Using Willpower to Fight Addiction

Some forms of recovery regard willpower as antithetical to recovery from addiction. But the truth is that changing any entrenched pattern of behavior requires the use of willpower, especially when viewing addiction treatment from a harm reduction angle. And although willpower alone may not be sufficient to make radical changes, it’s absolutely necessary.

Kelly McGonigal, author of the book The Willpower Instinct offers some useful concepts to keep in mind when attempting to change behavior. She defines willpower as “the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to.” She also breaks willpower down into three components: “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want.”

I Will

When gaining control over addictive behavior, you will inevitably need to do things that you don’t necessarily feel like doing, but will ultimately lead to good results. What does this have to do with harm reduction? If you are trying to moderate your drinking, this means you will attend a SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) meeting even though you feel like staying on the couch and watching Netflix. If you’re struggling with porn use, this means you will write a cost/balance sheet before you get online even though you feel like skipping that step. It basically boils down to using your willpower to flip the override switch to take an action that’s in your best interest despite whatever you're feeling. The good news is that the more you do it, the stronger your willpower becomes, the easier it is to flip the override switch.

I Won’t

Similarly, you must learn to not do something that may want to do, but will lead to negative consequences. From a harm reduction perspective, this means that if you have a drink limit of three drinks per day, you won’t have a fourth drink despite how badly you want it. Or if you're struggling with sex addiction and have determined that you don’t want to engage in anonymous sex anymore, you won’t do it, no matter how appealing it may seem. Again, you’re building your capacity to make executive decisions despite how you feel. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

I Want

You have many voices on your internal committee—some of them looking out for you, some of them not. But whatever it is you truly want for yourself—a new career, a healthier relationship with drugs or alcohol or a satisfying sexual life—that’s going to be the fuel that motivates your ability to say “I will” and “I won’t.” Part of addiction treatment is learning to how to stay in touch with the self-state or the part of you that has undeniable long-term goals. That’s why it is important to flesh these goals out in conversation and on paper as much as possible. We want to strengthen the voices that are looking out for you and give them a bigger seat on the internal committee.

Some closing thoughts: Although you can strengthen your willpower muscle, it’s still a scarce resource. You can only draw on it so much. At some point, if you rely on your willpower too much, you will enter a state of what's called ego-depletion, where your ability to control your impulses is significantly impaired. This is why you should avoid situations where you will end up using your willpower excessively. For example, if you are trying to reduce your drinking, hanging out in a bar all day is an unnecessary drag on your willpower resources. Be smart, arrange your environment to your advantage, and save your willpower for when you need it.