The Problem with Willpower

Anne Brady, LISW-S on Jul 26, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Just try harder.


Put in the work (or time).

Fake it ‘til you make it.

Tough it out.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

We say all of these things to ourselves and those around us with the best of intentions: to motivate, to hold folks accountable, and to encourage progress on goals. Maybe that works sometimes, but often it backfires and just creates shame for the person receiving that message. What they actually hear is closer to “I could do this if I were just a little better/stronger/smarter/tougher.” Over and over again clients show up on my couch feeling like a failure because they cannot muster the willpower to get what they want. They want me to help them increase their willpower; instead, I teach them that willpower is a trap.

Willpower, as we talk about it, is the ability to force yourself to do difficult or unpleasant things to get to an end result. The concept of willpower comes up all the time when we talk about eating healthy, exercising, saving money, achieving goals at work or home, etc. Usually, it is a goal that comes from an external source (diet culture telling us we need to be smaller, comparison telling us everyone else has nicer things or is achieving more than us, etc). You see, the problem isn’t a lack of willpower – it’s chasing the wrong goals. I like the visual of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole; you can keep trying to force it, but that won’t make it work.

The most common thing that we uncover in this work is usually that the stagnant goal is not really in alignment with true, intuitive, internal desire – it is instead something that feels like it “should” be done. Exploring those true desires and aligning goals with those is the most effective way to make progress and feel productive – but not something that is taught or valued in our society. Permission to understand and seek our own true goals is a keystone in forward momentum.

The way we discuss willpower as a society is problematic on multiple levels. Not only is it rooted in shame and criticism, but it also completely lacks context and nuance. Most accomplishments require more than just hard work – things like resources, support, privilege, and skill are all important factors that aren’t considered when we talk about willpower. Leaving out that important additional context creates some significant limitations in understanding why goals aren’t moving forward.

So let’s change how we talk about willpower. Rather than a trite comment about grindstones or bootstraps, broaden that conversation a little. Understand what is making it difficult to make progress rather than trying to force a round peg into a square hole. Here are a few more helpful questions to ask to change the conversation on willpower:

• Is this the right goal for you? Does it light you up or feel like something you “should” do? Has something changed since you began that makes the goal fit you a little less?

• Is there a better way to go about the work? Is there another path that aligns more with what you want, how you think, or makes the work feel more doable?

• What practical barriers are in the way? Do you need additional support or resources?

These questions are just the beginning, but they will lay the foundation for breaking through that stagnant and stuck feeling that can be so frustrating. Layer on a healthy dose of self-compassion, and there will be forward momentum in no time!

Anne Brady is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Columbus, OH.

Recommended Articles