It’s Time to Rethink Willpower and Self Control

chocolate with milted chocolate on white ceramic plate
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When I was doing my best to stay small and eat the “healthiest” diet possible, I frequently felt proud of myself for avoiding desserts and other “bad” foods at restaurants or parties. A weird, egotistical sense of pride and superiority swept over me, and I would think about how much more willpower and self-control I had than others. But, I often went home and binged on bland cereal or other “health” foods which followed with feelings of guilt and self-hatred. 

I had almost looked down on people who enjoyed a dessert or “unhealthy” dish, while I sat on my pedestal of self-control and willpower. Afterward, I felt that I had no control over my body, and I ate spoonful after spoonful, hating myself more and more with each bite. 

Today’s post is all about how our culture views self-control and willpower, and whether these two states of being are actually achievable for most people. Many of us believe that we have a firm understanding of what these are, but how they are applied in the real world differs greatly from how we think about them in our own heads or talk about them with others. 

What is Willpower?

A dictionary or official definition of willpower is the ability or capacity to resist or refrain from impulses and temptations. 

It takes willpower to avoid doing all kinds of things, like not yelling at a couple who is holding hands, taking up an entire walkway, and walking horrifically slowly because they are so in love. It can also take willpower to avoid distractions while we work, or opting to skip out on the unnecessary but cool item we see at the mall. 

Willpower and self-control are pretty simple to define, but they aren’t so easy to explain when discussing how they actually manifest in real life. We’ll get to that, but let’s first explore how our society tends to view willpower. 

How Do We Normally Think of Willpower or Self-Control?

I specifically remember the first time I had heard the phrase “willpower”. I was a small child, probably six or seven, eating a bag of kettle corn. I savored each and every bite and kept saying things like, “This is delicious,” as my hand continued to reach into the bag. 

A well-meaning adult observed my behavior and told me that I was sure eating a lot of kettle corn at once. They told me that I needed more “willpower”. I wasn’t sure what the term meant, so I asked for a definition with genuine curiosity. As a voracious reader from a young age, I always enjoyed learning new vocabulary words. 

It was explained to me that willpower was the act of not eating too many “bad” foods or doing too much of other “bad” things that I might enjoy doing. I was told that sometimes we want to do things that are bad, but they aren’t good for us, so we must resist temptation. 

Suddenly, I felt guilty. I didn’t know that kettle corn was a “bad” food, and I didn’t know that eating handfuls of it made me a bad person by association. I believe the reason that this memory has stuck with me is that it was a defining moment in how I viewed certain foods, which also made me view myself in a different way. 

I remember closing the bag of kettle corn and vowing to stay away from it. I can’t say that I suddenly had a disordered relationship with food after this instance, but in the years following, I tried harder and harder to employ willpower and show restraint. 

Had I not received negative attention for enjoying the kettle corn to my heart’s content, and other foods thereafter, I may not have been strict with my diet or vigorous with my exercise routines for years. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt guilty after every meal or on days where I didn’t exercise hard. Like many kids, I was a slow, methodical, and intuitive eater until someone, or society at large, told me I can’t trust my body when it asks for a dessert now and again. 

I think this experience highlights how most of us view willpower and self-control in our lives. We do our darndest to resist temptation, and we try so hard to be “good” by avoiding desserts or other “bad” foods. We think many of our problems in life would be suddenly solved if we could just practice willpower a bit more, and this makes us feel guilty when we are unable to live up to these pillars of self-control. 

Willpower and Shame go Hand-in-Hand

One of diet culture’s greatest tools at taking over our lives is by making us feel shame and guilt for our food choices, especially when we eat some of the foods our body is asking for. The same can be said for the types of exercise we choose, or how often we opt to skip a workout. But guilt and shame aren’t done there. 

We can feel guilt and shame for the way that our bodies look, the types of food we can or cannot provide for our families, and how often we can or cannot muster up the energy to make home cooked meals for our children instead of resorting to premade or fast-food meals after a long day of work. 

If only we had more self-control, maybe we could resist resting at the end of a long day, and we would instead be able to cook a meal and clean up after our families after a full day of work. If we had more willpower, maybe our financial problems wouldn’t exist, and we could afford to provide only the healthiest foods for our children. 

Society is enamored with people who appear to have it all together, and I believe social media has only made that worse. When we look at everyone else’s highlight reel on Instagram, it can begin to feel like our own lives are just a series of boring days and bloopers put together. It’s easy to forget that even Instagram stars, or grown up popular kids from our high school, are just human beings too, and that there is no way they truly have their poop in a group 100% of the time. 

