What to do when you feel you’ve lost willpower and your self-improvement plan has failed
So your self-improvement plan was working well… Until it wasn’t. Life got in the way, things happened, and somehow you found yourself wondering what happened to your diet/ meditation schedule/ fitness plan/ productivity routine.
What happened to the lost willpower you once had? Somehow, willpower wasn’t strong enough to get you to hold true to your good intentions. Read that last sentence carefully. I said “Willpower wasn’t strong enough”. I didn’t say “Your willpower wasn’t strong enough”. Do you get the difference? Let me explain.
You see, it may sound surprising, but the real issue actually isn’t ‘how to strengthen your willpower’. (You’ve probably read those articles already; and did that stuff work, long-term? Probably not. If it had, you wouldn’t be reading this!)
Because however ‘strong’ your willpower gets, the combined forces of your unconscious brain plus the unpredictability of real life, plus the body’s natural self-righting actions, will always be able to outstrip willpower.
The Real Keys to Change
What’s needed is a different approach. A set of keys that can let you through the door to positive change even when willpower seems to have vanished into thin air.What to do when willpower has let you down. Click To Tweet
What are the keys?
Well, there are four of them:
4. Letting go of perfectionism.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these.
Hold yourself with compassion. Note: this is very different from ‘feeling sorry for yourself’, whining, or indulging in a pity-party. When you practice self-compassion, you treat yourself kindly and with forgiveness, as you would a friend or a beloved child. You don’t berate yourself for slipping up, and you recognise that you struggle in life just as we all do – and that’s normal and okay. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this is a far better route to success and self-improvement than self-punishment tends to be.
Find out more:
Self-compassion really is an incredibly valuable skill, and one that you can start working on today. I recommend resources from Kristin Neff to help you get started.
Take a long, thoughtful look at what’s been going on, and what can change. You can do this to some extent on your own, but we all have blind spots and it’s a really good idea to get some outside help. A therapist or counsellor can really help you understand what’s going on.
Find out more:
For do-it-yourself self-awareness, try reading ‘The Dark Side of the Light Chasers’ by Debbie Ford. I also like ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. If you have issues with food and weight, read ‘Intuitive Eating’ by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and visit Lindo Bacon’s website.
Accept where you are, and who you are. Only when we completely accept ourselves as we are, can we get ourselves in the starting position for desired change. Really accepting yourself is a lifelong journey, and a richly fulfilling one. Accepting yourself involves accepting other people too, and deepens and enriches your relationships.
Find out more:
Try listening to Tara Brach’s podcast, or read her book ‘Radical Acceptance’. Loads of wisdom there!
4. Letting go of perfectionism
You aren’t perfect, and never will be – which is the same as for the rest of us. Do not aim for perfection! Don’t even aim for complete consistency. There will be blips, gaps, crashes, and zone-outs along the way. Your aim is not to avoid them happening; your aim is to develop resilience: a ‘get back up and keep on going’ attitude. Look out for perfectionist-style all-or-nothing thinking: ‘Oh well, because I’ve failed anyway, I might as well do/have XYZ’. Does this ring a bell?
Find out more:
Visit psychotherapist Sharon Martin’s blog ‘Happily Imperfect’ to learn more about how and why to escape the trap of perfectionism. And if you constantly feel you should be fitting more into your day, and achieving more, read Oliver Burkeman’s work.
Finally, I’d like to add that another very helpful exercise is to consider lessons learned from failure and lost willpower. Really! Sit down and write a list of anything that your experiences may have taught you. This is how people become wise. Below, I offer some examples. I’m sure you will be able to think of many more, over time (although sometimes it can take a long while before we realise that what seemed disastrous may actually have been a blessing in disguise).
Lessons you may have learned from ‘lost willpower’ might include:
- I have learned that I always need to factor in some down-time so that I can recharge. I can’t keep anything up if I do it every single day
- I have learned that diets don’t work (Don’t believe me? Read ‘Body Respect’ by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, to get up to speed on the science of dieting and food restriction).
- I have learned that no matter how hard I try, I can’t be perfect. And I am starting to learn that this is good, because it makes me human and helps me feel compassion for others, who are also imperfect.
- I have learned that (person’s name) still loves me even though I [fill in the blank]
- I am starting to learn how to lovingly accept myself just as I am.
- I have learned that it takes a lot of courage just to keep on going when powerful forces such as inequality, racism, misogyny, anti-fat bias, etc are working against me. And I’m proud of myself for swimming upstream despite all the knocks.
So let go of the ‘brute willpower’ method, and start to discover how much more fulfilling and effective it can be to take a gentler, more insightful approach to self-improvement.
This is the start of your new journey – the one where you take into account your humanness, your imperfection, your fallibility, and your occasional foolishness! You don’t try to kill off those parts of you. Instead you hold them gently in mind, along with all the other parts of you. In return, your ‘difficult’ parts stop running the show from the sidelines, and allow your wiser parts to direct the steering more of the time.
You are moving to the next level, and escaping the clutches of the willpower/lost willpower cycle. And you become fuller and wiser. You stop feeling on edge all the time. You start to trust yourself. One day, you may realise: actually – you didn’t fail. You succeeded. Wow!