Why Willpower Won’t Get You What You Want

Willpower Doesn’t Work

It’s hard to always do the right thing. Even when we know the thing is a bad idea, sometimes the pull to do it anyway, to be bad, is just too strong. Sometimes, it seems, willpower doesn’t work.

Think of a time when you planned on doing something you knew would be good for you, like get to bed on time. Yet there you are watching just one more episode of Queer Eye, well past midnight.

It’s easy to be hard on ourselves in those moments. It’s as if the proverbial angel and devil have appeared on our shoulders — and the devil has won.

Maybe we fall into the thought trap, “I must not be trying hard enough,” or “I must not want it badly enough.” We even worry that others see our struggles as a sign of weak character and bad judgment.

So, what’s going on here? Why do we so often do things against our own best interest? And why do we see it as a moral failure?

Akrasia and the Divided Will

Many of our individual world views, as well as our shared socio-cultural values, can be traced back not just to religion, but also to the classical philosophers and those who came after, refining their theories on ethics and virtue and attempting to reconcile faith and reason — without pissing off the Church.

Put simply, we are the products of a long line of thinkers that shaped our collective consciousness. One perennial question pondered extensively by both Socrates and Aristotle, was, “Do people always do what they think is best?”

To us, the answer is pretty obvious: not at all. Like that time you planned to study for a really important exam. You wanted to get a good grade and be proud of yourself. Instead, you ended up in an internet rabbit hole, or hung out with your friends, or went out to a party (you can always retake a class, but you can never relive a night, right?).

The ancient Greeks called this all-too-common disconnect, the misalignment between our actions and our better judgment, akrasia, or acting against our own best judgment. But guess who called BS on this? That’s right, good old Socrates.

Socrates didn’t believe in akrasia. He reasoned that it was illogical for someone’s actions to not be in alignment with their values. He’d have figured that you might say you value the self-discipline of studying and getting a good grade, but due to your actions, clearly you are lying to yourself and everyone. You just want to goof off and party. In other words, according to this reasoning, a person who acts against his own best interest must, therefore, have bad judgment and doesn’t know any better.

Decisions, willpower, akrasia, recovery

However, it’s not as harsh as it seems. Both Socrates and his successor Aristotle saw akrasia as a knowledge deficit, not an intrinsic flaw. For them, right intention and character far outweighed the perceived rightness or wrongness of a particular action. Those who seemed unable to control themselves weren’t really at fault. They just hadn’t done the work yet.

Divided Brain, Divided Will

But on a biochemical level, something even more complex is going on. It turns out that the brain has a tenuous connection between our judgment and our actions that can compromise our power (or will) to do the things we know are beneficial and to avoid the things we know are harmful.

Put very simply, the mind has two parts involved in deciding how to act. One part makes judgments quickly, intuitively, and unconsciously and acts on them impulsively. The other part thinks more slowly, rationally, and consciously, weighing the pros and cons of our actions against our goals and values, and considers the consequences.

Our task, every one of us, is to develop skills that recognize when the wanting mind is in control, take a pause, remember what else is important, and act from there.

The old guys were on the right track though. Developing core inner strengths and taking care of the body, as they recommended, certainly does aid us in bridging the disconnect more easily. They didn’t know it then, but scientific advances are now able to demonstrate why.

We know that repeating habits, whether helpful or harmful, reinforces certain neuropathways between thoughts, feelings, and actions. We know that using harmful behaviors to cope with life’s stressors only creates more distress, blunting the connection between the wanting mind and the wise mind. We can identify changes to the brain, most notably in the pleasure seeking and reward systems, in people with eating disorders, addictions, depression, and other mental health issues. And we know that with time and treatment, the brain can revert back to normal.

We also have evidence that adequate sleep, appropriate physical activity, time for quiet contemplation, and a balanced diet, can determine whether or not akrasia takes root or is easily overcome. And we have learned that self-compassion, rather than criticism, is a vastly superior method for motivating change.

Social Context

What is deeply problematic, however, is the fact that, as a society, we have turned this old philosophical reasoning into a moral quandary. Instead of a holistic view of an individual, we tend to reduce her (or ourselves) to an evaluation of actions. And if we (wrongly) view the body as a sum of those actions on public display, the non-thinking person conflates worth with appearance attributing to them arbitrary character traits through a phenomenon called spontaneous trait inference. It’s totally unfair. But we all catch ourselves doing it at one time or another, even to ourselves.

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  — Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Due to the powerful influence that Reform sects of the Catholic Church have had on our culture here in the US and abroad, we do judge actions about as intensely as we scrutinize character. Right and wrong actions are preordained and non-negotiable. And we are almost required to feel guilt when behaving in unsanctioned ways. We have an agreed upon set of rules and laws that can be pretty absolute sometimes.

In some cases, we think we have to create dire consequences to compel citizens to behave. This translates into parenting, education, and other systems that rely on punishment or reward to manage behavior. We even think we need to control our own behavior by self-imposing severe consequences, including feeling really bad about ourselves for failing.

Why This is a Bad Idea In Recovery

In the case of recovery, this zero-sum idea leads us to believe that things just have to get bad enough in order for someone to change. And when bad doesn’t seem to be bad enough, we get to start a shame spiral.  “If I want recovery so bad, why do I keep working against my own progress? A part of me must want to stay in the cycle. Or I must hate myself. Maybe, I’m punishing myself. I’m weak.”

But in reality, long-term negative consequences, be they heart failure, osteoporosis, or loss of social connections, are rarely enough to derail an eating disorder that’s already left the station. Even if the person desperately wants recovery, she finds it really hard to change her habits to align with that goal. And every time she acts against her own best interest, in favor of the eating disorder’s goals, she also feels guilt and shame for not doing recovery well enough.

Maybe she knows that trying a particular fear food will only help her progress, but every time she is confronted with it she backs out. Or maybe she knows that grazing between meals messes up her hunger cues, but in the moment, she just feels the urge to eat. And maybe she knows that eating when she is hungry will prevent her from being too hungry and overeating later, but in the moment, ignoring her hunger feels like the right thing to do.

Balancing Wants and Shoulds

Whatever the challenge to the will is, the underlying issue is the same — a disconnect between what I want now and the actual desired outcome. In short, Socrates would say we overestimate the value of nearby pleasures (or avoidance of difficulty, preference for safety) and underestimate the severity of far-away consequences (or the possibility of things actually getting better).

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

                                                            — Nelson Mandela

My overarching point is this: the thought that you are a bad person or somehow “wrong” for not always making the pro-recovery decision is not your own thought! It is a collective idea that’s been with us since Socrates and has morphed over time with the influence of other thinkers and theologians. It’s time to let it go.

The moralization of food is, in effect, an effort to unite Who I Am and What I Want, to create a tidy package for our simplistic minds. With some contemplation, it becomes evident that conflating who I am with what I want makes zero sense. We are all much more than the sum of our explicit desires. And all of us are in this, learning together. A little compassion for self and other goes a long way in creating the space for real and sustained change.

P.S. Self-compassion is a skill, one that anyone can learn and develop. Mindful Self-Compassion Training teaches the tools to nurture the skill of kindness to both self and body, even in the presence of suffering.