This admiration of perceived motivation and willpower can make us feel intense shame and guilt when we don’t also live up to those ideals or standards. I liked appearing as though I had my act together by eating healthy foods all the time, but behind closed doors, I collapsed in on myself with shame as I binged on foods that didn’t even taste good to make up for all that I had resisted earlier.

I sought to look the part of a dietitian by staying thin and eating like a rabbit, and I felt like a failure when I strayed from what I thought were important traits any dietitian should have. 

That shame only deepened when I received compliments from people about how healthy I ate all the time. Depending upon who said it and how the compliment was phrased, sometimes I felt pride, other times annoyance, and other times still absolutely guilt because I secretly knew I didn’t eat as perfectly as I appeared to. 

The guilt also compounded whenever I was around a loved one who would express how awful they were for eating a slice of cake or having a serving of mac and cheese at a shared meal. These comments and sentiments remain incredibly common, though they no longer reinforce the idea in my mind that I should also feel guilty for eating such foods. Instead of internalizing these comments and applying them to how I feel about myself, I feel pure empathy for the person who clearly struggles to allow themselves to simply enjoy foods without a side of guilt or shame. 

So yes, many of us go through our lives allowing a concept like willpower to dominate how we feel about ourselves and the world at large. But what if this concept isn’t as real as we think it is?

Does Research Support the Existence of Self-Control and Willpower?

Kind of- but not in the way we traditionally think of willpower. Many of us think of willpower as a force within ourselves that we can employ to resist temptations all around us, and if we were just a bit more strong-willed we could lead a better life. Some of us believe that if we had more time in the day, we would automatically gain willpower and be better able to fight off our temptations. 

It’s not really that willpower doesn’t exist, it’s more that willpower isn’t the life-changing force we often think it could be if we could just find a bit more of it in our lives. Plus, people who strive to use willpower more aren’t actually more “successful” or better off than people who don’t try as hard to exhibit self-control. 

Contrary to what most of us believe about willpower, those who appear to be better at self-control actually experience fewer temptations in the first place. So, those with visible willpower may not be fighting as many battles as others when it comes to resisting impulses and temptations.

A reduction in temptation can occur for many reasons. Some people simply have personalities or grew up in environments that make them experience fewer temptations innately. Perhaps the most practical and malleable reason a person experiences fewer temptations is that they just have better habits.

This becomes evident after reading books like Atomic Habits by James Clear and Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg (affiliates). Both books discuss how people often view life changes in the wrong way, attributing them to motivation, determination, and willpower. Those may work in the short term, but they aren’t sustainable in the long term. Instead, what is sustainable is changing habits in an unbelievably small way that compounds over time. 

If you want to introduce more mindfulness into your life, for example, don’t just try to will your way into meditating for 45 minutes each day when you currently meditate zero. Instead, look within yourself and create reminders, cues, and environments that make a habit of meditating for five minutes a day nearly impossible to avoid. Maybe setting a reminder on your phone, or doing your practice while the morning coffee is brewing. 

An awesome article from Vox on this topic also uses the example where it’s tempting to stay in bed after your alarm goes off. I’m willing to bet many of us opt to hit the snooze button a few too many times in the morning, leading us toward a less productive day overall. But, if you create a habit where you set your alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, forcing you to get out of bed, you have to really choose to go back. Once you’re forced to get up, it’s much easier to stay up. 

This is the only way I can get my buns outta bed at 5:45am these days. While working from home, it’s all too easy to slip back into unconsciousness after deciding its too cold to get out of bed or that I’m just too darn tired to start my day. 

We discussed various ways to implement new habits in Diet Culture and New Year’s Resolutions, and I think it’s well worth a read. The books mentioned above are also fantastic resources for changing habits instead of trying to rely on self-control, though they do allude to some diet culture-y beliefs and practices here and there. 

We all know people who seem especially disciplined and like they really have their act together. Turns out, people like this may not have more natural self-control or willpower superpowers that we typically think they do. Instead, they just employ better systems and rely on better habit-building strategies, whether they are aware of it or not.

Building new habits or creating new systems can take a long time, which makes these processes much less appealing than simply believing you’ll feel more willpower after the holidays. 

So yes, willpower doesn’t necessarily exist in the way many of us might have previously thought. Those false believes are also more problematic than many may realize at first glance. 

Maybe we teach our kids that self-control is uber important based on these beliefs, leading them to develop disordered eating or exercise habits. Perhaps when we lack so-called willpower and eat something we aren’t “supposed to”, we feel guilt and shame wash over us. Possibly, our perception of what willpower is and how it works can make us view other people as less-than, leading to stigma and bias on a grand scale. 

How These Myths Appear in Everyday Life

Because our diet culture is so gung-ho about the idea that all we have to do to be “good” people is to show restraint, willpower and self-control are coveted personality traits or characteristics in our society. As a result, people who don’t exhibit these (or appear to not exhibit them) ideals get downcast and viewed as less-than somehow. 

