What if We’re Thinking About Willpower All Wrong?


“I have no willpower around carbs.”

“It’s sweets! I absolutely cannot have them in the house or I’ll eat the whole bag!”

“I was good all week and then I just went crazy this weekend at a friend’s BBQ. I wish I had more willpower at those things!”

I can’t tell you how many times I hear this kind of thing when talking to a client or a member of one of my group programs.

Again and again I see people making this same fundamental mistake – they assume that their overeating or caving to cravings is the result of a chronic lack of willpower on their part. They believe that when you combine the evil powers of carbs, sugar, French fries or cheeseburgers with their own personal lack of strength, disaster ensues.

They long for more willpower, beat themselves up when they feel like they’ve been weak yet again, and envy others who seem to be so strong.

But, I don’t think this approach to the concept of willpower is helpful. In fact, I want to encourage you to think about willpower in an entirely different way.

Overeating, emotional eating or consistently eating foods that we crave, but know are not good for us, is not about being weak; it’s about your brain’s natural tendency to move away from discomfort and towards comfort. For thousands of years (long before they were making Girl Scout cookies or Pringles) our brains have been wired to make us avoid pain and seek pleasure. It’s how we’ve managed to stay alive as a species for this long. And since food (especially sugar and fat) have such a direct and immediate effect on our brain chemistry, when we feel discomfort in some area of our lives, we are naturally drawn to food because it is an easy and predictable source of pleasure. You’re brain’s not stupid. It feels bad and it knows that food will make it feel good again.

Now, discomfort can appear in many forms. Discomfort can appear as boredom, stress, frustration, overwhelm, anger, wanting more out of life, or trying to say “no” to macaroni and cheese. When you brain feels these things, it doesn’t like it and it immediately pushes you to do something that will take the discomfort away – namely EAT!

Now, the way we traditionally think about willpower is that willpower is the ability to stand up to this natural tendency of your brain and say “NO!” But anyone who has ever been on a diet will tell you that that doesn’t work…at least not for long. Your brain is literally wired for this and no attempt on your part to blindly override that is going to be successful for long.

So, what if instead of thinking about willpower as the ability to simply work against what your brain is naturally trained to do,  we thought about willpower as the willingness to investigate and allow the discomfort that your brain is trying to use food to avoid?

Being willing to investigate and allow discomfort or unpleasant feelings is hard and it requires effort, but it’s a far more effective approach to ultimately changing our eating habits, then simply trying to stick your hands on your hips and yell “NO!” at your brain like some kind of bossy fifth-grader.

So, the next time a craving strikes, resist the urge to try to just avoid it and tell it “NO!” This kind of willpower doesn’t serve you and your brain will always eventually win this fight.  Instead, work on getting curious about what you’re thinking, what emotions you might be trying to avoid, and how you’re subconsciously hoping this food will make you feel.

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Sara Best

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