Under-estimate Your Willpower

Okay, I’ll admit it. I did have small private chocolate caches hidden away for times of desperate need. There was the dark stuff from a Finnish friend stashed high in the cupboard with the goblets that no one uses. The Skor bars were hidden underneath receipts in lower right desk drawer at home. The tri-chocolate Lindt balls had found a home tucked in the corner of my filing cabinet for emergencies.

Resisting chocolate has never been a struggle for me. I just don’t. However, when my daughter and I decided to challenge each other to *”clean eating” for one month, I knew I would have bit of a battle on my hands. I soon discovered that willpower was not enough.

In a recent study in the upcoming journal of Psychological Science, Loran Nordgren observed that college students who rely on their own willpower to help them defeat their urges to smoke, overeat or use addictive substances often fail because they tend to overestimate their ability to resist urges. He describes one experiment where smokers who strongly believed they could resist their urges were twice as likely to light up a cigarette as smokers who perceived themselves as having less self- control.

It seems that humility is our friend when it comes to terminating unhealthy habits. When we think too highly of our own abilities to resist temptation, we create potential hazards for ourselves. Willpower must be supplemented with other strategies to overcome temptation.

Work needs to be done before you come to the point of temptation. Plan how you will deal with specific types of frustrations before they arise. If you know you typically deal with a stressful day at work by engaging in a couch potato ritual accompanied by consumption of high calorie foods, decide before you get home that instead you’ll go for a walk, call a friend, or get a small task done that allows you a sense of accomplishment.

Our habits are the default behaviors that are most comfortable and familiar to us in times of duress. These habits provide comfort and familiarity but also require the least mental input. The following proverb about thoughts and habits still holds true and implies that investing in the effort of disciplining our thought life is well worth the effort: Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, Reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a lifetime.

Instead of providing yourself with opportunities to “resist” temptation, you need to avoid situations where you are tempted at all. “No opportunity” creates more success than allowing yourself to experience the same temptations over and over again, in the same situations. Change your environment to minimize temptation. (Yes, I know. This means the chocolate stashes have got to go.)

Food is often used to sweeten moments”. Instead of tending to our emotional frustration, discouragement or fatigue, food can be used as a source of comfort and satisfaction instead of for the purpose of fueling and nourishing our body. In the short term, it seems like a successful strategy, but in the long term “emotional eating” creates unhealthy habits which are hard to rid ourselves of. Changing our environment here may simply involve replacing high fat, high sugar and high salt foods with fresh fruit and cut-up veggies.


Goals for behavior change need to be realistic. Start slow. Real success in changing long-standing habits takes time. Set goals that focus on the positive aspects of your behavior change, not the negative. Notice and congratulate yourself for incremental changes. But remember, change involves increased energy being applied to any given situation. It will take work to change the habits you have grown accustomed to and comfortable with, and we cannot wait for the ‘right mood’ to happen first. Pearl S. Buck stated: “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” **

Be accountable. Find a partner who challenges you to reach your goal. My morning gym routines exists because I know my friend will be there – and she will hassle me “big time” if I’m not.

We are most vulnerable to temptation when our feelings, frustrations and fatigue create the “perfect storm” of low impulse resistance. Identify the factors that increase your impulsive behavior. Recognize your thinking processes of rationalization. They may sound like, “I deserve this because…” or I really need this today because…” If you don’t stop your internal behavioral excuses, it is highly likely that you will follow through on your impulsive actions once you allow these thoughts to lead you down your “old habit trail.”

Face the anxieties that cause you to resist behavioral change. At times we keep to our old dysfunctional behavior because we don’t know if new behaviours will satisfy us like the old ones. We won’t know until we try.

You have other options than blindly allowing impulses full control. In moments of distress, it’s helpful to pause, to be aware of your distress and recognize your vulnerability. At that moment you have a choice. Stopping to breathe slowly and calmly allows you to use the moment to choose another option.

Having “enough willpower” is not the complete answer to changing our bad habits. Supplementing our willpower with willingness to choose and implement new behaviours and thoughts can put us on the road to success.

* A note on the “clean eating” agreement between Joan and her daughter: This was a month- long agreement to eat no white sugar, no white flour and no second helpings. Concessions were made for an occasional dessert for special occasions. Side benefits have been increased energy and moderate weight loss.

** (Pearl s. Buck, American author, 1938 Nobel Prize for literature.)

Under-estimate Your Willpower
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Joan has provided counselling for marriage, family and individual concerns for over 25 years.  She provides guidance and support for relationship difficulties, reconstructing marriage after an affair, conflict resolution, problem-solving and parent-child relationships.  Joan works with individuals who are dealing with depression, anxiety, loss, trauma recovery and/or experience with assault and abuse.

Joan’s approach depends upon the situation presented, and includes a variety of therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Family Therapy, EMDR and Emotionally Focused Therapy.  Client strengths are emphasized with personal insight and responsibility for growth is encouraged.

Joan’s doctoral dissertation research focused on resilience factors in adversity. She received her master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by two years of specialized clinical training in Chicago.  She is a member of the B.C. College of Psychologists and the B.C. Psychological Association.

Joan enjoys teaching in community, retreat and university settings on topics related to her areas of practice and experience.  Having been married for over thirty years, with four adult children, her approach to relationships and life problems is both realistic and practical.

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