I only recently discovered podcasts. I mean, I knew there was an app on my phone that I couldn’t delete called “podcasts”, but that was about it. One of the first podcasts recommended to me was titled “Stuff You Should Know”. It’s an interesting weekly that covers any number of topics, everything from the Supreme Court to Star Wars. The reason I bring it up is they shared a very interesting look into the concept of willpower (linked here: https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/willpower-works.htm )
The basic concept is that willpower is essentially a limited but renewable resource. The podcast described it akin to the health meter in a video game. You know, those little hearts up in the corner that illustrate how much energy your character has. (If you don’t play videogames, that’s okay. You’ll get the idea as we go along.) Just like in a video game your willpower “energy bar” can go up or down depending on what you do. The size of your bar, though, is dictated by genetics, meaning if your parents have a lot of willpower, chances are so will you. How fast our health depletes is also unique, and while our genetics play a role, experience also plays another role. Simply put, this means that if you have given in to temptation a lot in the past, your willpower to resist temptation in the future could be impacted. But our willpower “energy bars” don’t only go down; you can increase willpower by paying attention to things like nutrition, sleep and general health.
I found this understanding of willpower interesting because it isn’t how willpower is commonly described by my clients. Often willpower is assumed to be something you either have or don't have. When someone describes their willpower to me they often say things like “my willpower is good” or “my willpower is strong”. This suggests that they believe their willpower is a static trait; it doesn’t change over time, or in different situations. This revised concept of willpower is important not only because of its everyday application but also because of its implications for things like addictions treatment and recovery planning.
Abstinence-based recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are tremendously popular and well attended. The anonymous philosophy supports the understanding of willpower as described in the podcast. Anonymous programs recommend staying away from people and places that require the use of willpower in order to overcome addiction. Anonymous members have found that over time, exposure to people and places associated with their addiction increases the chance of relapse. This is a sound approach for most addictions, but what if it’s not possible to stay away? What if the addiction is food, shopping, or some other necessity? How can we apply what we have learned to resist temptation in these scenarios?
Let's go back to the idea of willpower as a renewable resource. If I am addicted to something that I simply cannot avoid I can use the following questions to determine how much willpower I have and how much I need to safely resist temptation. Here are some helpful questions to ask:
How Much Willpower Do I Have?
- Did I get a good night's sleep?
- Am I under any unusual stress or particularly worried about something?
- Have I eaten a good meal?
How Quickly Will My Willpower Be Used Up?
- Do I have a plan for my time?
- What has my experience taught me about this situation?
- Is there someone who can join me who I can trust to keep me on track? ** This last question is key, particularly early in recovery. It can be very difficult to find the answers to some of these questions on our own. A trusted source of support can be helpful in achieving your goal.)
If your answers to most of these questions indicate your will is strong, you may be ready to take on a challenge. Success, of course, is not guaranteed, but hopefully this will give you a healthy start to managing temptations.