When my patients tell me — usually early in the course of treatment — that willpower is what they are primarily counting on for their recovery, I am pretty sure that they are headed for trouble. Over-reliance on this resource has given willpower a bad reputation. When used properly, however, it can be a useful recovery tool.
One problem is that some people believe that they have an unlimited supply of willpower, or even that, like a muscle, it gets stronger with use. Acting on this belief, they do not avoid addiction triggers and even go out of their way to expose themselves to them unnecessarily. I call this a “set up rationalization and behavior” and often see this strategy leading to relapse.
To me, a better analogy would be a tank of gasoline, which is depleted with use and can actually run out. Unlike an automobile, however, our bodies do not have a “willpower gauge” to tell us how much is left. Even worse, we tend not to have a sense of the work that is required to exercise willpower and the consequences of that effort.
Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister describes impressive research on this issue in his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. He shows that people in an experimental setting are less able to persevere on a frustrating task after exercising their willpower. He argues that the effort requires the brain to use a high level of glucose, which makes me wonder if this could be part of the explanation for the unusual sugar cravings that my patients often describe in early recovery.
Based on Bauermeister’s research, a more effective strategy for successful recovery would be to avoid triggers whenever possible and save one’s willpower for those triggers that appear unexpectedly or cannot be avoided. I use the analogy of an emergency brake on an automobile or a fire extinguisher – something that you definitely want to be available when the need arises.