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I Unsubscribed from Willpower

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Physical, the AppleTv+ series, follows Shelia, a stay-at-home 80’s mom who has a nagging feeling that it just has to be a little bit better than “this”. She suppresses her every need while serving those around her with gritted teeth and big smile. Viewers hear her internal voice – a vicious bully. She finds her only moments of respite amid disordered eating binges.

The opportunity to hear Shelia’s internal dialog explores the idea of “willpower” and its link to shame. It vividly underscores that the idea of “willpower” is not only profoundly ineffective but also of often very dangerous.

I am adept at digging in, putting my head down, and enduring. I can have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass. (Or maybe a woman that is clear and steadfast in her beliefs?🤷🏻‍♀️) So it came as bit of surprise to me that I may have to reconsider the virtue willpower.

The definition of willpower is “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses,” and the accompanying sentence is “most of our bad habits are due to laziness or lack of willpower.”

To me, the dictionary definition and connotation implies that…

  • Impulses (or emotions) are at best invaluable, at worst dangerous.

  • You can and must control of your impulses (and emotions).

  • Bad habits, unhealthy decisions are only caused by laziness, lack of willpower… lack of worthiness

  • Worthy people have willpower, unworthy people have no willpower.

  • If you are failing it is because you are not trying hard enough. Changing approaches with the same effort does not seem like a ready possibility.

There are two main reasons why I decided to unsubscribe from willpower…

Emotions Cannot be Controlled:

First, neurologically speaking, we do not have the power to control our emotions. Our bodies use our 5 senses to observe our environment. That information travels through our spinal cords, up our brain stem, through the cerebellum and into limbic system (emotional brain). Within the limbic system, the amygdala compares the data against prior experience and sends an alert to the hypothalamus if a threat is detected. In this case, our fight/flight/freeze system is activated. Simultaneously, the data also travels to our pre-frontal cortex, the rational brain, for a more refined interpretation BUT this parallel path is several microseconds longer. (Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score). Long story short, our emotional brain is always in the driver seat and our rational brain is, at best, riding shotgun. (Brown, Atlas of the Heart) To insist that we must “control” our emotions and impulses in order to be a good person simply runs contrary to the machinery that is our body. It would be like punching a brick wall and expecting that if you were just “strong enough” you could break through. When you break your hand instead, you may realize that your expectation needs to be readjusted more than you need to amp up your strength. Furthermore, ample research is now available to support the idea that ignoring and silencing emotions only serves to amplify them. So, the more we try to control, override and ignore our emotions and impulses, the stronger we make them. We see this cycle over and over again in the show Physical. The main character, Sheila, commands herself every waking moment to eat better to be better to ignore her impulses… and over and over she crashes until she breaks the pattern bit by bit. She begins to break the pattern by (slowly) expressing her needs, emotions and pursuing her desires. The idea that if we just had enough willpower…. if we are just tough enough…. If we are just good enough… we would be able to control our own emotions is categorically incorrect. Not only is in incorrect, that very idea only serves to amplify the very things we are attempting to manage. As we fight and lose against our predefined physiology there is only one possible result… Shame.

Shame is a Cage

If the absence of willpower is laziness as the dictionary suggests, in my opinion, the concept only serves to amplify shame, not guilt, entrenching us in the exact experiences and behaviors that we think we are fighting against.

It’s of no surprise to me that the use of the word “willpower” dramatically increased as consumerism and materialism took hold in the 1950’s. One of the most effective advertising methods, to convert viewers into paying customers, is to tap into our darkest corners of shame.

Giving up willpower does not mean I must acquiesce to my emotions and impulses. Just the opposite, actually.

Emotions as Well-Meaning Messengers:

I first (try) to regard emotions as well-meaning messengers. While I’m often not impressed with their tactics, I am deeply intrigued by what my emotions and impulses are trying to tell me. I know the louder and more intense I experience them, the more likely it is that I’ve been consciously or subconsciously attempting to silence them.

Fierce Self-Compassion:

Neither of these two approaches are intuitive or lacking in discomfort. The literal translation of the word compassion is “to suffer with”. In order to show yourself or others compassion, you do in fact have to experience suffering. Paradoxically, that ability to suffer with also gives us access to awe and joy. When we try to run away from suffering, by say, staying entrenched with the idea of ‘willpower’, we lose access to joy. (Brown, Daring Greatly) But when we become acquainted with suffering, we also become acquainted with a deep sense of care. Care enough to act. Care enough to heal. (Cain, Bittersweet).


Disclaimer: This is a "one woman shop"! I was not blessed with proofing nor spelling super powers. If you spot a mistake, comment, email or DM me! I thank you in advance for your compassion and grace. ❤️

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