Changing how you think about your own willpower will give an instant boost to your self-control.By Daria Meoli | Jan 26, 2017 SHAPE Magazine
Willpower, or lack thereof, has been blamed for failed diets, missed fitness goals, credit card debt, and other regrettable behavior since the third century B.C., when the ancient Greeks began to study self-control as a means of overcoming destructive behavior. Still, 27 percent of people report a lack of willpower as their greatest obstacle to change, according to the American Psychological Association.
For decades, most psychologists believed willpower had limitations. Like fuel in a gas tank, willpower is burned when you exhibit self-control. Once the supply runs out, you give in to temptation.
Recently, neuroscientists and psychologists have been debating the theory that willpower is a finite resource. Self-control may act like an emotion that ebbs and flows based on how you feel in different situations. Other experts say belief in willpower drives our behavior. One study found that people who think willpower is unlimited tend to recover better from tasks that require self-control than those who think willpower is finite.
So, what can you learn from all this chatter in the psych lab? Here are seven surprising facts about willpower that can help you improve your self-control and reach your goals.
#1. Believing your willpower is limitless will make you happier.
Researchers at the University of Zurich found that people who see their willpower as unlimited are happier with life in general and are better able to cope when life gets more demanding. Researchers surveyed hundreds of university students about their willpower beliefs and life satisfaction at the start of the school year and then again just before exam time six months later. Beliefs in unlimited willpower were associated with more life satisfaction and better moods at the start of the year, and also with more sustained positive well-being as the exam period approached.
#2. Willpower is not a virtue.
Because willpower is often associated with resisting negative behavior, it's unfairly associated with morality or integrity. In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, author Kelly McGonigal argues that willpower is a mind-body response, not a virtue. Willpower is a neurological function: The brain is telling the body what to do to help you achieve your goals. Morals are philosophical, not physical. Good news: Eating that doughnut does NOT make you "bad."
#3. You can't rely on willpower for long-term changes.
Your brain has two distinct systems that drive behavior: the "go" system and the "stop" system, according to Art Markman, Ph.D., author of Smart Change: 5 Habits to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others, and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The "go" part of the brain drives you to act and learns behaviors. The "stop" system inhibits the actions your "go" system wants you to do. Willpower is part of the "stop" part of the brain, which is the weaker of the two systems. This means, while you can stop yourself from acting on a desired behavior for a period of time, your brain's desire to act will eventually overpower your willpower. So, if you're relying solely on willpower to quit your 3 p.m. Starbucks run, you're setting yourself up to fail.
Markman says the long-term solution to controlling a behavior is to reprogram your "go" system to drive more desirable behaviors.
"Your 'go' system can't learn not to do something," says Markman. "You need to create positive goals, not goals for things you want to stop doing." Instead of focusing on quitting your afternoon snack run, put time in your calendar at 3 p.m. to read up on media that can help your career or meet with a colleague to discuss new ideas. See how we turned a don't into a do?
#4. Willpower becomes stronger with practice.
Reprogramming your behaviors is critical for achieving change, but what about when you just want to avoid texting your ex on his birthday? You still need willpower to help resist making life's everyday bad decisions. "One of the most common misconceptions about willpower is that your either have it, or your don't," says Chloe Carmichael Peet, Ph.D., a New York City–based clinical psychologist specializing in stress management, relationship issues, self-esteem, and coaching.
Some people are born more sensitive to emotional triggers and temptations than others. But, just like you exhaust muscles to build strength, you can increase your self-control stamina by exerting willpower.
"Willpower is a skill," says Carmichael Peet. "If you struggled with willpower in the past and say, 'I just don't have willpower, it's not part of who I am,' that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you alter that to say, 'I haven't spent enough time developing willpower,' you'll create space for yourself to learn some skills."
According to Carmichael Peet, willpower can be developed the same way you learn to pitch a fastball: repetition. "The more you push your willpower, the stronger it will become," she says. "As you practice restraint, it becomes easier for you."
#5. Motivation and willpower are different.
Michael Inzlicht, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says he believes a lack of motivation—not lack of willpower—is the reason people give into negative behaviors. "The depletion idea of willpower running on some sort of limited fuel is incorrect, in my opinion," says Inzlicht. "Yes, we're less likely to stick to our diets when we're tired, but I don't think this is because self-control has run out. Instead, we are less motivated to control ourselves when we're tired. It's less a question of being unable to control, and more a question of being unwilling to control. When the willingness is there, people can control themselves even when tired."
#6. Difficult people suck your willpower.
Have you ever spent the day biting your tongue with a condescending coworker, then gone home to eat a sleeve of Chips Ahoy and down a half bottle of Malbec? Interacting with others and maintaining relationships can be extremely mentally exhausting, leaving you less motivated to resist negative but satisfying behaviors, according to the American Psychological Association.
#7. The power of distraction may be the only power you need.
"Willpower might be overhyped," says Inzlicht. "It might actually be less important than you think in helping you reach our goals." What is important? Removing temptation. Inzlicht and his collaborators looked at the self-control people used to complete a word game. The researchers asked people to set goals and keep journals about their progress over the course of three months.
Inzlicht found that in-the-moment self-control did not directly predict whether people met their goals three months later. What did predict goal success was whether or not these people faced temptation. Those in the study who arranged their lives—physically or psychologically—so they encountered fewer temptations were the ones who were most likely to meet their goals.
Coming up with a strategy to avoid temptation is as critical as increasing your ability to resist it. Think of it this way: If you never set foot in your ex's apartment, you're far less likely to relapse and hook up with him again, willpower or not.
