One Way To Strengthen Willpower

As a therapist I’ve given lots of thought about what it takes to strengthen willpower. Of course, I’ve been interested in this question personally since I’ve struggled with plenty of self depleting behaviors myself (won some and lost some.) While Dr. Laura’s ‘just stop doing it’ advice makes for snappy broadcasting, I’ve never found it to work well for my clients or myself.

There’s new research indicating willpower can be considered a mental muscle that needs proper exercise and gets fatigued if not rested and replenished with proper nutrition (particularly brain feeding glucose.) While this insight usefully elevates willpower beyond moralizing, it misses the truth about what it really takes to strengthen will.

Of course it’s easier to make better decisions when you’re rested, nourished and have experience exercising your choice muscles effectively. The problem is that it takes will power to make sure you’re doing the things that strengthen willpower. So what is it that enables us to make the healthy choices that make it easier to make healthy choices?

For me, the most important answer is self love. By this I mean the love of self acceptance, forgiveness and deep compassion for yourself. If you don’t love yourself as is, you may be able to change one bad habit with white knuckle will, but soon find another destructive habit arising in its place.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s necessary to gather grit to save your life whether you love yourself or not. For the long haul, however, if you’re looking to change self negating habits, I suggest starting by focusing on getting the help you need to love yourself better.

One of the reasons I am so inspired by my emotional medicine discoveries is that I’ve seen how crying when sad, stopping when done really does lead to feeling good about yourself—fast. One story from my book, Emotional Medicine Rx, describes a woman’s reaction after she experienced emotional medicine. “For years I’ve read how important it is to love yourself. I never knew what that meant.  It was just words.  Now for the first time in my life, I know what they’re talking about. Finally I know what it feels like to love myself.  I can’t believe it.” This embodied experience of self love helped Rosa take step away from abusive family dynamics. (You can read more about Rosa on page 205 of my book.)

As we enter 2012 the time of great change, I send you a beam of love for yourself and a wish that you find the people, places, books and experiences that help you love yourself ever more tenderly.

I’m interested to hear what has helped you make healthy choices.  Please click here to post your reply on my blog.  If you’re in San Diego, I’d love to see this Friday for my introduction to Emotional Medicine at Controversial Bookstore, Saturday January 21st for a daylong workshop on Emotional Medicine, or Saturday February 4th for my book event at Warwick’s Bookstore in LaJolla. See calendar below for details.  Happy New Year!

Penelope

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One Response to One Way To Strengthen Willpower

  1. Neil Reuben says:

    My first attempt at eating as a vegetarian lasted seven years. All I could thing about was all the wonderfully tasty foods I had given up. My second attempt (now in its 15th year) is working out better. These days I focus, instead, on all the delicious foods I CAN eat while not providing a market for the death of my animal friends.

    I had been addicted to Pepsi and sugar for many years. Finally, it dawned on me that if I exercised discipline once a week at the supermarket, I wouldn’t have to struggle during each trip to the refrigerator.

    I exercise six days a week. My key to being successful (at age 65 I weigh the same as I did in high school) is to do exercise that I love and focus on how good it feels to be active rather than how much of a struggle it is.

    As to loving myself, I had a great therapist who taught me how at age 28 and thereby indelibly changed my life. Her name was Penelope Young Hellman, now known as Penelope Andrade, and I am eternally grateful to her.
    – Neil Reuben

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