Sunday 24 June 2012

Willpower, is that what we need to stop overeating?

Willpower - I just looked it up in my online dictionary and here’s what it says “Control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one's own impulses : a stupendous effort of will.” 
What’s wrong with that? Why would it not be helpful to deliberately make an effort to restrain an impulse that we have decided is ultimately not good for us? Sounds like exactly what we need by the bucket load if we want to stop overeating. Well, I think not and I think the reason lies with the word stupendous. More on that in a moment.
Have you ever heard the expression “she has an iron will”? What image does that metaphor conjure up in your mind? If I imagine I can see before me a woman with an iron will, I see someone strong, braced, rigid, eyes fixed, jaw set, muscles tense and tight, her breathing is shallow, almost imperceptible. She may even have her fists clenched. She’s making herself impenetrable, immovable, so solid nothing will push her off course, she's ready for a fight if necessary…. Are you willing to humour me for a moment? Stand up and try that posture. Imagine yourself summoning all the will you have while you stand in that posture. I imagine that if you really put stupendous effort into it you’d resist just about anything right now. If you stayed as focused as this, if you maintained this stance, your will truly would be as iron, able to withstand almost anything it comes up against. Powerful. Strong. ‘NO’ is on the tip of your tongue. Nothing will topple you. 
How do you feel? What are you aware of in your body? What are you thinking? How much effort does it take to stay this strong and focused? How long do you think you could sustain this posture? Could you stay like this all day? All week? All your life? So, isn’t this ability to summon our will and create a body that knows how to say no, stay solid and unmovable, resist... a good thing? Isn't learning how to use our willpower the answer. Then we could summon the power of our will whenever we needed it and, with stupendous effort, to say NO to overeating?

