Why Recovery Is Not a Matter of Willpower


Sober Recovery Expert Author

Some say willpower is the strength human beings summon from within to resist temptation. In the same way that temptations fluctuate in intensity, willpower must also vary in order to counteract them. However, for addicts, the temptation can be so compelling that hardly any amount of willpower will suffice. Although it is possible, it is rare that addicts become sober for life completely on their own.

Over the years, research has shown that addiction is beyond an issue of immorality, weakness or lack of willpower but rather a chronic disease of the brain. However, if this is the case, what kind of power does one have over his or her own recovery?

Contrary to popular belief, an eyes-on-the-prize mindset is not the ultimate key to a successful long-term recovery.

Dissecting Willpower

In a Scientific American study conducted by Ibrahim Senay, a psychology professor at of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are key characteristics necessary for achieving various personal goals like weight loss, learning a new language, or long-term abstinence. The study explored self-talk, which is the ongoing conversation we have with ourselves in our minds as we make decisions, examine feelings, explore options and identify our hopes and fears.

Senay had two groups of volunteers. One group was instructed to think about whether they wanted to undergo an experiment with anagrams, a rearrangement of letters within a name or word to form another word, such as "bustle" to "sublet." The second group was simply told that they will be undertaking the anagram experiment shortly.

The varying results from each group were subtle but meaningful. The first group, who were not told what to do, completed a much larger number of anagrams than the second who were commanded to do the task. Senay describes this as the difference between "Will I do this?" and "I will do this." In the end, the first group that had more freedom of choice acted in a more goal-oriented manner while the second group that was strictly told to execute the test did not.

This outcome contradicts common wisdom. Why would the assertion of one's intentions subterfuge a goal rather than strengthen the commitment to achieving it? At the end of the study, Senay believed that the first group's open question format inferred possibility. This freedom of choice acted as a motivating factor, while telling people what to do killed motivation.

Sense of Responsibility vs. Sense of Shame

Senay went on to conduct more versions of the study in order to delve deeper. Instead of using anagrams, one version explored the subjects' thoughts and actions in relation to their health and fitness. The goal was to measure the volunteer's motivations to begin and adhere to a fitness routine. The result was similar to the anagram version of the study, but with a different twist.

Those who were left with an open-ended phrase such as "Will I?" demonstrated more commitment to the fitness program than those given the declarative phrase "I will." When asked what motivated them to get to the gym more often or not, the common consensus in the open-ended group was, "Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health." Meanwhile, those given the declarative phrase provided answers such as, "Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not."

In the end, Senay's studies indicated that those in curious mindsets were more open to change. They were more prepared to look within themselves for inspiration compared to people who simply try to hold themselves to a rigid standard.

The Addiction Recovery Perspective

These studies are not meant to conclude that people who are forced into treatment have a lesser success rate than those who willingly volunteer for treatment as every case is different. However, in terms of general life-improvement, there is in fact a set of people who thrive simply because of their open-minded outlook on the future. They're more receptive to new ideas, willing to learn through trial and error, and are perfectly all right with not always knowing the right answers. In recovery, this mindset leaves a person in recovery open to venturing out of their comfort zone of addiction to check out what the sober path has to offer.

Based on Senay's study, it is not willpower and an eyes-on-the-prize mindset that helps someone succeed in their personal goals per say. Instead, the real power lies in one’s sense of curiosity and fluidity with regards to what tomorrow can look like. And even for individuals who do get forced into treatment, this is the same seed of curiosity that most programs try to foster.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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