Why Willpower Doesn't Create Lasting Change

Have you ever noticed when you try to lose a few pounds that willpower only lasts so long?

Sure, you can avoid sweets for short period of time, but after a few days or weeks of trying to ignore what you’ve told yourself you can’t have, it seems all you can think of, until you finally give in.

That’s because you’re focusing on what you can’t have. When feeling deprived, your brain looks for, actually seeks out, the object of desire. I’ve noticed this is when my mind plays 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.

When I’m feeling depressed and wanting to comfort myself with sweets while on a diet, it’s a struggle to avoid exactly what I’m determined not to have. I feel like I have to give in to make myself feel better in the moment. If I slow down and consider what’s upsetting me, I allow myself to be disappointed at whatever is triggering the feelings. I focus on moving through the emotion instead of indulging in sweets and avoiding the negative feeling.

The same thing happens when you try very hard not to drink based on willpower. It can be especially challenging when you’ve already had one glass of wine. You tell yourself you’ll have only one. And before you know it, you’ve finished the bottle, again.

If you slow down what really happens, in between the first drink, and the action of having another, your brain rationalizes why you should indulge in more. I’ve already had one, so what difference does it make? It’s only beer so it doesn’t count. I ate food, so that will slow down the alcohol’s effects.

Notice how it’s similar to giving into sweets while on a diet.

Next time you plan to have just one, or none at all, notice your brain will likely come up with excuses to give in. Be prepared to feel some discomfort. Instead of pushing the discomfort away, allow yourself to feel your way through whatever is happening at that moment without attempting to push negative feelings away with willpower.

Just like holding an inflatable beach ball under water, it takes more effort to push a negative feeling away with willpower and avoidance, than to allow it to float next to you and experience it fully until it passes. 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.

When you allow yourself to feel the discomfort, two things happen. First, you strengthen your ability to allow an urge to drink and feel negative emotions without indulging in more alcohol than you decided to have. It gets easier with practice.

The other benefit is you increase your self-esteem because you kept your word and your commitment to yourself. It’s like a muscle that becomes stronger with use, each time making the exercise easier, until one day it seems almost effortless.

If you’d like more information about allowing urges for alcohol to make lasting change, contact me about working together.

Julie Ernst