The way I see it is this. Making a stupendous effort, which doesn’t always feel like it’s all that hard at first, is ultimately unsustainable. I’ve been reading a fascinating book about habits. I was very interested to read that scientists have discovered that willpower is not infinite. We don't have a never ending source of willpower. Even in the course of one day the more willpower we exert, the harder it becomes to keep drawing on it and by the end of the day we are very likely to have run out. And I was surprised at just how many things in a day we draw on our willpower to manage. Just how many things in my day I do, even though I don't really want to; getting up early with my alarm (and resisting the desire to turn over and go back to sleep), making packed lunches for the kids (honestly, I'd really rather not, it would be so much easier to pay for school dinners) cleaning the loo (resisting the urge to turn a blind eye to the grime), supermarket shopping (hate it), sitting in traffic jams (holding back the desire to scream at every red traffic light), taking the rubbish out (resisting the whisper to just walk past and ignore it), balancing my accounts (resisting the urge to distract myself with yet another cup of tea), clearing my inbox of junk mail (rather than giving in to the desire to shut my laptop and do something far more interesting) taking myself to the dentist (when every bone in my body wants to stay away). I could go on and on. These are all necessary tasks which I am responsible for and which I choose to do. And, they require me to draw on the power of my will to say yes to, over and over again, even when I sometimes want to say no. The things which might be easy enough to do or resist at the beginning of the day and the tasks that require our focus and attention, become far, far harder by the end of the day. We draw on the power of our will many times in the day to do things we don’t want to do or to resist the things we are drawn to and temped by… not just overeating. We may not realise it as they are small, seemingly insignificant things sometimes and each one in itself may not require stupendous effort. Just a bit of effort. And it all adds up. So is it any surprise that by the time we get home after work, or the children are finally tucked up in bed, we simply do not have the energy it takes to stay in that effortful posture? Is it really any surprise that, particularly at the end of the day, the willpower to say no to chocolate or cake or pasta or whatever has quite simply run out? Is it really that surprising that we draw on every ounce of willpower to do what we have to do for others, to be there, show up, perform, and that there's little of that left when it comes to taking care of ourselves and saying no to overeating, whatever the time of day? Who are we letting down but ourselves when we give ourselves a moment of respite from working so hard? Add to that the very fact that eating something nice feels like the one thing we are actually giving ourselves, a treat, a break and is it any wonder that we just don't have the energy to summon more willpower to resist? Resistance is futile. Even if we try, we are almost guaranteed to give in, it's just a matter of time.
The way to stop overeating is not to use willpower. If we truly want to stop overeating, the way to do it is this: decide that we want to stop. That's the single most important step; to make that decision and set our intention. Then, make sure we have support in place, whatever works for us. It could be a person or people to talk to, books to read, a forum to post on... Then, find out as much as we can about the behaviour we want to change, becoming curious about why, when and how we overeat, so that we understand the triggers, cues and motivations and we can see what we get out of the behaviour and how it helps us cope. Then, we can plan to change those overeating behaviours one small step at a time, and each time be willing to tune in and stay present to whatever we are experiencing in the moment rather than ignoring ourselves and using willpower. Stopping involves taking ourselves gently by the hand and saying no to eating, not with superhuman, stupendous effort but by learning to acknowledge and experience how we are feeling, what we are thinking and recognising our body talk. Being able to stop overeating means learning how to soothe away the discomfort, the pain, the agitation... Stopping involves identifying what we are truly hungry for and allowing ourselves to have that. Or acknowledging what it's like when we can't or don't know how to let ourselves have what we truly want. Changing our overeating behaviours and habits does indeed require effort and commitment but if it feels like you have to make stupendous effort, your are pushing too hard and you are likely to run out of steam and sabotage your efforts. If you have to draw on willpower you are fighting a losing battle. You'll only manage it for so long and eventually, a few minutes, days or weeks later you'll relent and give in. It, is quite simply inevitable. Scientifically proven even.
Willpower: wonderful, useful, empowering, effective, in short bursts. I am very, very grateful for the power of my will. But not for stopping overeating. Gentleness, commitment, willingness, openness, presence, curiosity, sustained effort (the kind that involves stretching not tearing), these are the qualities to draw on if we want to stop overeating. It's very different from using willpower, which involves ignoring ourselves and our needs, shutting ourselves off from feeling. Rigidifying and fighting. Tuning-in is the opposite; it means paying attention to ourselves, acknowledging, feeling, softening, co-operating with ourselves. We can all do it, every one of us. The more we practice tuning-in, the easier it is to stop overeating.  (A lot more on this in our new book - Beyond Temptation, out on Sept 6th 2012) My verdict; willpower, not helpful.


  1. This blog really chimed with me. I am reading a book at the moment and they key point in it is one I would like to share with others.

    Being in control of your eating is not about willpower;its about concentration. I feel this is right. I dont over-eat if I concentrate on what i am doing and thinking about what I am really hungry for. I over-eat when I am NOT concentrating and I suddenly realise that I have finished off a bag of crisps while reading my book.
    Willpower sounds daunting and hard work. Concentration? Well that sounds like something I could do

  2. Excellent blog, and I think the really key point is when you talk about looking after ourselves. I find a lot of willpower for things I have to do, such as working every day, and as you say, things like taking the rubbish out, and anything other people require. No energy left to take care of myself.

    I don't think that saying no to chocolate is the same as not overeating though. Unless you have diabetes or some condition where you can't eat it. My problem would be eating the chocolate despite having eaten enough food already in that meal, or in that day...Now that the medics have found that those of us who overeat don't have the release of hormones that tell us we are full and need to stop, it really highlights how it's a challenge to make sure we don't just continue eating or grazing all day, no matter what food we choose.

  3. I used to have anorexia and that took major willpower of exactly the type you describe here. Since becoming an intuitive eater of many years' standing, I can confirm willpower is not involved in my way of intuitive eating. I stop eating because I don't enjoy the way it feels physically when I overeat. Also I've completely switched focus in my life to have many passions/obsessions other than food. I don't think about food much and in fact am rather bored with it. I only think about it as a necessity when I get physically hungry. The contents of my head are now to do with creative ideas and hobbies and food is not in there. What a happy difference from my time of eating disorders :-) I think the whole issue is "psychological" to be honest. The key is to put food in its rightful proportions/context and stop worrying about it.


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