Think of the term “will power”, and it is difficult not to think of some steely property we wish we had more of – something indefinable that many are convinced only belongs to those with “abs of steel”. I hear people talk longingly about what would surely be possible – if only they were not so weak-willed.
According to common beliefs, and in no small way connected to the mainstream diet industry, if you have a will of steel nothing is impossible for you. “Stay tough, fight the fight, and you too can have abs to match your will.”
This sounds like a great idea! Being mentally tough and resisting temptation: these are qualities that can be useful for losing extra pounds, and also for life in general. After all, food is not the only temptation out there, and with life’s stresses, it can be hard to resist a little pleasure wherever you can find it.
What can possibly be wrong with fighting the good fight against your human tendencies? Oh, what frail beings we are! – right? We cannot be trusted with our own desires – right? We have to crack down on ourselves – right? This is what I think many people are really telling me when they say things like, “I just have no will power. I CANNOT be trusted around sweets. I will eat them until they are gone.”
The obvious solution seems to be a tougher stand against those tendencies. Tougher rules, tougher penalties, less “slack”. If that worked, I would be all for it. The problem is that the seemingly obvious solution is not the one that works best in practice. We are far more complex than that! Brain chemistry drives cravings, and I think this explains why we can feel as if we are in a struggle (battle!) with something real, something against our will.
I have heard different descriptions of the internal struggle that often goes on in situations like this. Someone once described it to me as the battle between the Nazi and the Rebel in a person. The Nazi represents the bullying steel will and the Rebel would be the human reaction to that, the biological drive for pleasure and reward. Sounds like a split personality, doesn’t it?! Still, I think some of this struggle goes on in most of us – if not about food, about something else. “I want to . . . ” is met with “But you can’t do that . . . ” is met with ” Screw you, I’m doing it anyway!” By getting our way, we win the battle but lose the war.
I guess my problem with all of this is summed up in the language used to describe it. “Battle”, “war”, “struggle”, “resist” – who are we fighting? There is an internal feeling of unrest, of an internal “war” going on. Why would we want to fight with ourselves – who wins?
My spin on will power is different. There is no question that self-control and discipline are helpful. I just think that the process can be so much more peaceful AND productive in a more peaceful internal environment. Step back and observe with no set agenda. Be your own peacemaker. In a sense, just “listen” to the buzz going on inside. This involves being curious, genuinely curious, about personal needs and wants.
In order to decide what you really want, you have to feel that you have a choice. Both the Nazi and the Rebel take freedom of choice away. They both can cause people to feel that “something outside of themselves” is making the decision for them. If you listen to the Nazi in you, you just follow orders. If you listen to the Rebel, it may feel like you are making a choice, but don’t fool yourself – you are just reacting and pushing back against the pressure. You are probably not even considering the benefits of the option that you resist. Consider this: there is no need for the Rebel if there is no Nazi to judge and punish. In other words, if you feel like the choice is yours, you will feel less threatened by taking a curious look at yourself and your habits.
Knowing what you want is not the only part of will power, of course. Creating a realistic plan and finding the tools you need will help when brain chemistry is pulling you toward immediate gratification. When you drop your weapons and understand what it is you are feeling (brain chemistry), you are better able to develop tools that respect the power of your biological drives. When you are not fighting, you will be more attuned to the situations that set you up for a feeling of struggle. There will simply be space in your head to think straight.
The path to healthier eating and living in general is to improve upon current habits. Improvements can be large or small, slow or fast. Change happens when forward motion is created. True lifestyle change is possible when personal choice is involved.
By creating internal peace, you can allow a real choice, making way for real will power to develop. Real self-control can take hold when there is not constant fear of what can happen if the Rebel gets loose. How will this happen? Real will power will slowly evolve in a lasting way as you begin to choose small healthier habits and learn the benefits of those choices. You will begin to notice the cues, or triggers, that seem to take your feeling of control away, and you will start to set yourself up for success to let new habits take hold.
In some cases, the changes will be more dramatic. You may choose to follow a structured eating plan or to make more general lifestyle changes. The type and extent of the change is not nearly as important as the feeling of choice. The positive movement in a healthier direction will create a type of will power that feels more permanent. Not perfect – we are human after all! – but much, much more permanent.