t owe it to themselves to get the support they need to help them push forward if they haven’t kicked this one bad habit yet. That’s where, again, the willpower conversation is tripping people up because they think if they don’t have the willpower to do this one thing, there’s no way they’ll have the willpower to take better care of themselves in all of these other ways. But if you don’t feel well, and you have symptoms that are out of control, and you have brain fog or lack of concentration, then of course you’re going to reach for a cigarette, or a piece of pie, or a drink, whatever it is, to fill you up with something that makes you feel better momentarily. 

So when you talk to yourself (or others) about the idea of willpower, try to stop yourself and instead, get a little more curious. Peel back the layers. Think about how to gain forward momentum by formulating better habits, and going deeper to understand your own physiology. There’s way more to this picture than what we’ve been trained to think. From there, we can give ourselves permission to seek support, because we can all use some of that, especially in times like these. If any of this resonated with you, please reach out, I’m here for you.