Our culture thinks that anyone in a larger body must really lack willpower and self-control. In fact, a study out of the University of Chicago found that up to 75% of Americans attribute a lack of willpower as a barrier to weight loss. They wouldn’t be in a larger body if they just regulated what they ate, right? 

Not so. Some studies show that people who start dieting at an earlier age tend to weigh more as they grow up than those who don’t. Plus, those who yo-yo diet, and weight cycle, may have more health risks than those who don’t diet or lose weight at all. Dieters also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and other metabolic red flags

So maybe some of the people who many of us deem lacking in willpower due to their appearance really have done their best to employ willpower in the past, and that has made them gain weight and experience more health risks. Or maybe it’s genetic and largely out of their control no matter how much “willpower” they attempt to use. 

In the end, the reason for a person’s size is nobody else’s business. But it’s important to point out that people aren’t in larger bodies just because they lack self-control. 

Adopting “better” habits won’t necessarily allow a person to lose weight and keep it off, though. Sometimes biology just insists that a person takes on a shape naturally, and no amount of willpower or “good” habits can change that permanently. That’s okay- this is why we must work toward a society that is neutral about bodies of all sizes. 

But falsely believing that it’s all a matter of willpower and habits reinforces the idea that those in larger bodies just need to work harder, and that they are fully responsible for their size. That perception also makes it feel okay to discriminate against a person in a larger body because they have “chosen” to live their life in a way that puts them in a larger body. 

Another example about how believing in willpower so enthusiastically can cause harm is how our society tends to treat those with addictions. Many consciously or subconsciously believe that if these “degenerates” would just execute some self-control, their lives wouldn’t spin out of control, and they wouldn’t reach for these substances, right?

I don’t buy that argument. Anecdotally, the people in my life who have reached for the bottle, or gotten involved in drugs, didn’t simply lack willpower. Instead, they fell into these addictions while they were looking for relief from their traumas or everyday realities. Employing willpower alone can’t prevent a person from looking for emotional relief wherever they can find it. 

While working in an in-patient mental health facility, I talked with dozens of patients who struggled with addictions. One thing that the vast majority of these patients had in common was a history of abuse, especially sexual abuse. They weren’t in this facility because they didn’t have enough self-control- it’s just not that simple. Often, they were dealing with years of abuse on top of not having a reliable social or financial safety net, and society continued to reject them while they struggled. 

Looking down on people in these situations, among others, for a “lack of self-control” is completely bogus and the epitome of unempathetic. Willpower is no substitute for a strong support network, financial affluence, and access to physical and mental healthcare. 

There are almost no instances in life where a person’s circumstances can be explained as simply as a lack of discipline or hard work. Our society loves viewing things with black-or-white lens, discussing many issues without proper context. As a result, it becomes incredibly easy to believe that if people just had a bit more self-control over their own impulses, they wouldn’t end up struggling so much. 

What if it’s the other way around? What if they would have more self-control if they weren’t struggling so much?

How the Myth of Willpower Affects People From Different Socioeconomic Classes

One of my favorite memes on the internet features clickbait title to an article called “Here is how Oprah Stays Stress Free at 64”, and someone comments on it, “Step 1: Have a Billion Dollars”. It cracks me up because it feels so true. 

To be fair, everyone experiences stress, even the ultra-rich, though their stress may be a bit different than the stress the rest of us experience day-to-day. Turns out, willpower is an entirely different ballgame for those of lower incomes as well.

Have you ever heard of the famous marshmallow test? Most people who have taken a psychology course possess a bit of familiarity, but I’ll give a short summary in case some readers are unfamiliar. 

Researchers had young kids sit in front of a marshmallow for 15 minutes in a lab. The children were told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow in front of them during that 15 minutes, they could have two- how exciting! The kids weren’t given any toys to play with or any activities to do in that time, they just had to sit and wait. 

Plenty of YouTube videos have clips of this test, and it’s so funny to watch what kids do as they try to resist temptation. Justin Willman even did a bit about the marshmallow test on his Netflix show Magic for Humans

Some kids succeeded in waiting, and some just couldn’t help but eat the original marshmallow. After the original test, researchers followed these kids for years to see if there were any discernible traits among the groups that did and did not eat the marshmallow. A follow-up decades after the initial study boasted that kids who exhibited more patience tended to have higher test scores and were overall more successful. Some say that passing the marshmallow test by delaying gratification is predictive of future success in itself. 

If a kid can resist temptation like that, think of the willpower they will be able to use to work harder, not fall off the path, and make money! 

