The act of will, application of willpower, and making of a choice are synonymous. The term willpower, however, has an unfortunate connotation of varying strength, as if to convey that some people have a more powerful will than others. It should be noted that the term “willpower” is not an inherently incorrect term. When used in the sense of “power of will (or volition),” the term heightens, if not extols, the human capacity to make a choice.
The phrase “power of will” is free from any kind of interpersonal comparison, it is merely an acknowledgement that as humans we possess a power (a freedom) of self-determination through choice. The term “willpower” becomes problematic, however, when the semantic focus shifts from “power of will” to “how powerful one’s will is.”
The Concise American Heritage Dictionary (1987) reflects this distinction by defining “will power” as:
While the first meaning of willpower does exist, the second is nothing but a linguistic connotation of the word “power” that does not have a phenomenological reality. Comparative perception of will or capacity for choice as being stronger or weaker is erroneous and psychologically damaging. An act of will or a choice is a binary event: one either acts or does not act in a certain fashion. Consequently, all people are equally strong choosers, with an equal power for will, i.e. of the same willpower.
While equal in willpower, i.e. in the capacity for choice, people differ in:
a) how they apply their will/choice, and in
b) the degree of their conscious awareness of their capacity for choice.
Pertaining to a), it is easy to see how judging of others’ actions leads to a conclusion that so and so has weak will. It is the belief of this author that the process of moral comparison is the historical context for the emergence of the term willpower. Say a person is faced with an opportunity to steal something of value. He/she is tempted and, then, he acts upon that temptation.
To an outsider, this might seem like a battle between wanting to steal and not wanting to steal that has been resolved in the favor of the presumed temptation: the person could not withstand the promise of easy money, the allure of a financial short-cut. Implicit in such interpretation is that one is weak since he surrendered, gave in to the temptation. A verdict of “weak willpower” or “not having enough willpower” is the next logical step in such a chain of interpretation.
An alternative view of the situation is that one did not surrender or give in to the temptation. One merely chose to act upon his desire to steal – for a variety of personal reasons. According to such interpretation there is no weakness of will, there is only socially unacceptable misapplication of one’s will. Consequently, the notion of strong or weak power appears to be a result of moralistic judgment in which there is an automatic para-religious implication that when faced with socially unsanctioned opportunities (drugs, sex, crime) people are taunted, tempted, lured by whatever is the cultural equivalent of the devil or the dark side and the weakest give in.
With this in mind, the notion of willpower has become a kind of implicit morality yard-stick that in the context of substance use treatment represents a circular double-bind, a kind of logical dead-end, a questionable asset in the change process. In reality, people merely make choices that we may or may not agree with – and our disagreement has nothing to do with the measurement of a given person’s capacity for choice. Just because one person insightfully chooses to “numb out” in order not to “go ballistic,” it does not mean that he or she has weak will – all it means is that at this moment this person had concluded (rightly or wrongly) that drinking or drugging was a strategy of choice, a calculated act of emotional self-regulation.
Pertaining to b) (above), mindless, reflexive, knee-jerk decisions seem “weak” since they are void of the power of conscious choosing. Such unconscious decisions seem “weak” because in their unconsciousness they fail to represent the best interests of the chooser. This is exactly the case when a person in recovery yields to a craving, to an impulse to use. To an outsider, such an easy surrender to a craving appears like an act of weak will.
In reality, the perceived weakness of the act stems from its conditioned unconsciousness (or habitual automaticity) rather than from the actor’s actual capacity to resist a craving impulse. An unconscious choice is like a sleeping beauty whose charms are not in play while she is dormant.
The therapeutic importance of deconstructing the myth of willpower cannot be overemphasized. When one buys into the notion of willpower and uses lack of it as an excuse to use, he or she is beyond criticism. In such a case, willpower adopts the rationalizing benefit of the doubt that ensures the belief in addiction as a medical disease. To ask a weak person to do something they do not have the strength to do is akin to Baron Munchausen’s pulling himself out of the swamp by his own pony-tail. In other words, change based on willpower is similar to asking one to be strong when one is weak.
People in recovery who have uncritically bought into the notion of willpower are well familiar with this double bind: they are asked to use willpower to stay away from drugs and alcohol, to stay in control; but if they had the willpower to stay away from the drugs and alcohol in the first place they probably would have not been out of control to begin with. With these considerations in mind, it is important to dissect the myth of willpower as a volitional muscle that varies in size from one person to another, and to substitute this hazardous term with a notion that everyone has the exact same capacity for choice. Therefore, when one says “I can’t” they are really saying “I won’t.”
It should be pointed out that traditional substance use treatment models make the error of omission in not directly debunking the myth of willpower. The present approach explicitly incorporates the discussion of the interplay between the notions of willpower and choice into the clinical curriculum.
[In sum, the treatment emphasis is on choice-awareness skillpower rather than on willpower. Willpower-wise, we are all equally endowed. But choice-awareness (mindfulness-powered) skillpower is, in fact, a resource that can be cultivated and leveraged for the purposes of recovery.]
Crushing cigarettes photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 18 May 2012