What is willpower? Some sense of self-control, resilience, ability to stick to a goal in spite of obstacles? It’s actually more of a folk wisdom term but it has a lot of power in our culture and psyches. In the popular press, people with a “lot of willpower” are thought to be strong, competent and in control. In contrast, people who struggle with behavioral change are thought of as being weak willed…or lacking willpower. Problems of all kinds (over eating, promiscuous sex, debt, poor school/work performance) are associated with this idea of a lack of willpower.
But what exactly is “willpower” and what causes it to fail us? Psychologist and researcher Kirsten Weir has identified two characteristics that seem to affect behaviors we would attribute to willpower: intelligence and self-control. She notes that while intelligence cannot be altered much, self-control is a quality that can be both developed and depleted. It appears that the same focus and energy that it takes to exhibit self-control (in other words resist urges) is associated with decision making. In particular, she refers to the work of Roy Baumeister who found that after making a series of decisions, people seem to exhibit less self-control and in fact resort to simpler solutions to a problem. This phenomenon, called “decision fatigue” (Baumeister refers to it as “ego depletion”), can wreak havoc on our ability to make decisions that help us towards our goals. They also note that willpower (or the ability to resist urges) is used to control other things like emotional reactivity and task performance. Why does this matter to us?
When people are actively facing all of the decisions around changing habitual behaviors (like substance use or other compulsive behaviors), it is likely that they don’t have the band width to monitor other normal decisions that take place during a day. If I am focused on making new non-substance using friends (which can be painful and scary), eating differently so I don’t have cravings and trying to resist my desire to use…it is likely that I won’t have many reserves left to manage my temper or keep myself from crying when my feelings get hurt.
If you are trying to make significant changes in one area of your life (like your relationship with substances or over-eating), we recommend you appreciate and respect that fact that your “performance” may suffer in other areas. For example, if you are trying not to drink every night (by managing cravings, changing friends, going to treatment or meetings, breaking routines), it’s highly likely that you will not be so focused on other things (like talking to your mother, cleaning your apartment, paying your bills, or being able to focus on work). Conversely, if you spend your decision making energy on staying composed emotionally, you may not have the energy to make the difficult decisions around use or behavior change.
As treatment providers we try to normalize the need for support around other life management tasks, and help with problem solving as our clients make significant changes in their use of substances or other compulsive behaviors. While we know the brain can heal and functioning can return to a normal baseline, the early stages of change are difficult. Helping our clients and their family and friends manage their expectations is crucial in supporting the change process.