Another look at the marshmallow test, however, might be enough to make us rethink this idea. It turns out that there is an interesting trend among kids who do not delay gratification and eat the first marshmallow: they tend to come from less affluent backgrounds. 

Researchers from NYU replicated the original study in 2018, and their much larger study showed that there weren’t major differences among the kids who did or did not eat the first marshmallow. This leads researchers to speculate that maybe it isn’t self-control that led to success, maybe it’s the kids’ level of affluence. 

A fantastic post from The Atlantic explores this study further, and the author speculates that perhaps children from lower incomes were less able to hold out for the second marshmallow because their lives come with fewer guarantees. 

Sometimes there is food in the cupboard, sometimes there isn’t. So while it’s here, you have to eat it because you don’t know if it will be there tomorrow. The author also mentions that kids who come from more affluent backgrounds also have an innate sense of security that things will work out in the end, whether they eat the marshmallow or not. Kids from less affluent backgrounds may not have that luxury or feeling of a safety net. 

Interestingly, binge eating disorder is more common among food insecure households, which may be due to the same phenomenon. When food is available, it feels impossible to limit one’s intake because you just don’t know when you’ll have this much access again. 

Willpower and self-control may be an easy thing for rich people to preach about because they aren’t faced with the same issues those from less fortunate backgrounds are on a daily basis. This is just one more compelling reason for us to ditch the willpower narrative altogether and move on with our lives. 

Are You Advocating for Pure Hedonism?

For those of you looking to play devil’s advocate, I want to make it clear that I do not believe we should just abandon our values and morals and do whatever feels good whenever we want to. If the idea of hedonism piques your interest, more power to you, but I don’t believe we should collectively head more in that direction.

What I advocate for here is more like loosening up an iron grip on food, exercise habits, and what constitutes as an acceptable body in our society. Let’s say we have a scale from 1-10, 1 being no self-control whatsoever, 10 being the most self-control imaginable. If a person is a 9 on this scale when it comes to the foods they eat and the exercise they do, I would hope that moving forward, they could work more toward a 7. 

Maybe they could relax a bit and at least enjoy birthday cake at their birthday party without feeling flustered about their diet being messed up for the week. True intuitive eating wouldn’t be at a 1 on the scale either, by the way. The idea of listening to one’s body isn’t extremist in the way that diet culture would have you believe. 

When starting intuitive eating, you may eat more of the foods you had avoided, and you may eat more than normal, but your body will eventually learn to trust that you won’t restrict its intake and will relax in its desires for more. Life feels so much freer once a person reaches the point where they trust their body’s judgment, and in return, their body trusts them to provide it with what it needs. 

If we can let go of the false idea we have of willpower, maybe we can get a few more steps closer to true intuitive eating. 

In Conclusion

Most of us have grown up believing that we must avoid temptation of all kinds and that just having more self-control would solve all of our problems. I no longer subscribe to this set of beliefs, because I actually found much more freedom and happiness after letting go of my diet rigidity and exercise rules that I always simply labeled as “superior self-control”. 

I used to also have an iron grip on scheduling out my work and study time, especially in college, leaving very little flexibility in everyday life. I thought self-control and determination were the most important parts of life, and that if I kept my head down and stayed serious all the time, good things would come my way. 

Learning to loosen up a little, both with my diet and my use of time, have brought me so much more contentment and peace. I no longer feel buckets worth of guilt when I decide to eat a dessert or opt to take a day off from writing or work. Willpower is truly overrated, and I hope we can let it go a bit more moving forward.

As Always, a Book Recommendation

Adam Grant is an incredible organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He has appeared on my fave podcast, Armchair Expert, twice now, and that was where I first learned about his work. Grant also has a cool podcast of his own called WorkLife, where he uncovers how to make work suck less. 

Grant recently released a new book, Think Again, and I believe it’s the exact kind of book that should be required reading for every child and adult in America and the world as a whole. Think Again applies well to the themes of this blog that we all just take diet culture at face value and never question the status quo. Grant argues that we should be thrilled to find new perspectives and discover that our attitudes and perceptions about different topics may be wrong. 

We often hold our beliefs near and dear, and we even make them part of our identity. Having a person or thing challenge our beliefs can feel like a personal attack, and it can prevent us from seeing common ground with others. Grant advocates for a culture shift where we can be confident but humble and admit when we are wrong. 

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I thought of this book for the topic of willpower because some people were raised to believe in self-control and willpower for their entire lives. It can feel uncomfortable or even aggravating, to read that maybe these assumptions aren’t exactly what we all previously thought. But having the ability to rethink our thoughts and challenge our beliefs couldn’t be more valuable. 

Get this book ASAP! It’s amazing! 

As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!

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