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What Is Willpower?

Many people have experienced a moment when they feel a rush of motivation, energy, or intensity to do something or accomplish a goal. Whether it be getting that last minute homework assignment completed or  wrapping up that task at work to finally go home, we all pull from a source of willpower to push us through difficult tasks. This same will is what helps us with the most intense moments of difficulty. It is a matter of our ability to engage this will when we need it. Engaging our willpower is a vital skill to raise our resilience in the face of adversity. We can look at three aspects of personal will that we can practice engaging in to raise our resilience: Strong Will, Skillful Will, and Good Will.

Strong Will

Like I mentioned before, the willpower to get through that last stretch before the goal is an example of strong will. The short bursts of motivation during critical moments contributes to our persistence. Optimism plays a key role in persistence because hope is the fuel for our strong will. Previously, I discussed the aspects of having an optimistic explanatory style and effectively incorporating any of those elements into our view of life situations make accessing our strong will easier. If we are able to not lose sight of our goal, we can pull on that hope to generate the strong will to make the critical decisions we need. For example, when our anxious or depressive thoughts begin to run loose and make us recuse, we need that jolt of strong will to push us to more beneficial actions. Reflect on what tends to keep you from being persistent. What are the roadblocks that shuts down the motivation?

Skillful Will

Strong will is the burst of energy that we need to persist, whereas skillful will is the channeling of that energy into appropriate situations. When we are deciding when to fight or flight and when to release our energy (frustration) in healthy ways, we are engaging our skillful will. Resiliency understands when we need to push and when we need to back away. This is different from giving up. Giving up implies you lose hope and stop trying. Willfully surrendering is you stop trying because you understand that putting forth more effort is not helpful, so you adapt. When we face adversity, there will be moments of intense emotions. How we release these emotions is a way we engage our skillful will to ensure that our emotions do not overwhelm us and prevent us from pursuing our goals and values. Reflect on whether you are  directing your energy effectively or not. Are there things you need to surrender and redirect your focus? How are you taking care of the intense emotions that arise from facing struggles?

Good Will

An important part of resilience is being able to show good will to ourselves. Being able to practice self-compassion actively and purposefully give us the space to lessen the blow of negative events. A simple way you can check if you are practicing good will is asking if you are adequately caring for yourself. Are you eating well, taking care of your body, letting yourself rest, or connecting with others? Are you letting go of unrealistic expectations or demands? A skill you can practice is shifting the goalposts. We can start with realistic goals, but when negative events happen, our ability to meet goals changes. The negative event may have been caused by our actions, but at the end of the day our previous goal needs adjustment. Allow yourself to make mistakes and adjust to new circumstances.

Harnessing Your Willpower

Rather than letting our will come and go whenever it pleases, learning to effectively engage our willpower can make dealing with struggles more manageable. This does not mean our problems go away or we no longer feel the pain/anxiety. Instead, we can go through our storms in control of where we want to go versus letting the storm carry us to and fro. Take some time to reflect on the aspects that you struggle with the most. Is it the persistence? Is it the self-compassion? Dive deep into what ‘wills’ you on. If you’re finding yourself struggling with any of these aspects, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. It’s hard to notice these moments of willpower, so having an extra mind to walk through it with you give you another perspective.

Written by therapist Daniel Pak

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