Friday, September 4, 2009

A Rucksack Full of Emotional Baggage

I'm going to go on the record with the fact that I hate the way people use the word "willpower". The reason is that this word is used to essentially deride the inability of people to implement certain changes in their lives. It's also used as a pat explanation for success. The term is not only ambiguous, but doesn't describe anything meaningful which can be used to change behavior. It is used as a cover word for the idea that one is too weak to overcome one's impulses.

Let me tell you a little story which should illustrate why I hate the word willpower. Let's say that you and your friend are each of average build and athletic capability. You are trekking through the woods and you come to a stream with a steep, muddy drop-off which is connected to another little cliff by a sturdy bridge about three feet wide with no handrail or rope support. If you fall off the bridge, there's a little stream with rocks about five feet below. You won't get killed if you fall, but you will get dirty and bruised. There's also a small chance of some sort of more serious injury if the fall is especially bad.

The span of the bridge is about 10 feet. It's not too far, and most average people can manage to cross it with no problem. Your friend walks across the bridge exercising minimal caution and waits for you on the other side. You are reluctant to cross because, unlike your unencumbered friend, you're carrying a heavy rucksack which makes it harder to balance yourself. You also hurt your right foot and are unable to walk normally, and the sun has just come out from behind a cloud and is shining right in your eyes.

Your friend, who effortlessly traversed the bridge, is getting impatient and can't understand why you're being such a weak baby about crossing. You tell him about your various problems and he scoffs at you, saying that he would be able to manage even if he had your burdens. You attempt to cross, and you lose your balance and fall off. Your friend calls you a klutz.

This story is my little metaphor about willpower. Your friend has no emotional problems with food and you do (that's your rucksack). He doesn't have a body which is making it difficult for him to resist eating (that's your hurt foot). He doesn't have your inability to ignore food cues or resist a rumbling stomach (that's the sun in your eyes). Ignoring food and hunger is far less of a challenge for him than for you so he can summon up the "will" to manage as easily as he crossed that bridge, and the chances he will fail are very low. Since he knows he can do it, he isn't reluctant to try because it doesn't even represent a milestone or substantial hurdle for him. You find the task very daunting and the prospect of failing is all too real. When you do fail, as you are very likely to do with your problems, you are mocked and judged, and you lose confidence in your capacity to ever succeed. Racking up one failure after another demoralizes you, and the fact that your friend keeps succeeding just makes you hate yourself all the more. What is more, his insistence that it's easy and you're clumsy or weak makes you feel even worse as you internalize the notion that you are deficient.

Talking about using willpower to deal with weight problems is essentially telling people to just cross the damn bridge already. It ignores the burdens and problems that make them reluctant to even try and the fact that those factors will almost certainly cause them to fail which will in turn result in more reluctance to try.

Repeated failure at any task results in something called "learned helplessness". That is where you fail so many times that you stop trying even when there is the prospect of success. This is why some overweight people simply give up and eat as much as they want, drowning their pain in food because they can't face the failure anymore. Before getting people to try, it's important to first remove the emotional baggage and find a way to deal with the physical problems before expecting that bridge to be successfully crossed. The less often they fail, the more likely they will be to keep trying.

So, I don't like the word "willpower" because it assumes we're all working with equal capacity to succeed or fail in our life's challenges. It's just another way for those who are blessed with an average capacity to cope to judge those with a less than average capacity to do so and has nothing to do with strength of character or even the motivation to overcome one's problems. Focusing on "willpower" only increases the chances of defeat and relapse.