The Truth About Willpower

Almost everyday, we overhear people say, “I wish I had more willpower over __________”. And we get it. Some days can feel like a battle. We may reach the end of the day and are left with a feeling of disappointment. Maybe we didn’t check everything off the to-do list that we wanted to accomplish. Or we managed to talk ourselves out of energizing our body through exercise for the fourth day in a row. Or maybe we just couldn’t say no to that bag of chips after work. We beat ourselves up, saying, “If only I had more willpower.” We tell ourselves tomorrow will be better. Or we give up altogether, handing off a project, ditching our goal to be more active, or discarding meal preparation because “scrap that”, we’ve discovered we just don’t have enough willpower.

The issue with willpower, though, is it seems to be tightly tied into self-criticism. Self-criticism is not the best motivator for self-improvement and can actually lead to inaction and procrastination instead of progress1. A couple weeks ago, we introduced you to the non-dieting world. In that world, willpower doesn’t exist. The thing is, when we eat something that “goes against our willpower” or breaks the rules we’ve set for ourselves, we are in-fact, ignoring an all-too-important voice. Our bodies are trying to tell us that we don’t need to restrict ourselves. By ignoring that voice, all we’re left with is our self-criticism, shame, and guilt. That voice is our built-in self-compassion.

Recent research has discovered that self-compassion can be a useful tool in combatting those negative self-conscious emotions and their effects on our well-being2. To put it simply, self-compassion is a method of treating yourself how you would treat a loved one going through a tough time. For example, if your best friend was feeling discouraged about a stressful situation at work, what would you say to them? Would you say, “This is all your fault. If you had just kept your mouth shut and had a little more self-control, this wouldn’t be happening”? No! You would likely respond to them in a kind and understanding way, without criticizing them for their shortcomings. The point is, a lot of us can be caring and non-judgemental with our loved ones, but not with ourselves. We’re our own biggest critic.

Self-compassion turns self-criticism inside out. It also goes a step further than self-esteem. Self-esteem can be defined as our evaluation of our own self-worth3. It’s affected by how we see ourselves as well as how we think others see us. Self-esteem tells us “You are awesome” and “You can do this”. Self-compassion says those things, too, but it’s not afraid to embrace our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Let’s face it – we’re human! We all have our fair share of weakness. But by employing self-compassion, we’re better able to have a holistic, healthy view of ourselves.

It is generally understood that there are three main components of self-compassion2,4. The first is practicing self-kindness—this means that when we fail or feel inadequate, we are patient, gentle and understanding with ourselves, not critical or judgemental. The second is to remind ourselves of our common humanity—we all face difficulties, failure and struggles. It’s part of being human! And lastly, self-compassion involves being mindful. Mindfulness is viewing our situation from a neutral perspective. When we are being mindful, we recognize times when we are being self-critical or judgemental, and then we let them pass without emotion. Employing all three of these components of self-compassion can help reduce discouraging self-talk and improve our overall outlook.

One way to practice self-compassion is writing a letter to ourselves. When we feel down about our appearance or are beating ourselves up over our mistakes, sit back and imagine that we have a friend who is doing what we are currently doing. What would we want them to know? Then, take a pen and notebook and write a letter to that “friend.” Just taking 2 or 3 minutes to do this can totally transform our outlook on the situation.

As we learn to be compassionate towards ourselves, we’ll learn to be more in tune with our bodies instead of listening to all the voices around us. We’ll stop trying to conform ourselves to a set of rules and start liberating ourselves to a world of possibility. As you go about your week, you will face failure, doubt and regret. Choose to be responsive toward your body, not restrictive. Make the conscious choice to go forward in compassion and notice the difference it makes.


References:

  1. Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., Zuroff, D. C., Milyavskaya, M., & Gorin, A. A. (2011). The effects of self-criticism and self-oriented perfectionism on goal pursuit. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(7), 964-975. doi: 10.1177/0146167211410246
  2. Pila, E. (2015, September). How self-consciousness can burden our well-being – and how self-compassion can help. National Eating Disorder Information Centre Bulletin, 30(4). Retrieved from http://nedic.ca/sites/default/files/files/Bulletin%20Vol%2030%20No%204.pdf
  3. Neff, K. D. & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), 23-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00537.x
  4. Pollock, M. D. (n.d.). How self-compassion helps strengthen your motivation. In Michael D. Pollock. Received from https://www.michaeldpollock.com/self-compassion-motivation/

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