As someone who’s been talking, writing, and at times, even shrieking about addiction and recovery for nearly two decades, I’ve run across every single thought leader, author, recovery blogger, and podcaster imaginable. I love and support all of them but after years of watching an inbox drown in this sort of information, a girl starts to get hardened. Nothing shocks her anymore. Nothing written about the topic feels fresh or new.
And then that girl stumbles across something outside of her standard sphere. It’s not texted to her by another person in the recovery media space. She doesn’t see it in her Facebook feed. She discovers it when she is perusing Medium and sees that the number one Medium writer has penned a piece called “Willpower Doesn’t Work. Here’s How to Actually Change Your Life.”
If you want to make any permanent change in your life, it starts, willpower won’t get you there.
This gets her attention.
Is willpower the problem or solution?
The post goes on to explain that we’re all addicted to something and willpower is actually what’s holding us back. The author, Benjamin Hardy—a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Psychology—argues that we only need to employ willpower when we haven’t made a true decision about something. He lists five ways that people decide and make a commitment—and while the language may not be what recovery folks are used to, the concepts should be familiar: invest upfront, make it public, set a timeline, instill accountability, and alter anything in your environment that doesn’t align with that commitment.
I’ve spent most of my sobriety receiving compliments from people about my willpower. “You must be so strong,” they say. I try to explain that I’m anything but—that my hand becomes little more than a device used to shovel chocolate into it whenever I’m standing near any, that I bite my nails incessantly, and that I can’t resist stealing glimpses at my phone whenever the person I’m eating with gets up. No matter how many examples I list of my sheer lack of willpower, people will think I’m being modest. They theorize that I just don’t want to brag about how much I’ve got my cravings under control.
Let me tell you once and for all: I’m powerless in the face of cravings. The freedom I have from addiction isn’t something I work at; it’s something I was given because I took certain steps.
How to stop needing willpower
I get how annoying it may be to hear that willpower isn’t necessary if you’re struggling with addiction. But I have no desire to drink or do drugs (or smoke cigarettes, which is another thing I gave up a little over 15 years ago). I was someone who couldn’t not smoke a cigarette first thing in the morning, who couldn’t not drink at a party and, my last couple of years of using, couldn’t be home alone without doing cocaine.
So what changed? Well, I was suicidal and desperate and so I did what suicidal and desperate people do: I went to rehab. That’s where I was told that I needed to surrender my addiction.
Sure, I said. It was easy to agree to since I had no idea what that even meant and plus, like I said, I was desperate.
A few things were suggested: One, I go to meetings with other recovering addicts and alcoholics. Two, I look for someone to help me through some steps. And three: I try to develop a relationship with something bigger than myself.
Numbers one and two were easy for me, in that my using had isolated me so much that I really didn’t have any friends or places to go. And number three, well, I was desperate still, so…sure.
Something happened and I’ll never be able to articulate it. But essentially, once I started to embrace the idea that I wasn’t in charge but something larger than me was, the desire I had to do drugs and drink was removed from me.
I’d had my tonsils out when I was 18, after getting tonsillitis four times in a row, and this was like that: a part of me that didn’t work (in this case, my incessant cravings for alcohol and drugs) was removed. But there hadn’t been any operation. It just went away. If that doesn’t make sense, I hear you. I wish I had words to explain it better. My only suggestion is that you try what I did. Maybe you too can discover first-hand how little sense it makes.
Just how ineffective is willpower?
If my sobriety depended on my willpower, I’d be screwed. My days would be a constant battle with myself and by evening, when depleted, I’d have no choice but to call that dealer who used to wrap her cocaine in pink Post-It notes (because even dealers need to employ branding and marketing techniques).
People don’t want to hear this, they want to know willpower hacks. They want tricks. They want to know how to outsmart their systems. But our systems are too smart for that. And it somehow took someone from outside the recovery media world—a non-Dr. Drew,non-rehab-owner, non-recovery-advocate, to eloquently state what I’ve lived for the past decade-and-a-half.
Commitment means you build external defense systems around your goals, Hardy writes. Your internal resolve, naked to an undefended and opposing environment, is not commitment.
It’s not actually that difficult to build external defense systems. It is that difficult to keep yourself in the head space and environment in which you became addicted and expect to resist temptation without any defenses.
Life without willpower is easier
God, sobriety must be so hard, people will say to me. I always explain to them that living as an addict—friendless and suicidal—was hard. Living in sobriety, with tools and friends and so many other things? While not easy (because no one’s life is), it is easier comparatively.
As Hardy writes, we need to focus not on our behavior but on our environment. He may as well be channeling Bruce Alexander, the Canadian psychologist who showed by creating the rat park of every rat’s dreams that environment plays a pivotal role in making us into addicts.
So-called recovery experts can spout off their theories about how to get sober until the end of time. But maybe, if we want to know what really works, we need to listen to someone from outside of that circle.