Why Willpower Doesn't Create Lasting Change
Ever notice when you try to lose weight, willpower only lasts temporarily?
When I wanted to drop pounds, which was often, I’d decided to cut back on sweets. I’d avoid Oreos in the pantry/moosetracks in the freezer.
After a couple of days (or hours) of trying to ignore what I told myself I couldn’t have, it seemed like all I could think of. I’d try to push the thoughts away.
Until I gave in.
Trying to tough it out with willpower made me want it more.
When feeling deprived, your brain looks for, actually seeks out, the object of desire. Using willpower increases desire.
It’s like my mind played tricks on me to make me give in.
Just one bite won’t hurt. I already exercised today so it’s okay. I’ll skip dinner later.
It was even worse if I’d had a bad day or was feeling down. I felt like I wanted to give in to make myself feel better.
When I learned to slow down and think about what I was feeling at the exact moment I wanted something sugary, I noticed I was attempting to comfort myself. Not only was I trying to push away a cookie, I was pushing away disappointment, anger, fear—whatever negative emotion I was feeling under the surface.
The same thing happened when I tried not to drink using willpower.
Telling myself, I’ll only have one glass. I won’t have too much. I’ll stop before I drink too many. All this concentration on not drinking with willpower only make me want it more.
Of course it was especially challenging when I’d already had a glass of wine. I’d tell myself no. And before I knew it, I’d have another glass, and then another, often finishing the bottle.
Using the same technique I learned to get my sweet tooth under control, I slowed down and paid attention to what was going on in my head just after I’d had the first drink and before I drank another. In that split second of deciding whether to have another, I heard my brain rationalizing why I should go ahead and drink more.
I’ve already had one, so what difference does it make?
It’s only beer so it doesn’t count.
I ate, so that will slow down alcohol’s effects.
Other people get to drink normally.
I don’t have to get up early tomorrow.
It’s so hard no to.
People will judge me.
I just don’t care.
So similar to the thoughts I’d have when avoiding sweets.
Next time you plan to have just one drink, or none at all, observe what thoughts you have. Right at the moment of choosing whether to have more, or stop, watch how your brain will come up with excuses justifying more alcohol.
Tip: Be prepared to feel some discomfort. Allow and be present with the discomfort. Seriously.
Instead of pushing wanting alcohol away with willpower, just feel it. Break down and name what emotion you’re experiencing in the moment: wanting alcohol. Allow yourself to feel your way through the experience of desiring another drink without resisting.
Feelings are caused by thoughts. Studies show it takes about 90 seconds for an emotion to build, crest and fall away, unless we renew the feeling with a new or recycled thought.
Attempting to avoid feelings (including the desire to drink) requires more effort than allowing them to simply exist. By trying to push it away, you’re renewing the emotion of wanting with a new thought.
Instead of perpetuating the desire to drink with willpower, ride the wave of desire in the moment, feeling it build, crest and dissipate.
When you allow yourself to feel discomfort while wanting a drink, three things happen.
First, you strengthen your ability to want alcohol without drinking. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes to not drink. Eventually it’s very easy—like a smoker who quit 20 years ago easy.
If you are drinking because you feel stressed or are trying to push away some other negative emotion, like anger, disappointment or fear, name and observe that emotion too.
(Second) When you get good at feeling your emotions without drinking, you decondition your desire to drink as a result of feeling bad. With repetition, over time, you learn to no longer want alcohol just because you feel bad.
The third benefit is you increase your self-esteem. You kept your word and your commitment to yourself. This also is like a muscle that becomes stronger with use, each time making the next easier, until one day it seems almost effortless.
—Julie Ernst, CCJD
P.S. Visit www.stoporcutback.com to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.