“I need to get motivated.”
“I need to stop being so lazy.”
“I wish I had her determination.”
“I need to just DO IT.”
I constantly hear people saying these things when they talk about eating better, exercising, or losing weight.
It’s also ingrained in the psyche of our culture. “No pain, no gain.”
Of course, these are all just different ways of saying you wish you had more willpower.
I get it. Willpower is an amazing thing sometimes. And having a strong reserve of it certainly has its advantages.
But there are also serious disadvantages.
I spend a lot of time here on Summer Tomato talking about how willpower doesn’t work for long-term goals. That our brains are built to run on habits, and that self-control should be used sparingly since it takes up so much mental energy.
Whether you agree with this premise or not (apparently this guy doesn’t), today I want to show you that even if you could get healthy through the strength of your iron will, you shouldn’t want to.
I know, because I have really strong willpower. And I used it ruthlessly for 15 years.
When all the other kids in high school were out partying and trying to get into each other’s pants I was doing homework, studying for exams, and working out in the ballet studio.
It wasn’t because I loved studying or dancing until my feet bled. It was because I wanted to get into to college and be thin.
The thing about willpower is it works great for short-term, defined goals, like studying for an exam or prepping for a presentation at work. In those moments of accomplishment it can give you a deep sense of pride in the success you know you earned.
But for a long-term, vague goal like “getting healthy,” willpower goes from being your friend to being your enemy. It becomes the source of your pain and unhappiness.
Without an endpoint for success, you never develop a sense of accomplishment from using your willpower. You might have small victories here or there (I lost 5 lbs! I resisted a cookie!), but there’s always a dozen more challenges in front of you.
It. Never. Ends.
When you are in one of these long, drawn-out willpower battles it drains your spirit. Instead of feeling proud of what you have worked for, you feel demoralized that you still have to fight another day.
And what no one ever tells you is that this is true whether or not you hit your goal.
I spent plenty of my life at size 0. But as long as I was dieting to stay there my willpower felt like constant hunger.
It felt like anxiety when I had to go to a restaurant.
It felt like guilt to eat a full plate of food.
It felt like shame when I had to wear a bathing suit in front of my friends. (Yes, even skinny dieters are still dieting because they aren’t happy).
Willpower feels like endless work, and endless failure. Like you need to keep working harder, because you still aren’t good enough.
When you always use it, willpower feels like torture.
You may look at a thin dieter and think, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” But the truth is you don’t. Because it sucks.
The whole point of living a healthy life is to feel good. Striving toward health rests on the fundamental belief that you deserve to feel great, look great, and live to your fullest potential. That is a fantastic ambition.
But pushing yourself toward health with willpower undermines this goal. Because even if you could do it, it feels terrible.
It feels way better to work with yourself instead of against yourself.
How does willpower make you feel?
Originally published January 26, 2015.