Fitness and Mental Strength: misconceptions about willpower

By Scott Forrester | Contributed
Certified Feldenkrais practitioner
Certified Personal Trainer

Each and every one of us would like to improve the quality of our lives in one way or another.

We all live in an environment. In fact, we all live in multiple environments and in various relationships within those environments.  

We have both an inner and an outer environment. Our outer environment includes: all the external demands of life; balance in gravity; our relationships with others; societal expectations; energy requirements, as in the ability to obtain food; environmental constraints; and emotional and stress related issues that exist in the mind and the body. Our internal environment has to do with how we process all of this and what our own wants, dreams and expectations are. Our internal processing determines our perceptions of ourselves and of the world.

When the stress of the external demands or our own expectations are great we must find the internal resources to meet these demands. This is where most people might think willpower comes in.

Many people think that if they don’t workout at the gym, fail to lose weight or don’t accomplish some other goal, it is because they lack sufficient willpower. Many people might think of willpower as the ability to resist temptation, and this is a good thing, but there is more to the essence of wil.

The essence of the meaning of temptation is that internal conflict exists. That means we want to do one thing, but we also want to do something that is in direct conflict with our goal or dreams. For instance, I want to eat in a healthy manner but I also want to eat a half dozen chocolate chip cookies; or I want to do enough healthy movement or exercise but I don’t want to get off the couch.

The word temptation comes from a root that means “to test.” What is being tested is which one we want more. If we view willpower as simply denying ourselves the pleasure of what we want, then we will be like the little dutch boy who put his finger in the dyke to plug the leak – eventually the water will win and come flooding in. This testing can be likened to a tug of war – constant effort and pulling is necessary. We regard temptation as an external force to be resisted.

But if we think differently about will, if we regard will as the ability to chose between two alternatives – as in free will – instead of the ability to fight with ourselves, then we can take a different approach.

The word dedicate means to devote or consecrate. It is to elevate one thing above others.

These are two distinctively different approaches. In the first, we resist a thing. In the second, we remodel our thinking and feeling by consistently choosing one value over another.

This second use of will is more challenging, but as a result we perceive the thing we are seeking with more actual value than the thing we are resisting. This means that instead of a perpetual battle with temptation, it becomes less alluring and things become easier rather than harder to accomplish.

Life is a process, and process takes time, but the effort can be focused on inward change rather than just resistance. The couch can look like a threat to your health but the outdoors can look like a reward.