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By Nathan Bailey, MA, LPC

As a mental health professional, sometimes I find myself telling people things that surprise them. When meeting with someone seeking addiction counseling, one of the first things on this list is “willpower’s not going to work.” On the surface this seems wrong or a slight at an individual’s motivation but of course I don’t just stop there, I provide a further explanation. 

1. Your willpower isn’t static, it’s dynamic

It’s very rare in life that we as humans come to a conclusion or decision and move forward never deviating from this. As example, one study suggests that 95% of people who make a New Year’s Resolution will fail. Maybe you’ve never made a resolution around the start of a new year, but I bet at some point you decided “I’m going to start doing…I’m going to stop doing…” and found yourself over time not accomplishing what you set out to do.

Most of the time this doesn’t have anything to do with the strength of your resolve. Or being genuine or even how much you really want to change. It’s the fact that within hours, days, weeks etc. you are likely to feel or think differently. This might be for internal reasons or external reasons (or both) but what we find is that what was once a hard and firm goal, can soften, fade or just plain stop. There are of course exceptions but when we start talking about behavior change such as drug/alcohol addiction, gambling/sports betting addiction or pornography addiction it becomes even more likely your motivation or desire to change will come and go. 

2. Focusing on willpower prevents you from developing important skills/strategies

One of the biggest problems with instinctively depending on willpower is that you’re not focusing on other approaches that will actually help. Over the years, I’ve found that even when clients agree with me in theory (that willpower won’t be enough) this is still their instinctive approach. I get it, we all want to feel like we can take an “aha” moment and radically change. But when that doesn’t work again and again, it’s time to try something else. That something else, is recognizing that it’s not a matter of “if” that you’ll want to keep using but “when.” Once you accept you will continue to get urges, impulses and thoughts to use, it opens you up to what can work to establish long-term recovery. 

3. It negatively impacts our relationships

This is another dynamic I’ve seen many times. When someone makes their decision to change and commits to change “this time I won’t use again” their family and friends (who want to believe them) are devastated when that doesn’t happen. Remember, it’s often their instinct to believe that change is rooted in willpower “he or she just didn’t want it enough.” Now when there’s a relapse or slip, the response is grief, sadness and maybe anger that they were lied to etc. 

I’m not suggesting that when entering recovery you should tell those closest to you “be prepared for my relapsing” but what I am suggesting is that when we collectively come to understand that recovery isn’t about willpower we can better support the change process that is recovery. 

4. It is exhausting

For those that do “grind it out,” or “white knuckle it,” day after day or even year after year, they find that they’re still not as happy or healthy as they might be by developing recovery. It takes a lot of mental and sometimes physical energy to change that drive or desire to use and to attempt this long-term does still have negative effects. When challenged, they might say “well at least I’m not using,” which is of course an improvement, but recovery is about gaining strength and energy for healthy living, not being miserable and barely making it through the day. And, that’s even if it works long-term (which is unlikely). 


Don’t depend on willpower

There is a different way to establish and maintain behavior change and willpower just isn’t the sole solution. By developing a comprehensive perspective and how you live, you can grow to find success in ending substance use, gambling etc. 

Lime Tree Counseling is a group of professionals providing anxiety counseling, trauma counseling for PTSD, depression counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, grief counseling, pornography counseling, sports betting counseling and marriage counseling. We offer in-person therapy at our office in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Additionally we offer online counseling in Pennsylvania and online counseling in North Carolina. We would love to connect with you and help you work through your challenges. Connect with us today and get paired with someone from our team who cares about you.