Recovery is Not a Matter of Willpower: Here’s Why

When people talk about goals and changes in their life, you often hear the word “willpower” thrown around. Some people believe that willpower is a secret reserve of strength that can help us uniquely as human beings resist temptation – whether that temptation is binge-watching television or using a drug of choice. While willpower may exist to a certain extent, for many people with substance abuse disorders, the temptation to use can overpower even the strongest of wills. Addiction isn’t a moral failure or a matter of “not trying” – willpower, when it comes to addiction, is more complicated than many people realize.

Health professionals now recognize that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, and because it’s a disease, people cannot often stop using on their own. Once you realize this, you may wonder what kind of power does an individual have over his or her recovery, in that case?

Understanding Willpower

A recent Scientific American study conducted by Ibrahim Senay, a psychology professor at of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, revealed that changing your thinking is necessary for achieving difficult personal goals that are often viewed as a matter of willpower.

Weight loss, learning languages, or staying free from a substance in the long-term were some of the behaviors analyzed. The study specifically focused on self-talk or the thoughts that go through our minds during a decision-making process. You’re probably familiar with self-talk, but many people cling to negative aspects. This ongoing conversation we have mentally work through helps us make decisions, understand our emotions, and even help us with our hopes, dreams, and fears.

Study subjects were broken into two groups and given different instructions on completing puzzles. One group was given specific instructions on the puzzles to complete, while another was merely sat down at the table and handed puzzles to complete. The group with an open-ended goal did much better than the group that was given instructions.

The outcome of the experiment was surprising. Why would the people who were given a goal unable to complete it, while the goal-free group worked harder and completed more? The study’s author believed that freedom of choice was more motivating than being given an assignment. In fact, the task effectively killed the motivation.

Overcoming a Sense of Guilt or Shame

Senay conducted even more work on the study to learn more about motivating behaviors. Future studies included learning more about what helps people begin and adhere to a fitness routine. The result was similar to the puzzle study but revealed even more about self-talk.

In fact, when talking about goals, people who were asked to answer the question “Will I?” did much better than those who used the phrase “I will.” People who asked themselves “Will I?” talked more about their motivation and were able to commit better than those who told themselves “I will.” The “I will” group indicated that they were often working out because they felt guilt or a sense of shame, and this presumably also made them associate exercise with negative emotions. The “Will I?” group felt more motivated to take charge of their health and felt more positive about their outcomes.

How Does this Relate to Addiction and Recovery?

Although these studies may make it seem like those who are forced into a program may have more shame and doubt, and less motivation, this is not necessarily the case.

The research does show, however, that mindset is a big part of achieving goals. People who approach new behavior patterns with a sense of curiosity, rather than obligation or guilt, thrive with new ideas and accept trial-and-error as a part of the process, rather than failure.

Treatment programs help people develop a new mindset to help them overcome behavior that’s self-defeating. While a person may go to treatment in a state of mind that’s negative (getting clean is often emotionally turbulent, and that’s normal) therapy, self-care, and help set new goals and new behavior patterns can make a huge difference in the outcomes that a treatment client has. A professional, caring staff in a treatment center can help people new to recovery “change their minds” and recover their sense of purpose and self – without making shame and guilt a part of the goal.

Need Help?

If you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol or drugs, don’t hesitate to contact us – even if you don’t think you have the “willpower” to change. All calls are 100% confidential, and we will answer any questions you may have. Contact us at (877) 228-2401 with any questions you have.

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