The Willpower Myth and Other Fallacies

Since we’ve got temptation and how to resist it on the brain this season, as we’re surrounded by temptation, we should think about what that exactly means.  I hear a lot of talk about “willpower,” as in, “I just don’t have the willpower to turn down cheesecake!” or, “That candy on my co-worker’s desk is so tempting, I wish I had the willpower to walk by without grabbing some!”

Here’s what I think.  I think that there’s no such thing as “willpower.”  There are some people who are purely indifferent to candy, cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, and the like.  We think these folks have this superhuman willpower, but their superpower isn’t “willpower:” it’s indifference.  They just don’t care.  Other things are more important to them, so it’s easy to pass up the treats.  One of my best friends since childhood has always been like this.  J has always been able to take it or leave it.  And as a result, she hasn’t struggled with her weight, even after two kids.  She enjoys what she wants, when she wants it, and when she’s done, she’s done.  Pretty simple, no?

The rest of us, though, may think that we need “willpower” to make the right choice.  I don’t like the idea that I need something that I don’t have, or don’t have enough of, to be able to make the right choice.  Instead, the issue isn’t whether I have willpower or I don’t; rather, it’s a question of being compelled more strongly by another choice.  I’m making a subtle distinction, here, but work with me.

Maybe it’s “discipline” that keeps us away from the pile of Mr. Goodbars.  But I don’t think I’m that virtuous – I think that staying away from the junk is a matter of feeling a greater pull in another direction.  Would I rather eat lettuce than brownies?  Of course not.  Would I rather sleep an extra 30 minutes in the morning and skip my run?  Sometimes.  But when I look at the big picture, what really matters?  What kind of person do I want to be?  What’s important?

I would love to be the kind of person that can have a little piece of candy, for instance, enjoy it, and move on.  Inherently, I am not that person.  I will eat until the dish is empty!  I can, however, train myself to be that person of moderation without being demeaning or pejorative to the person I am.  I have learned that other things are more important to me than those Hershey’s Kisses with the caramel inside … oh man, those things are good.  But they aren’t THAT good, so I decide I’d rather save up for a bigger treat that is worth the calories, or I decide not to have a fatty/sugary indulgence, but instead take the Dog Wonder for a walk, breathe in the nice clean air, and relax.  Relax!  It’s just food!

Relaxing might be the key – so often we associate “naughty” foods with happy occasions: any holiday gathering and its accompanying grub, eating nachos and watching football, treating ourselves to a moment of calm and relaxation with a Dove bar.  Digging through the bag of miniature candy bars to find your favorite, squabbling over the last Krackel bar … it’s fun!  But what else is fun about this season?  How can you relax in ways that are healthful?

Think on these things as the holidays surround you and as we all retreat to every bad habit we ever had in the name of “tradition!”  I’m right there with you, making good choices.  Most of the time.

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