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From The Mighty
To find out what people wish they knew about seeing a therapist, we asked people in our mental health community to share a piece of advice no one tells you about going to therapy.
Here’s what they shared with us:
1. “Therapy leaves you feeling drained, raw and/or vulnerable. You have to give yourself time after a session to process what was talked [about] and rejuvenate. That could be taking a nap, taking a warm bath, exercising. I find I have to practice the best self-care after my therapy sessions.” –Chaia G.
2. “You [may] have to repeat your story over and over. It starts to not feel real in your own head and you will feel guilty about being there. But remind yourself it’s OK to be asking for help.” –Sasha H.
3. “It’s all about connecting with your therapist. Therapy is not ‘one size fits all.’ It’s important to allow yourself [the] opportunity to make sure you have the best person working with you. Having a trusting and open relationship with your therapist is vital! Don’t be afraid to speak up if you find your therapist isn’t the best for you.” — Lauren L.
4. “You have to be 100 percent honest and if you don’t feel comfortable telling the first few therapists, then it’s OK to change them. Not everyone is a good fit.” –Abigail M.
5. “Therapy takes effort and work.” –Melissa G.
6. “It takes time to see improvement. You need to continue seeing your therapist so they can evaluate your mental state over time.” –Lisa C.
7. “Advocate for yourself. It’s worth it if you work it. You’re worth it.” –Amelia L.
8. “You [might] feel worse before it gets better. Learn how to ground yourself so you have a safe strong place you can go to within yourself.” — Mandy M.
9. “Therapy is not a one-visit fix.” –Marissa D.
10. “In the beginning there will probably be many times you feel like giving it up because it seems like the easier option. Stick it out though. It’s worth it in the long run.” –Angela E.
11. “It’s not about laying dramatically on a chaise lounge only talking about your feelings. The therapist is there to help you challenge yourself to be the best that you can be. But it comes with a cost. It can be extremely painful at times and you may feel really bad for a few days reflecting on what was brought to the surface, but then you’ll learn how to heal correctly. You just have to continue going.” — Allyson L.
12. “The therapist is there for you. You (or insurance) are paying for their time. However long your appointment is, that time is yours. Use it to your advantage and talk about whatever you need to. Also, be open and honest with the therapist. That’s the only way it’ll work for your benefit. If you can’t be honest with them, it’s important to know you can find another therapist you’re comfortable with. The first time or first therapist might not be the right fit, but there is one that will be.” — Michelle D.
13. “Building and establishing a rapport with a therapist takes time. It’s like a building a relationship with anybody else. The difference is, however, is that the therapist is an objective voice and perspective to the chaos going on in and outside of your head.” — Sean C.
14. “There’s no shame. ‘Therapy’ can be treated as such a scary word, and although yes, the experience of starting sessions can be daunting, I know, but really, that word should be about how you have every right to be there to help yourself feel better and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or like a failure for deciding to go. It’s your first step to getting better and the road may be long and challenging at times, but you won’t be alone for the journey.” — Eimear D.
15. “You deserve and have a right to be there. For awhile in the beginning, I was always worried my therapist would tell me my problems aren’t legitimate enough to take her time away from people with real issues that need real help. Your problems are different from everyone else’s, but they’re 100 percent valid and deserve just as much of your therapists attention as anyone else.” — Ashley M.
16. “Even if your first, or second or third therapist isn’t right for you, don’t rule it out. My CBT therapist actually cried in my sessions, while I was explaining my history. She was also very stereotypical in the fact that I mentioned one small disagreement with my mum and suddenly everything wrong with me was my mum’s fault. But my other counselor was wonderful! She did everything she could to help me. What I’m saying is, just because you may have some therapists who don’t mesh with you, don’t rule it out entirely.” — Rebecca B.
17. “You’ll have moments where you doubt why you’re even there in the first place, it leaves you emotionally exhausted and crying, or even completely drained – but it works. There has never been a day when I’ve had therapy and I haven’t felt incredibly safe and supported. It’s crucial to have that support.” — Erica A.
18. “Try to plan an agenda before your session so when you go in, you’re more prepared. Often times, I would be down to the last five minutes and I would just start to bring up something important that I needed to discuss. The therapy 45-minute window goes by quickly and if you have a plan, you’ll feel more satisfied afterwards.” — Alyssa P.
19. “As a therapist, one thing I always hear is, ‘You won’t believe it’s true but…’ or, ‘I feel so ashamed of…’ There is no judgment going into therapy. Each person has their story and no story is alike.” — Jessica C.
20. “Sometimes you honestly don’t know what to say and it’s hard to get across exactly what you want in the time you have. This can sometimes make you feel like you shouldn’t have gone at all because you wasted their time, but you haven’t! They are there to help you.” — Jessica S.
21. “Skip the awkward getting-to-know you crap and get down to business. Their job is to see people at their worst; you’re not going to surprise them. Don’t waste sessions (and money), just jump right in!” — Ashleigh R.
22. “Therapy is about finding your own answers for yourself. You need the time between sessions to discover the answers for yourself, and those answers can lead you in a completely different direction.” — Samantha L.
23. “It’s like a dirty wound. You have to open it up and poor on peroxide and it will hurt so badly you’ll wonder why you’re doing it, but in the long run you were just cleaning it out so it can heal better. Therapy will be difficult but worth it.” — Katie
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This is a great parenting resource for kids of all ages.
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