If you ask many successful people what contributed to their success, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear many of them say something like discipline or willpower. Well, what is willpower? And why is it so highly regarded by so many people, from hardcore business owners to health fanatics? Here, I will tell you why, despite willpower being the secret to short-term success, it is NOT enough for happiness and fulfillment in the long run.
What is Willpower?
Willpower, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, is the control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.
Now, you probably already know what willpower is, but what I want you to focus on are these words: “control”, “exerted”, and “restrain”. What kind of image do those words paint for you?
These words probably bring up an image of a man trying to tame a wild animal by force. An image of some sort of external authority attempting to control an impulsive and primal being. The word “willpower” does not imply softness or love, but instead roughness and force.
Willpower separates the people who use it into 2 distinct parts. Just like the example I gave above, there is the wild animal and the intelligent man who attempts to tame it. Within us humans, there is our primal self who wants to act without thinking and do what feels good in the moment. Then there is the “intelligent man/woman” who we are taught to be by society. The intelligent human uses logic, not pure emotion, to determine how they make decisions. They often look down upon the “uncivilized”, “undisciplined”, and “animal-like” beings who act on impulse without thinking.
By using willpower, we (our “intelligent selves”) attempt to restrain our “primal selves” by shaming them and repressing them.
So? What’s wrong with using willpower?
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using willpower now and then, if it is your main method for success, I can assure you that you will never achieve full happiness. Even if you do attain material success, you will not feel satisfied on an emotional and spiritual level. Here’s why:
Like I discussed earlier, willpower separates our sense of self into 2 parts. The problem with this is that we cannot get rid of any part of ourselves by using willpower. This method represses certain traits, but does not pull them out by the root. AND, because we often use shame and guilt to repress these traits, they continue to show up in our lives in a more destructive way each time. Even if this takes years, the traits you try to repress will resurface eventually in some form.
The harmful behaviors we perform are often the result of trauma that we experienced in our youth. This trauma does not need to be anything extreme, it can be seemingly small like a best friend betraying you in middle school. Everyone has some type of trauma, even the people who grew up in a “perfect” household. Part of our work as adults (or even teenagers) is to acknowledge and heal our trauma so we don’t repeat the same self-destructive patterns our whole life. Willpower is a clever way to avoid this work by only addressing the surface-level behaviors instead of the deeper root cause.
An example of willpower:
Sally was an anxious kid. Ever since elementary school, she shied away from social outings and closed herself off emotionally. As a result, she becomes depressed as a teenager because she didn’t have any close friends. To cope with the depression, she starts binge eating at night. As Sally’s weight rises and her health declines, she realizes that there is a problem. After looking up some fitness motivation on Google, she feels rejuvenated by a new sense of motivation. To make a change, she reads countless books on diet and fitness, joins a workout class, and begins to only buy healthy and nonprocessed foods. Guess what? Sally’s health completely turns around! She is proud of her new body and she genuinely enjoys her new health-conscious lifestyle. Even her depression went away… for a while at least. A couple months later, she notices a persistent feeling of dissatisfaction in her life. Unsure of what’s causing it, she becomes frustrated and beats herself up, feeling like something is wrong with her. This amplifies Sally’s depression and anxiety, sending her into a spiral where she resorts to drugs and alcohol to numb her intense self-hatred.
The woman in this example uses willpower to stop her binge eating, forgetting that what caused her binge eating was her depression. On top of that, what caused her depression was her loneliness, and what caused her loneliness was anxiety. At the root of all of this, there is the trauma that occurred when Sally was 10. Sally’s parents had a messy divorce where she was stuck in between two parents who hated each other. Although they reassured Sally over and over how much they loved her, Sally grew up with a lot of trauma from seeing her parents’ separation. This trauma, instead of being expressed, was held in her body for decades. Everything she experienced, from pushing people away in elementary school, to binge eating, to drugs and alcohol, were all Sally’s subconscious attempts to protect herself from feeling the buildup of trauma that had accumulated in her body.
What does this mean for me?
Believe it or not, the structure of Sally’s life is not uncommon in the slightest. For you, maybe instead of binge eating it’s overworking yourself, partying too much, or developing a mental illness like OCD, bipolar disorder, or anorexia. We all have our stories, our trauma, and the ways in which we repress our trauma.
Instead of using willpower to stop yourself from engaging in bad habits, ask yourself ‘WHY?” Why do I procrastinate? Why do I push people away? And keep in mind that you may have to ask why multiple times before you get to the root cause. It’s rarely as simple as “I just don’t have the discipline”.
Let me tell you a secret: if you solve the root issue and clear your trauma, you will not NEED willpower or discipline to keep your life together.
That’s not to say that you will NEVER use willpower, of course, there is a time and a place for it, but you will not be using willpower to cover up the root issue. You will not rely on willpower, but instead, use it as an occasional tool to be even more productive when needed.
What should we do instead?
Sadly, most people are so reliant upon their logic and reason that they lose touch with their intuition. Our intuition guides us in a direction that may not “make sense” logically. It may even feel incredibly uncomfortable for our logical brains (or egos). However, by learning to trust your intuition, you will find that you always end up exactly where you need to be. Even when you don’t “force”, “restrain”, or “control” yourself, you could (and likely will) still be on the right path towards happiness and success.
The magic of our intuition is that it involves significantly less effort than willpower. It is because of this that we often don’t trust it. Our brains have been trained to believe that the harder we push, the more success we will get. But, what if you don’t need to be pushing all the time? What if things can feel easy and fun while you advance towards your goals?
Once you start to embrace yourself FULLY, you can then stop self-sabotaging and relying on discipline and willpower. When I say “fully”, I mean even the parts that you label as “impulsive” or “childish”. Honor these parts of you. Embrace them so that you no longer feel fragmented, but whole. Denying who you are does not change who you are.
Accept yourself and honor yourself, and you’ll be surprised to see the changes that occur with little to no effort.
Feel free to listen to this in podcast form to learn more about this topic! 🙂