Willpower is a concept frequently cited in the discussion of recovery, but it’s controversial. Defined as “control exerted to … restrain impulses,” it’s often used to mean abstaining entirely or refraining from overusing a substance that one craves. In the recovery community, willpower tends to be regarded negatively because it’s often associated with unsuccessful recovery attempts. When used properly, however, willpower can be a useful tool in maintaining sobriety.
The problem is that many people in early recovery tend to over-rely on willpower as their chief recovery tool. They think of willpower as a muscle strengthened by use. They tell me, for example, that they keep alcohol nearby to strengthen their resolve or to prove that they have control over their impulses. But an analogy would be an automobile’s emergency brake that can be essential in the short run but has only a limited lifespan before it wears out.
At Kolmac, we recommend that our patients distance themselves from the substances and anything associated with them. In meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the often-heard phrase is to avoid “people, places, and things” associated with previous use. The idea is to protect oneself from unnecessary exposure so that one’s willpower is available when exposure is unavoidable and particularly when it occurs unexpectedly
A classic laboratory experiment sheds light on this process by looking at what happens when people are exposed to appealing food and are instructed to refrain from eating it. That group showed less endurance when attempting later to complete an intellectual task than did a control group that refrained from eating food that was not tempting. It appears that resisting temptation – exercising willpower – requires the expenditure of psychological energy in ways that can be measured.
In a similar fashion, people who tempt themselves by unnecessary exposure to addictive substances make themselves vulnerable to relapse. In other words, they increase rather than reduce the likelihood that they will return to use. Another analogy would be an automobile’s gas tank that gets used up with driving. Unlike with a car, however, people do not have a “willpower” gauge to let them know when they are about to run out.