Did you know that willpower is a real, scientifically proven and somewhat measurable thing?
I know that anyone who has experienced struggles with compulsive eating, emotional eating, binge eating, etc., has wondered about the relationship between willpower (also known as self-control) and their eating habits.
Certainly anyone who has tried to lose weight knows that there is a willpower component to sticking to the habits necessary to not sabotage ourselves.
Here is the thing: there are some scientifically observed key points we need to know about willpower, if we are going to employ it to work for us, and not against us:
Many scientists believe (and cite studies to support) that willpower is a depletable resource.
Meaning, if you exercise self-control all day with tasks like making decisions, keeping your emotions in check, performing well at work, and resisting temptations, that by the end of the day your willpower will be measurably lower for having done those tasks. This is known as willpower depletion or ego depletion. No wonder bingers often eat at the end of the day! If you have a demanding job, your willpower will probably be even more depleted than if you have a job that you feel relaxed in, where you can really be yourself. Note: not being yourself, i.e. holding in emotions and acting in a constricted way, which is all but demanded by the archetype of “professionalism,” is also depleting to willpower. (That’s nothing against professionalism).
This explains why my binge eating clients are some of the most high-powered individuals I have ever met. They exert their willpower in other areas of life, holding down stressful high-level jobs and raising multiple children on their own, to name a few examples.
Exerting willpower uses sugar (glucose) stores in the body.
Some of the original research on willpower demonstrates that participants who had a hit of sugar to their bloodstream had measurably better willpower in the short term than their counterparts who had not had the same blood sugar hit. (Of course, this comes at a price to the body and the brain, which is negatively affected by sugar and high levels of glucose in the bloodstream.)
No wonder we binge on sugar during a particularly tough work week! Or a particularly draining period of our lives.
One of my main theories as a coach working with clients around food has been that, for people who have struggled with binge eating in their lives, they often observe that the habit ebbs and it flows. Sometimes it is out of control, other times it is nowhere to be seen. One of my most consistent observations is that binging reliably comes back during major life transitions.
The death of a family member, change of career, or just the deep feeling that you are ready for something new.
Make no mistake that doing deep spiritual work, like sorting out who you are in this world and how you are going to contribute, taps inner resources. And if those resources are also being divided among your career, social life, etc., you better believe that willpower, chief among those resources, will be depleted.
Before I move on to the next point, let me just say this. In observing my clients, as well as other people in my life, I can say one thing for sure ~ willpower is like a currency, and people are very individual in the ways that they choose to operate that currency.
Some spend their willpower on writing amazing articles and then give in to the urge to buy a six pack at the end of the week, even though they have been talking about reducing their alcohol consumption for a long time.
Others use their willpower to raise families, and as one friend of mine (a mother of three) regularly asks herself out loud, “do I really need a glass of wine at the end of every single day?” Well, from one angle, the angle of willpower as currency that we only have so much of at any given time, she kind of does.
So when a client of mine is trying to stop binging while staying in her stressful job and otherwise demanding life, I have to look to some other, lesser-known-yet-still-scientific facts about willpower, in order to help.
That brings me to point #3:
Research suggests that willpower stores are positively affected by our beliefs and attitudes.
In other words, if you have your own reasons for doing something challenging, like doing the 30-day challenge at your yoga studio because you have seen so clearly the benefits that yoga has on your physical and spiritual life, it will tap into your willpower in a different, non-depleting way than if you are doing it for external purposes, like pleasing others or participating in a work competition.
Famous psychologist Marisa Peer, without using this exact language, harnesses the power of this message when she advises us to remind ourselves, when we are undertaking something challenging and suddenly facing a moment of temptation, that we are choosing this:
“I am choosing to treat my body well and not eat candy today.” For example.
Or, “I am choosing to write this book,” when you are up burning the midnight oil on a Friday night and wondering why you aren’t getting drinks with your friends instead.
Seems we all have an inner rebel, or free spirit, that needs to know we are doing something out of our own volition in order for that something to not tap us but instead to inspire us and drive us to create even more.
Do you see how this circles around to living your dream?
When we do what we love, even on a small scale like a hobby, this replenishes us rather than depletes us.
Some other activities that replenish willpower (thanks to Susan Pierce Thompson) are:
- Human connection
So maybe you can’t quit your job and live your dream right this minute. What you can do is start doing some of these things that replenish your willpower and incorporate them into your everyday life, so that eating is not the only source of replenishment to your willpower.
And, by the way, creating new habits, such as curbing your binge, is not an all-or-nothing affair. It’s ok to go back and forth, to mess up once in a while. It does not mean you won’t reach your goal. Knowing your goal, however, and having a clear vision of it, can really help catapult you there.