Increasing Willpower and Resilience
Changing the perception of willpower may help resilience.
Posted Sep 19, 2017
There has been a lot of talk about resilience lately. From people weathering recent hurricanes to earthquakes and floods, news stories have focused on the resilience of those enduring. Psychology has also been interested in resiliency, studying what makes some succumb to disorders while others experiencing similar circumstances do not. Whether or not you are concerned about your mental well-being, just about everyone can benefit from enhancing resilience.
Resiliency and willpower are related. Though some research demonstrates there are external factors related to resiliency, the same can be said of willpower. Research demonstrates both resiliency and willpower are limited resources (Miller-Lewis, L., Searle, A., Sawyer, M., et.al, 2013, and Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K., 2007). Both resiliency and willpower are associated with positive outcomes. Resiliency, at least in a commonsensical way, relies somewhat on willpower, and the fortitude to persevere in adverse circumstances. It stands to reason then, that increasing willpower may also increase resilience.
Research also indicates there are things you can do to improve resiliency and willpower. One factor found to correlate with resiliency is having an internal locus of control. This simply means an individual perceives him or herself as having control in a given situation. In her research, Emmy Werner found having an internal locus of control was paramount to resilience (Konnikova, M., 2016). She also found those that proved resilient used the skills they possessed effectively.
In related research, George Bonanno found that perception played a key role in resilience. In fact, he’s quoted as saying, “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” (Konnikova, M., 2016 paragraph 12). This is a powerful statement related to his theory; it purports that events in and of themselves are not traumatic, but it is one’s perception of the event that matters. This idea is supported by other research. In one such experiment, the researchers concluded that it was the belief about willpower’s vulnerability to depletion that affected performance (Job, V. et al, 2013).
Much of my writing focuses on the power of perception (The four-part cure for happiness, I think, therefore I, huh?, The truth will not set you free, You, and the manifesting of reality, and The big lie). The studies cited above support this line of thought. The positive aspect of this is, you can alter perception more readily than you can alter circumstances. This allows you to build resiliency and willpower.
This brings me to another favorite topic of mine, acceptance (Let go, be happy, Overcoming unnecessary suffering, Acceptance: it isn’t what you think). Acceptance and willpower have a lot in common, though appearing juxtaposed. As I’ve written previously (It is what it is), “acceptance is about letting go of the idea that something should be different than it is. This isn’t just resignation. That is not true acceptance. True acceptance entails stopping the desire for the world to be something it is not, putting thoughts about how things ‘should be’ aside.” I think it is obvious how beneficial this is to changing perception.
Although acceptance may seem diametrically opposed to willpower, in actuality it can increase one’s willpower. The idea of willpower as a limited resource has face validity. Everyone can relate to being worn down by circumstances that are stressful. The mindset of acceptance, however, allows one to let go of certain thoughts that may be depleting willpower. For example, when one encounters an uncontrollable circumstance, it may be frustrating and begin to deplete one’s willpower to continue, making one want to give up. If, on the other hand, one was able to accept the unforeseen negative circumstance, not be frustrated and stressed by it, then the willpower to continue is maintained or restored.
Another technique to enhance willpower relates to acceptance through mindfulness: it is the acronym RAIN. RAIN stands for:
Recognize: The first step in any change is awareness. R means recognizing, or becoming aware, that you are experiencing a negative stressor.
Accept: Allow what you are experiencing, rather than fighting against it. You are feeling stressed, and you allow that feeling to exist without trying to change it.
Investigate: Now explore the feeling. Be curious about what is going on with you with this feeling. There is no need to be overly intellectual or analytical, but simply explore what exactly it is you are experiencing.
Not identify: This refers to keeping an objective view of what you are experiencing, and not letting it define you. You are not a single experience or your reaction to an experience. As I wrote in, “You aren’t you at all” you have more power in choosing how you will be than you might believe. You have the ability to detach and view it more objectively.
There are a number of other techniques to fortify willpower:
- Realize your mind lies to you and treat it like a child. You wouldn’t give in to every whim your 2-year-old wanted, and you don’t have to give in to your mind’s whims either.
- Exercise your willpower. Practice denying yourself something you want, putting things off, or muscling through something you want to quit.
- Exercise your body and when you do, push yourself a little further than you were going to.
- Get adequate rest. Rest helps reduce stress. If one is already stressed, their “stored” willpower will be depleted quickly.
- Meditate. Not only does meditation take willpower (thereby exercising it), it reduces stress and allows one to more readily remain detached and objective in viewing his/her thoughts.
- Eat right. Very few people can sustain willpower when "hangry" (hunger leading to anger).
- Remember and keep in mind who you want to be. Make a commitment to being more like you choose to be and remember how important it is to you.
With the knowledge and techniques above, and with practice, you can increase your willpower, resilience, and fortitude. Now, will you?
Copyright William Berry, 2017
Baumeister, R.F., 2007, Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation, Blackwell Publishing, Retrieved from: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/pdf/compass/spco_001.pdf, on 9/15/17.
Job, V., Walton, G.M., Bernecker, K., Dweck, C.S., 2013, Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self-control. PNAS, vol. 110, no. 37, 14837–14842, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1313475110, Retrieved from: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/37/14837.full on 9/15/17.
Konnikova, M., 2016, How People Learn to Become Resilient, The New Yorker, Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience on 9/15/17.
Miller-Lewis, L., Searle, A., Sawyer, M., et.al, 2013, Resource factors for mental health resilience in early childhood: An analysis with multiple methodologies, Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2013; 7: 6. Published online 2013 Feb 22. doi: 10.1186/1753-2000-7-6, Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3598384/ on 9/15/17.