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The role of willpower in addiction recovery – Part 1

What is willpower?

Willpower is the mind’s ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ when faced with a decision. We are all familiar with the experience of making a decision to make a small or large change in our lives, such as deciding to start exercising regularly, start eating healthy, start arriving to appointments on time, or giving up a destructive habit. Often, we fall short of achieving our goal. What happens?

You tell yourself, “I am so tired of arriving late to appointments and feeling guilty, ashamed, and anxious. I am motivated to change but I just don’t seem to be able to make the change.” Or, “I am so tired of getting drunk and giving in to alcohol and feeling guilty, ashamed, and just awful. I am motivated to change, but I just don’t seem to be able to make the change.” Why is that? When the decision point is out into the future, it appears easy for us to make a choice. However, when the moment arrives, there are multiple variables at play. Let’s look at them:

Delaying Gratification

You have to give up something in the moment, such as an immediate pleasure, for some potential point in the future. If I skip drinking every day, I stand to make my health better, mend my relationships, and even save a bit of money in the long-run.

Ego Depletion

You wake up in the morning and you have all the intention of not giving in to a destructive behavior, such as over-eating. You have your balanced breakfast. You pack your healthy lunch and snacks for the day. You stick to your routine all day. You watch your co-workers devour tasty but fattening foods. You are so proud of yourself for sticking to your diet and saying no as they ask you to go out for lunch or offer you a cookie or some other junk food. According to the theory of Ego Depletion, every time that your mind makes a decision, your willpower gets a little more taxed. You get home after a whole day of eating healthy and abstaining from junk food and you lose it and go for that big fatty chocolate bar. According to the Ego Depletion theory, your willpower runs out of juice. You wake up the next morning and you don’t understand what happened. You had been so in-control all day. You decide today is going to be different. You pack your healthy foods and off you go.

Shifting Priorities

Our decisions are driven by the motivation to reduce discomfort. You wake up in the morning and you feel awful for getting drunk the night before or using drugs “one last time.” Your loved ones are angry with you; you can’t perform at your job because you are hung over and you have a short fuse. This is too painful and you tell yourself, “I am done.” You are motivated and you get back on track. A few days go by and the pain you felt a few days ago is no longer as severe. A new discomfort has settled in: your friends have been going to the bar for happy hour everyday and you have been left out since you have chosen not to drink. To eliminate this discomfort, you cave in and go with your friends and you end up getting drunk again.

The above three variable are in constant interplay when dealing with an addiction. In the near future, I will talk about how to work with these variable, how to expect them, and how to properly manage them.

Author: Seda Gragossian, PhD
Clinical Director
Talk Therapy Psychology Center
(858) 205-2490


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